And then kamikaze owner Jim Dolan stepped in, all elbows and Eagles bootlegs, forcing the trade and giving the Nuggets everything they were asking for: the whole team, essentially, all that young talent Walsh had put together, plus a future pick, for a player the Knicks could have signed without giving up anything but money just a few months later. The great tragedy of the trade is that Carmelo might have been a savior for the team of Knicks who preceded him—but not the one that was actually there after the trade. He might have been … well, not quite LeBron, but something close enough to threaten his Heat. Dolan didn’t give him that chance, trading that impressive young roster away for filler, upping the burden on Melo, who would have to be not just a franchise player on a championship contender but a guy who could win all those championships on his own.
Now, some players might have been able to succeed in that context. After all, LeBron nearly won a title in Cleveland, and he has only gotten better since then. (Advanced statistics argue that LeBron has found steady, efficient ways to improve every season, including this one, which is scary.) But every move since the trade has been in service of Dolan’s Carmelo-as-LeBron-if-you-squint, clumsy, ham-fisted delusions, from the compiling of veterans to the mortgaging of the future through traded draft picks. Not all these moves were terrible; the signing of Chandler, injuries aside, was a godsend, and even Bargnani has had his moments this season. But they were the sort of top-heavy patchwork fixes that assumed a solid foundation when there was none. After the trade, the Knicks were doomed. In the NBA, if you don’t have LeBron, you must maintain roster flexibility to have any hope. The Knicks had neither and thought they had both.
So, what now? The Knicks are stuck with this roster by design. This was supposed to be the year to compete for a championship, after all, so any possible move to improve the roster has already been made. The front office has made motions about trading Iman Shumpert—i.e., their only marketable young player, a classic Knicks move—but the vortex the team has been sucked into this year has dragged down Shumpert’s value. (Shumpert mostly looks depressed during games, one of the few things he shares with his veteran teammates.) The Knicks have to let this ride. It’s all they can do.
Unless … unless they recognize that this is truly as bad as it was during the Isiah era and begin to dismantle again. (This isn’t tanking, or sabotaging the season hoping for a higher draft pick come April: It’s selling useless assets that might have utility to another team for future considerations.) When you take a step back, the Knicks look a lot like Carmelo’s February 2011 Nuggets: stuck with an unhappy superstar who can be a free agent after the season, with an aging roster in dire need of youth and a whole new approach (one paralyzed, in fact, by its ties to that superstar), with no real hope of a championship as currently constituted. Those Nuggets found the Knicks, a team that thought it was one player away, and bilked them for every penny. (Then–Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri did the same thing to the Knicks this off-season, getting a first-round pick out of the Knicks for Bargnani at his new post in Toronto.) And it worked for the Nuggets, by the way: Since the trade, Denver has had a better record than the Knicks and finished last year near the top of the stacked Western Conference. If the Knicks were a different organization, a more inventive one, a more realistic one, a more honest one, they might recognize they are in the same spot: in need of trading Carmelo Anthony. Maybe they’d look at Atlanta or Detroit or the Lakers and try to figure something out. They’d try to find their Knicks—their sucker.
But don’t hold your breath. Here the Knicks are, 33 months later, with a worse record, no flexibility, no plan, and, deep down, no hope. They’re going to plunge forward with what they have. And this time they don’t even have a 2014 first-round draft pick to help them out. They traded it. To Denver. In February 2011. For Carmelo.