The New York Knicks’ nearly-completed tire fire of a season has brought a few issues back into the daily discourse. With Carmelo Anthony approaching unrestricted free agency, one of those is the almost 3-year-old deal the Knicks made to bring Anthony here in the first place. It was a deal big enough to be simply referred to as The Trade, which is how we’ll refer to it from here on.
The embarrassing season and elimination has spawned reminders and commentary from media and other folks such as this tweet from Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:
So, if Carmelo walks this summer, Knicks’ payoff for Carmelo trade would be one playoff series win, two 1st-rd outs and 1 losing season.
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 13, 2014
On face value, Beck is right. It’s a simple fact; if Melo bolts, that will have been the Carmelo Anthony Era for the Knicks (though I don’t believe the point of the tweet was simply to state a fact, but rather as another way of saying “HAHA LOOK AT THE KNICKS”. But that’s neither here nor there). It’s not that Beck, or many others, are being revisionists. The Trade certainly had its detractors from the very beginning, as some felt the Knicks gave up too much, and killed any flexibility moving forward. Those opinions are valid and held by plenty of astute observers. The issue here is two-fold: 1) Those who like to point out how The Trade didn’t turn the Knicks into title contenders generally don’t follow up their criticisms with an explanation or opinion of how the Knicks could have gone about building a title contender had they not made The Trade. And 2) The Knicks didn’t really kill all their flexibility moving forward.
What’s missing from the discussion of The Trade is what the Knicks, exactly, should have done instead. Folks who are anti-The Trade often float around sayings like “build through the draft” or “bottom out”, things that are easy to crutch on because the Knicks haven’t recently done them, so it’s sort of impossible to be wrong in suggesting they should. Building through the draft can certainly be a prudent way to build a team, but it’s just like any other tactic in that there is plenty of risk involved. Just as acquiring big names or making splashy moves is no sure-fire path to success, neither is stockpiling draft picks, tanking and drafting in the lottery for a bunch of years in a row. For every Oklahoma City Thunder, there’s a Cleveland Cavaliers.
The post-Summer of 2010 Knicks were a fun and exciting team; after years of depressing garbage, the Knicks played a fun, uptempo style, had some young rising talent like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and had a guy who was playing at an MVP-level in Amar’e Stoudemire. But we’ve romanticized a bit how good this team actually was. They were a .500 team before The Trade. They absolutely could have improved over the years, and had, here’s that word, flexibility. Couple big issues, however.
Firstly, we’ve seen Amar’e Stoudemire’s body break down over the past few seasons. Regardless of The Trade, the Knicks had previously decided to sign him to his current, uninsured, 5-year max contract. There was no going back. The Knicks were going to pay him through 2015 no matter what. Exactly how Stoudemire would have been a more effective, healtheir player on the back end of this deal had the Knicks not acquired Anthony is beyond comprehension. It just wasn’t going to happen. Stoudemire was going to break down and become an albatross. Maybe he would have been holding the core of Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Players X and Y back instead of Anthony and Tyson Chandler. But his Twizzler knees and $20 million contract were going to be an issue. Always.
Another issue is that in the NBA, there are very few paths to being a legitimate title contender. The clearest one is to employ the best player on earth. As of 2010, that’s been LeBron James. When the Knicks struck out on him, they joined the rest of the league in the group of teams who were very much behind the 8-ball. At some point, the Knicks needed to get a superstar or two. Ideally, this is someone you draft. However, the 2010, Amar’e-led Knicks weren’t really in any position to score a high lottery pick where they could have landed that franchise-changing player. That team seemed destined to end up in NBA Purgatory: not good enough to compete, not bad enough to win the lottery at the right time. So they needed to find a star, somehow. It’s possible Anthony wasn’t the right star, didn’t fit, ended up simply not being good enough. But the principle of eventually getting top-tier talent on the roster wasn’t exactly the worst idea an NBA team has ever thought of.
On the second point, flexibility. It has been 1,148 days since February 22, 2011, the day the Knicks made the The Trade. In the time since, the Knicks have made over 60 transactions. This is according to ESPN.com’s log, and it includes movement with players, coaches and basketball executive staff, everything from waiving Kelenna Azubuike in Feburary of 2011 to hiring Phil Jackson as President in March of 2014. Many of the transactions are of the Azubuike variety, things that aren’t generally going to radically alter the landscape of a team. But there are certainly plenty in there that hold a fair amount of importance, whether they be flashy trades or something with a bit more subtlety.
Among the big ones is the acquisition of Tyson Chandler. For a team that “killed all their flexibility moving forward” by acquiring Anthony, the Knicks were able to pull off a sign-and-trade to get one of the top free agents of the 2011 class, an in-prime, all-star caliber player who was months removed from playing a key role on a team that beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
How the Knicks were able to have the room to bring on Tyson Chandler and his salary is one of the main reasons why it’s a unfair to pin all of the Knicks’ current woes on The Trade. You’ll remember that Chauncey Billups was in far off times a member of the Knicks, coming in with Melo via The Trade. Heading into the 2011-12 season, he was due about $14 million. So the Knicks used their amnesty clause to release him outright, freeing up the money to be able to fit Chandler into their finances. Problem was, Billups was entering the final year of his contract. Suffice it to say that the Knicks’ decision to use their amnesty on Billups and not Amar’e Stoudemire was, to put it lightly, ill-advised.
Now let’s converge the two easiest ways to start a Knicks Twitter fight…lest we forget Linsanity! The Knicks were essentially gifted a promising young point guard back in 2011. Personally, I’m not one to harp on the whole Jeremy Lin Knicks thing. What’s done is done, the Knicks made their decision, and I’ve moved on. I don’t think the Houston Rockets are going to exactly love cutting Lin a $14 million check for next season, but the point holds: the Knicks could have held onto Lin. Whether you think letting him leave (and subsequently bringing back Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby from Portland) was the right move or the wrong one, there’s no denying it was a pretty major decision, which came after The Trade.
The Knicks have also proven themselves to be pretty adept at finding talent for cheap. Aside from Lin, they’ve gotten contributions over the past few post-The Trade seasons from guys like Chris Copeland, Steve Novak and Pablo Prigioni, all players who had a hand in some of the success they’ve had since. Last year they drafted Tim Hardaway, Jr., a promising if one-dimensional player, 24th in a draft that was supposed to be one of the weakest ever.
Then, there was the trade that could possibly replace The Trade as The Trade. Still with us? Trading for Andrea Bargnani this past offseason was questionable in theory and turned out to be poor in practice. Most think the Raptors won the trade (Sorry, “fleeced”. I forgot that you must say “fleeced” whenever Masai Ujiri pulls off a trade. Did you know that Masai Ujiri has never lost a game of checkers and has never bitten his own tongue while eating? Him finding the cure for cancer is just around the corner, folks). You’d have to be pretty biased to think Toronto didn’t get the better of the deal. If the Knicks were able to give up all they did and acquire Bargnani, only to have almost every analyst and basketball observer say “They gave up THAT for BARGNANI?!”, logic holds that they could have gotten a better return had they dangled their 2016 first round pick and some other roster fodder. Well, they didn’t. They got Bargnani. Whether they decided to hold on to the three draft choices they surrendered to get Bargnani or use them in another trade, the Knicks did indeed have assets. It’s more than fair to argue that the Knicks have bungled most of the major moves they’ve made since Anthony came on board. Exactly how is that Anthony’s fault?
The point holds that the Knicks maintained some flexibility after The Trade. The idea that they killed all their chances to build a good roster around Anthony because of what they surrendered in order to get him is a bit narrow-minded. So far, in the full seasons after The Trade, the Knicks have had one good team and one bad team. If we weren’t able to take last year’s one good season as a referendum on The Trade, then why can we take this one bad season and use it as a referendum on The Trade? If Melo bolts then yes, as Beck pointed out, the Knicks won’t have came close at all to winning a title with him, which was and always is the ultimate goal. But that doesn’t mean that The Trade is the only reason that the Knicks didn’t win, and it doesn’t at all mean that not making The Trade would have gotten them any closer.