Two years ago, the Knicks brought in a star to complete or, rather, perpetuate their vision of a superteam. Alongside Amar'e Stoudemire, Melo would carry New York toward prominence. He would bring them a championship.
Devoid of any appealing assets after the Anthony blockbuster and armed with the knowledge that wherever Paul was headed, he was liable to exercise his player option as part of the deal, New York moved on. The Knicks couldn't wait for him to become a free agent in 2013. That was far too long.
So they went with Operation: Out of the Blue, cutting ties with Chauncey Billups and acquiring Tyson Chandler from the Dallas Mavericks. Paul was then sent to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were flush with assets, picked up his option and the toast of the century was but that, a toast, not an apparition.
Instead, a new era was ushered in, an unforeseen vision actualized. The Knicks had a towering frontline in Chandler, Stoudemire and Anthony—the best in the NBA, even. It was no time to lament over the loss of a player New York never had. That's what we were sold on anyway, at least.
Then, the lockout-truncated season unfolded, Amar'e battled injuries (and eventually fire extinguishers), Mike D'Antoni resigned from a team constructed around a player he couldn't coach and the Knicks finished 18-6 to secure seventh place in the Eastern Conference. And another first-round exit, this time at the hands of the Miami Heat.
The 2012-13 campaign promised to be different, though. Clad with a battery of veterans, a hard-nosed (albeit slightly stubborn) coach and an enlightened Melo, the Knicks were going to contend. For real.
Even after Stoudemire went down yet again, Anthony and crew made good on their pledge.
Watching LeBron James win his first NBA title coupled with Kobe Bryant whispering more than sweet nothings into his ear during the Olympics left Melo inspired. And it left the Knicks 21-9 through the first 30 games of the season.
When Stoudemire returned, the team struggled, yet not even a mediocre 16-13 record with him in the lineup could rain enough vitriol on their proverbial parade to discredit what they built. The doubters were wrong; the Knicks were for real.
Fast forward through yet another Stoudemire injury (and one to Anthony) and the Knicks arrive in Denver for Melo's first "return." Bruised, battered and shallow as they were, New York wasn't supposed to lie down. Melo was going to persevere through his pain, and his team would have to do the same.
Except Anthony didn't. He couldn't. And neither could the Knicks. They emerged from the Pepsi Center worse for wear, bordering on unfit for duty.
Though Melo would have us believe (or like to think) his exit was a mutual parting of the ways, a business decision, the remnants of the bridges he burned and hopes he shattered were echoed in that chorus, that onslaught of boos.
There was nothing warming or understanding about the way he was greeted. At all. Every time he touched the ball, he was derided by those in the stands. When he was taken out of the game and brought to the locker room in the third quarter, sneering catcalls of sorts followed him.
Fans not listening to Denver Post. They are booing Melo every time he so much as has his hands on the ball.— Marc Berman (@NYPost_Berman) March 14, 2013
When that final buzzer sounded, and the Knicks had lost 117-94, Melo was still despised and a clear parallel had been drawn between New York and Denver.
The Nuggets, a team assembled around no one in particular, snagged their 100th victory since the Anthony trade. They're 100-57 over the last 25 months and have rewrote the book on contending.
The Knicks, though? They're 88-68 (respectable) and have come to represent everything they weren't supposed to.
To deem them losers of the blockbuster pact is too much. Both they and the Nuggets got what they wanted...sort of.
This wasn't supposed to be a team built around one superstar. The Knicks had that before they traded for Anthony, and he had that in Denver. They were supposed to be a fierce convocation, not a fragile one.
They were supposed to be explosive, not old.
Two years ago, the team they're running with now would have seemed like a joke. Nine players over 30? The oldest team the NBA has ever seen? They wouldn't put themselves in that kind of position.
Yet, they have. So many criticized the Knicks for the offseason they had. Not solely because they let Jeremy Lin walk, but because they placed a slew of delicately aged players around a flimsy core.
Stoudemire's feeble knees paired with Anthony's penchant for bully ball made the Knicks structurally unsound. Even Chandler, who's one of the lankier centers in the game, had his injury problems.
To complement them, the Knicks handed out multi-year deals to Jason Kidd (39) and Marcus Camby (38). They've since called upon guys like Kurt Thomas (40), Rasheed Wallace (38) and now Kenyon Martin (35) to play prominent roles in a championship machine. A decade ago, that's not a bad idea.
Now, it's a recipe for ambivalence.
New York isn't on the brink of implosion, it's going to make the playoffs. As for staving off mediocrity, for establishing a title-caliber precedent, the same cannot be said. The Knicks are 17-15 since that 21-9 start, and they're 6-10 against factions above .500.
And now, they're without Melo for an unforeseen period of time, potentially down Chandler as well, and without Stoudemire for at least the rest of the regular season.
Which leaves their supporting cast of veterans, the youth-like stylings of a still-recovering Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, one of the most tumultuous players in the game.
They're also left with that loss in Denver—the one that drew a line between the Knicks and reality.
New York left that game with more than one loss and a bitter sense of perspective. Downtrodden and injury-riddled, the Knicks wandered off the court, heads hung low, shoulders sagged and, with Smith questioning their resolve, their ability to win.
JR playing with bad knee too and questions team's "heart" after game saying guys should "pack up and go home" if don't want to compete.— Marc Berman (@NYPost_Berman) March 14, 2013
Ironically enough, these were the same types of questions many were left asking over the offseason and subsequently lodging inquiries into.
Could the Knicks withstand the rigors of an entire season? Would they keep pace with the younger teams? Are they, in fact, built to not just win now but contend now?
An improbable beginning to the season paved the way for those queries to be quelled. Doubters were silenced and the Knicks were contenders.
Suddenly, they've materialized once again, externally and internally. Striking the panic button seems a bit premature, but the lack of conviction shown for their current blueprint is completely justified.
Are the Knicks legitimate title contenders?
"I wish the outcome could have been a little bit different," Anthony said of his return to Denver (via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports), "but it is what it is."
Two years ago, the Knicks had a different vision, of a different team, of a different ending to their continuously equivocating saga. A conclusion that didn't see them invest $80 million in a frangible roster that yielded more questions than answers.
Two years ago, the Knicks saw themselves, Melo in hand, at the top. Not clinging to championship-worthy aspirations that seem more fleeting with each passing game and ensuing injury.
Two years ago, the Knicks saw themselves somewhere else. Not here.
But here they sit, and "it is what it is."
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.