NEW YORK — All around him, the foundation is crumbling, from the decaying roster to the besieged head coach to the befuddled front office. Carmelo Anthony can take every shot, break every scoring record and thrill the masses, but the New York Knicks remain on a ruinous course, barreling down a road to nowhere.
This season is already lost, whether the Knicks fire Mike Woodson or keep him, whether they sneak into the playoffs or just miss them. The infrastructure is broken, and everyone at Madison Square Garden knows it.
Blame is being cast in every direction, much of it anonymously, with players faulting the coach, and Anthony’s backers indicting his teammates. At some point, before this woeful season ends, Anthony should consider how this all began—and take the blame himself.
Three years ago, Anthony forced the Denver Nuggets to trade him to New York, rather than wait for free agency. It cost the Knicks a bounty in players and draft picks, creating a talent deficit they have never overcome.
“I knew we took a step backwards as an organization for me to get here,” Anthony acknowledged in December interview with NBA TV's Ahmad Rashad. “So we had to rebuild.”
The honesty was laudable, but rebuilding was never the goal. The Knicks wanted a superstar to lead them to glory, immediately. They are no closer to a championship today than they were on Feb. 22, 2011, the day of the trade.
Anthony enjoyed a fruitful night against his former team Friday, scoring 31 points in a 117-90 rout. But this game, like Anthony’s record-breaking 62-point explosion two weeks ago, was only a temporary respite from the gloom.
The Knicks are 20-30, the 10th-best team in a dreadful Eastern Conference. The playoffs are reachable, but a title run—the stated goal of owner James L. Dolan—is hopeless fantasy.
As Anthony and the Nuggets met again, 15 days shy of the trade’s anniversary, it was worth remembering how the deal unfolded, and what it cost.
To get Anthony, the Knicks gave up four rotation players—Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov—all of them 26 or younger at the time. They also gave Denver their first-round pick in 2014, the right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and second-round picks in 2012 and 2013.
The trade itself—pushed through by Dolan, over the concerns of team executives—was wholly unnecessary.
Anthony wanted the Knicks. The Knicks wanted Anthony. Everyone in the league knew it. Anthony was set to become a free agent that summer. The Knicks were set to have $17 million in cap room, enough to sign him outright with a little maneuvering.
But Anthony wanted a simultaneous $65 million contract extension, fearing that a new labor deal would crimp his earnings. The trade was the only way to lock in his money before the NBA lockout began.
As a rival team executive said at the time, “The money was first, second and third” in driving Anthony’s agenda.
Prioritizing the paycheck was Anthony’s original sin—the root of everything that now ails the Knicks.
Had Anthony signed as a free agent, it would have cost the Knicks just one significant player: Chandler, who would have been set free to create the cap room. They could have kept Gallinari, Felton, Mozgov and their draft picks.
Had the Knicks acquired only Anthony, the damage would have been minimized. But Denver also foisted the aging, overpriced Chauncey Billups on them, costing the Knicks more players.
The problems only multiplied from there.
Desperate for cap space, the Knicks used the amnesty provision to waive Billups so as to make room to sign Tyson Chandler. Had they never made the trade, the Knicks could have used the amnesty provision to erase Amar'e Stoudemire’s cap-clogging contract.
(Alternatively, the Knicks could have kept Billups, not signed Chandler and still used the amnesty on Stoudemire, potentially creating $32 million in cap room in 2013.)
Anthony once fantasized about a New York partnership with Chris Paul, his close friend and fellow All-Star, who—following Anthony’s lead—eventually forced his way out of New Orleans. But the Knicks did not have the trade assets to make a play for Paul, having sent them all to Denver.
Had Anthony waited for free agency, perhaps the Knicks would have landed Paul in December 2011. Or Dwight Howard in 2012. Or the next disgruntled star who wanted a piece of the Broadway spotlight.
Anthony’s insistence on the trade cost the Knicks depth and flexibility, pushing them to make ever more desperate moves: signing the volatile J.R. Smith or surrendering more draft picks for Andrea Bargnani. The result is a faulty, flaky roster, one they are stuck with through next season.
As it happens, the new labor deal was not nearly as radical as feared. Had Anthony signed with the Knicks outright, he would have earned just $3.5 million less over three years, according to one team executive’s calculations. And he would have joined a much stronger Knicks lineup.
With Anthony opting for free agency this summer, the question arises again: What does he value more? Winning or money?
If it’s the money, the decision is automatic. The Knicks can offer $33 million more than any other team, by rule. But that contract—$129 million over five years—will severely limit the Knicks’ ability to add talent in the future.
If Anthony values his legacy, if he wants to chase titles, then he is almost certainly better off leaving New York, to join a smarter, more stable franchise. Or, if he trusts the Knicks to build a contender, he could stay and take a pay cut to give them more flexibility.
But based on Anthony’s history, rival executives expect him to stay in New York and to demand the maximum contract.
Since acquiring Anthony, the Knicks have gone 124-92, for a modest .574 winning percentage. They have won one playoff series. If they fire Woodson, as expected, Anthony will be on his third coach in three years.
In the meantime, Anthony is facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. For most losing teams, there is an upside: the chance for a high draft pick. But the Knicks sent that silver lining to Denver.