At this moment, after months of subversive measures from then-team president Phil Jackson, the New York Knicks are appropriately navigating Carmelo Anthony trade talks and lulls: deliberately and patiently, with a semblant refusal to let his leverage alone dictate what happens next.
Emphasis on at this moment.
Though Melo will only waive his no-trade clause for the Houston Rockets, the Knicks are not accommodating him beyond condition, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. They won't absorb the three years and $61.3 million left on Ryan Anderson's contract, which has forced the Rockets to suss out three- and four-team blockbusters to no avail.
Someone eventually has to bend, and it won't be the Rockets. They have James Harden and Chris Paul. Acquiring another (ebbing) All-Star is excess borne from convenience. It probably won't be Anthony, either. His interpretation of compromise might, if New York is lucky, include warming up to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Knicks are the safer bet to wilt. They're the Knicks. They're also, it seems, gearing up for a rebuild. Allocating 30-plus minutes per game to a disenchanted 33-year-old goes against that grain. Resisting the urge to move him now is admirable, but is that resolve strong enough to last into the 2017-18 regular season?
Can they spin his return as a sensible end result within the context of their supposed reinvention under new team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry?
Kristaps Porzingis, for his part, believes they can.
The Unicorn Speaks
"He's an All-Star, an incredible player, and I've learned so much from him," Porzingis said of Anthony early this month, per NBA.com's Shaun Powell. "There's still so much for me to learn from him. I would love to have him around and keep playing alongside him."
Player preferences don't always align with franchise aims. Porzingis has only ever known life in the NBA beside Anthony. He's not necessarily thinking about the touches No. 7 takes away from himself, Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr. And yet, his recurring endorsements matter.
Porzingis is not merely the Knicks' most important building block since Patrick Ewing; more than anyone, he has become their lodestar for reason.
He ripped the Knicks for their inconsistencies and absence of identity after a March loss to the Brooklyn Nets. His decision to skip an exit interview with Jackson shined the brightest light on how far gone New York's acting architect ended up.
Interpret these strategic protests as evidence of a cranky post-teen brainwashed by a riotous Anthony if you must. But Porzingis actually stands to gain more than anyone from his exit—increasing the importance this pro-Anthony stance. He's already the franchise face to everyone other than the most obstinate nostalgics. Playing without Anthony frees him from whatever shadow his veteran running mate still casts while cleaning up the mess of an offensive pecking order the Knicks created last season with the Derrick Rose trade and exacerbated again this summer with the addition of Hardaway.
Porzingis' usage rate actually fell by 0.3 his sophomore season. A smaller percentage of his shot attempts came inside three feet. More of his made baskets came off assists last season (74.7 percent) than as a rookie (67.3).
The byproducts of a perimeter-drunk NBA and playing within a purposeless offense? No doubt. But introducing that third ball-handler, in Rose, displaced Porzingis to third-wheel duty.
Worse, this transition came at a time when Rose was playing for his next contract and Anthony found himself at war with Jackson. The result: Rose setting a career low in assists per 100 possessions (6.8), with Anthony's own helping-hand rate cratering compared to 2015-16.
Keeping the latter threatens to perpetuate this dynamic. Hardaway still likes to control the ball, and 2017 No. 8 overall pick Ntilikina needs reps if the Knicks plan on grooming him as a point guard. But subbing in these two for Rose does simplify the hierarchy, rendering the situation more manageable than not—even with Melo still on board.
Old Friends With New Weapons
Anthony and Porzingis have shown they can work together when you take out the rest of the noise. Around 18 percent of Anthony's passes went to Porzingis in 2015-16. That number dropped to 16.7 last year but will go up when neither is jostling for touches with contract-year Rose.
Slotting them as a 4-5 combination still works. New York scored like a league-best offense with those lineups, pumping in 116.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy.com. The story was the same during Porzingis' rookie campaign. The defense crumbled statistically in both cases, but the Knicks remained a net plus with their power forward-center partnership.
That chemistry won't be hard to recapture with a bundle of spot-up options around them—including Hardaway and Ntilikina.
More than one-third of Hardaway's looks came as catch-and-shoot threes in his final season with the Atlanta Hawks, on which he shot 36.7 percent. Ntilikina, meanwhile, barely registers as an official point guard; he spent a lot of time ceding possession for Strasbourg over in France.
Rose never afforded the Anthony-Porzingis pairing that flexibility. He posted a 23.6 percent hit rate on spot-up attempts, which accounted for less than 6 percent of his total shots.
Striking his possessions from the rotation opens up doors the Knicks couldn't previously unlock. Even Anthony himself helps advance the agenda. He won't deviate and shot hunt as much within a cohesive and continuous system, and his own off-action accuracy jibes with Porzingis' development.
Among the 81 players to have at least 200 spot-up touches, Anthony's 1.23 points per possession placed sixth, trailing only CJ Miles, Stephen Curry, Otto Porter Jr., Channing Frye and Kawhi Leonard, respectively. He can be the marquee scorer who doesn't cramp a more fluid style.
Pitching Anthony on this role is different when you're a contender like the Rockets. The Knicks are not a playoff squad. Kevin Pelton's real plus-minus predictions for ESPN.com peg them for 32 wins and the 12th-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Likewise, holding on to Anthony tethers the Knicks to an awkward position in which they're not good enough to play for anything special but also too talented, at full strength, to capitalize on the relative shortage of existing tank jobs.
Rest nights neutralize some of this. The NBA has taken steps in the 2017-18 schedule to eradicate rampant off days, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, but Anthony isn't among the handful of players those tweaks target. And to this point, he isn't the cornerstone who will trigger surprise competency.
Last season, for the first time since his sophomore crusade, he gave up more value on the defensive end than he added on the offensive side, according to NBA Math. And the Knicks were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better without him prior to the All-Star break. He won't take what should be a top-five pick and turn it into the 12th overall selection. Porzingis is more likely to incite that ill-timed surge—but the chances of moving the lanky Latvian are slimmer than the man himself.
If the Knicks do ultimately keep Anthony, locker room morale could be a real concern if he's not in a good headspace amid rampant losing—though the Instagram support the kiddies showed him following Jackson's year-end homily, along with Porzingis' unending loyalty, suggests the atmosphere wouldn't be toxic.
Besides, if Anthony starts the season in New York, it's essentially his decision, as Begley noted:
What It Comes Down To
Neither side is wrong here. Anthony is well within his rights to lean on a trump card the Knicks gave him, and they shouldn't move him outside the right deal.
That deal doesn't include taking on Anderson or any salary beyond 2017-18. Nor does it consist of combining Anthony with picks and prospects to chase Kyrie Irving. The Knicks have to be smart about this. They obliterated immediate wiggle room by signing Hardaway and could have more than $105 million in guaranteed money on the 2018-19 books if Anthony stays. With a king's ransom return out of the question, they shouldn't be pulling the trigger on anything if it doesn't free up more spending power.
And who knows? Maybe playing hardball forces Anthony's hand. He could widen his scope of trade destinations. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum want him on the Portland Trail Blazers, according to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. DeMarcus Cousins is ready for him to join the New Orleans Pelicans, per Begley.
Or perhaps the Knicks don't move him, hoping he plays through next year and decides to leave $27.9 million on the table to join Paul, LeBron James (player option) or Dwyane Wade in free agency.
This outcome isn't ideal for either side, but time remains the Knicks' only leverage. They don't need to move Anthony. They have the option of waiting him out without derailing their rebuild.
Things change quickly in New York, most of the time without warning. The Knicks' disregard for patience and process—two virtues they're uncharacteristically typifying here—is notorious and unflinching. They gave Hardaway four years and $71 million when it looked like they were finally conserving cap space, and when the Hawks didn't want to go higher than $48 million, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
Just when you think they're about to zig, the Knicks zag, backwardly and forcefully, unable to get out of their own way.
But, at this moment, the Anthony situation is different. And it should stay different.
Even if that means not trading him at all.