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Look Who Visits the Garden Tomorrow Night

The Knicks play the Milwaukee Bucks tonight as they attempt to snap a deeply discouraging four-game losing streak, and it’s important, and it matters, and we’ll be watching a pirated feed along on NBA Companion on the edge of our couch seat. But we hope you’ll forgive us when we admit our eyes will keep wandering to the game at the Garden the very next night. The return-of-the-old-Knicks game against the Denver Nuggets.

That’s obviously a bit of a misnomer. Of the players the Knicks sent to Denver in last February’s franchise-defining Carmelo Anthony trade, only two of them are still with the Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov. (Raymond Felton is in Portland, and Wilson Chandler is stuck in China, presumably stitching together clothing for Americans in a dank, subhuman sweatshop.) But the Knicks put so much into that trade. The desire for (another) superstar around which to build; years of careful planning by Donnie Walsh; a young team that was playing its best basketball at the time of the trade. It was the trade that was supposed to change the Knicks forever, the one that made the last decade of awfulness all worth it.

And now, the ugly stats since the trade:

Denver Nuggets: 28-12.
New York Knicks: 20-22. (Not counting a four-game sweep in the playoffs, by the way.)

Now, that’s not entirely fair to Anthony, who, after all, is the Knicks’ best player. (And the only one capable of scoring, apparently.) And there’s still a lot – a lot – of Carmelo contract to go. But by trading away all those players, so much of the Knicks’ depth, as we warned at the time, left the Knicks dramatically top-heavy. We saw that in the playoffs (when Jared Jeffries and Anthony Carter got major minutes) and we’re seeing it this year (there are, like, no guards). Now, obviously, we eventually got onboard with the Carmelo trade, and we still think there's a ton of time to figure all this out. But it's difficult, with the Nuggets in town, not to go back in time and imagine what the Knicks lineup might look like today if they had not made the trade. Maybe something like (as suggested by colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley last night):

PG Raymond Felton
SG Landry Fields
SF Danilo Gallinari
PF Amar'e Stoudemire
C Tyson Chandler (presuming he'd still be up for signing with a Carmel0-less team, which seems reasonable)

Wilson Chandler (if you could talk him into not going to China)
Timofey Mozgov
Iman Shumpert (assuming you'd be drafting in around the same spot you did last year, a reasonable assumption)
Jared Jeffries (because we'll never be rid of him, even in hypothetical scenarios)

Plus, you have the money and/or cap space to go after a Chris Paul or a Dwight Howard or a Deron Williams ... unless you signed Carmelo Anthony (who, remember, had few other options) to a free agent deal in the off-season. Then you have the same lineup you have now and you have a point guard and you have Gallinari, Chandler, Mozgov, and Shumpert coming off the bench. Even without Carmelo, you gotta think that team doesn't lose at home to Phoenix and Toronto and Charlotte, right? At the very least, they'd be more fun to watch that Anthony and Stoudemire running isos every possession. And Mike D'Antoni would look considerably less miserable all the time.

(We know that above scenario is an extreme, unlikely one. It's just the general notion we're playing around with. You get it.)

This isn't all meant to be a criticism of Carmelo: We still love having him around here. But Saturday night's game is an excellent reminder of just how much the Knicks gave up — in personnel and in cold hard cash — to get him here. And how much farther behind the Nuggets, who got rid of him for just two current rostered players, the Knicks have fallen. And how much more work the Knicks have to do, with no flexibility with which to do it. The Knicks went all-in on the Anthony trade. This is what all-in looks like.

Photo: Chris Trotman/2011 Getty Images