Carmelo Anthony recently confirmed that he intends to opt out of his contract with the New York Knicks following the 2013-14 season. The star forward's pending free agency has led New Yorkers to wonder, once again, where the team would be if it had never traded for him.
The trade between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets in February 2011 sent Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2014 and two second-round picks. Denver also has the right to swap picks with the Knicks in 2016.
It is difficult to speculate the chain of events that would have followed if New York had not traded for Anthony, though two things appear to certain: The Knicks would have attempted to trade those same assets to land another superstar, and Amar’e Stoudemire would no longer be on the team.
Owner James Dolan is enamored with stars, and the team spent over two years clearing cap space in order to sign at least one franchise player, preferably LeBron James, in 2010. LeBron took his talents to South Beach, and the Knicks settled for Amar'e Stoudemire, signing the former Phoenix Sun to an uninsured, five-year, $100 million contract.
The Knicks exceeded expectations early in the 2010-11 season behind Stoudemire's superb play, as management remained focused on complementing STAT with another superstar. After drawn-out negotiations with the Nuggets, New York landed Anthony.
Anthony may have signed with the Knicks as a free agent
There is a decent possibility that Melo would have ended up in a Knicks uniform even if the team had not traded for him. New York was his favored destination, and he could have signed with the Knicks as a free agent following the 2010-11 season.
However, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the owners would lock out the players in the summer of 2011 and that the two sides would eventually agree on a less player-friendly collective bargaining agreement. By forcing the Nuggets to trade him to the Knicks, Anthony was able to re-sign with New York for more money than he would have made as a free agent under the new CBA.
We will never know whether Anthony would have chosen location or money if the Nuggets had called his bluff and refused to trade him, but Denver was not about to risk losing its greatest asset without receiving anything in return.
Other superstars the Knicks could have pursued
If the Knicks failed to acquire Anthony via trade or free agency, the impatient Dolan would not have held on to Gallinari and Chandler and slowly built through the draft. Instead, general manager Donnie Walsh and his successor Glen Grunwald would have attempted to acquire three other marquee talents: Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
Williams, then still considered an elite point guard, was traded from the Utah Jazz to the New Jersey Nets for a package comparable to the one the Knicks put together for Anthony (Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, two first-round draft picks and cash) just a few days after New York and the Nuggets made their blockbuster swap.
New York could have gone all in on Williams if they struck out on Anthony, though the more likely scenario is that the front office would have pursued a trade for Paul.
At Carmelo Anthony’s wedding in 2010, days after LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh announced that they would be joining forces in Miami, Paul reportedly made a toast to Anthony, Stoudemire and Paul, himself, forming their own "Big Three"in New York. Paul had the leverage with the New Orleans Hornets to force their hand, as Melo did with the Nuggets, by refusing to re-sign with any team other than the Knicks.
The Knicks also could have pursued a trade for Howard if they were unable to pull off a deal for Paul or Williams. Even if they had traded for one of the two point guards, they may have been able to free up enough space to sign Howard as a free agent this past summer by using the amnesty clause on Stoudemire.
It is not inconceivable that the Knicks could have a "Big Three" of Anthony, Paul and Howard if they had not traded for Anthony. On the flip side, New York could have struck out on Paul, Williams and Howard and used the assets sent to Denver to trade for Andrew Bynum, who was sidelined all of last season due to chronic knee problems.
Amar'e Stoudemire would no longer be a Knick
The new CBA, signed in December 2011, included an amnesty provision which allows each team to waive one player it had signed under the old CBA. Teams would still be responsible for the player’s salary, but his contract would not count against the salary cap.
Stoudemire should have been the poster boy for the amnesty clause. The 30-year-old forward's career is on life support after he underwent three knee surgeries in the past year. The Knicks owe Stoudemire $45 million over the next two seasons on an uninsured contract, a hefty total for a player who could be limited to as few as 10-15 minutes per night, per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, they already used the amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups in December 2011, in order to create the cap space to sign Tyson Chandler. The decision to use the amnesty clause on Billups is particularly disheartening because the team had picked up the one-year, $14.2 million option on his contract eight months earlier. New York could have let the veteran walk, rather than wasting the clause on him.
Billups joined the Knicks as part of a salary dump in the Anthony deal. If New York had not traded for Anthony, they would not have amnestied Billups and certainly would have used the provision on Stoudemire by now, which would have opened up a number of potential personnel moves.
Of course, there is no telling how the Knicks would have taken advantage of the newfound cap space. Given their history, it is possible that they would have invested that money in one or more aging or breaking-down players, such as Bynum.
The bottom line
Ultimately, it is impossible to determine what the Knicks' current roster would look like if they had not traded for Anthony. They are a much better team with Anthony than they would be with Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph (who was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the deal) and Mozgov (Felton returned via a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012.)
Yet, by not trading for Anthony, the Knicks would have maintained the financial flexibility to acquire one or more superstars (possibly including Anthony himself), while holding on to some of their young players and draft picks.
They would also not be faced with the difficult to decision of whether to make Anthony, a one-way player who is approaching his 30th birthday, the highest-paid player in the league next summer.