Trade Carmelo

Illustration by André Carrilho

We have A-Rod, and Rex Ryan, the memory of the Butt Fumble, and the ongoing slow-motion clusterphooey that is the Amway Mets, but in this town, even in this dreadful New York sports year, there is really nothing that can quite compare to the tire fire that is a Knicks implosion. There is something unifying—something almost cleansing—about the pile-on that happens when the Knicks are a disaster. Other local teams are arrogant and imperialistic and exceptionalist, but with a certain earned swagger: The Yankees have won 27 World Series, after all. But the Knicks? The Knicks haven’t won a championship in more than 40 years and have rarely been all that close. Yet they act like they’re constantly knocking on the door of dominance: They act like they run the place. The Knicks are always begging to be knocked down a few pegs, even when they’re already at the bottom.

But even by the Knicks’ lofty standards of cataclysm, this season has been a total catastrophe. Coming off their best regular season since the mid-nineties, the Knicks added NBA champion and star of Lifetime TV movie The Eleventh Victim (as Detective Garlin Fincher) Metta World Peace, former overall top draft pick Andrea Bargnani, and 2013 first-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. to a core that came within two games of the conference finals. Behind Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and the other veterans, this was a team that was supposed to break through and compete for a title this year, right now, this very second.

That is not happening. The Knicks started out 3-4, an extremely disappointing beginning … and then lost nine games in a row. The Knicks’ defense was shaky before Chandler went down with a broken right fibula; afterward, the team became a sieve made of Swiss cheese and wet graph paper. Coach Mike Woodson seems incapable—out of stubbornness or plain old incompetence—of putting together an efficient, coherent rotation. Amar’e Stoudemire looks like a rickety marionette every time he runs. (Sorry: “runs.”) Watching the New York Knicks play basketball right now—if you are willing to grant the supposition that that’s what they’re indeed doing—is only for the masochistic or the cruel-hearted. Anthony says the team is in a “dark place.” A year ago, the Knicks were 18-5 and the talk of the NBA. Today, that illusion of promise has all fallen apart. Which might mean it’s time to start thinking about something desperate: Maybe the Knicks should blow this up and possibly even … trade Carmelo?

Frustrated fans tend to blame their team’s best player for struggles. This is a common fallacy—the Knicks’ disastrous season has little to do with Melo, who has been playing his heart out and whose despair has been palpable. This nightmare year cannot be pinned on Carmelo the player. But to figure out where these Knicks came from—where they turned into the old Isiah Thomas Knicks—it’s instructive to go back farther than last year, all the way to February 2011. That was when the current incarnation of the team was born and probably where it doomed itself to die. That’s when the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony.

In that deal, in case you’ve forgotten, the Knicks received Anthony, along with Chauncey Billups and some roster flotsam, in exchange for, well, the entire Knicks roster at the time, save Amar’e Stoudemire, along with a later first-round draft pick that was so far in the future that obviously it would never end up mattering. All told, it’s difficult to argue the exchange of talent was balanced against the Knicks: Anthony is a top-twenty NBA player, at least, and he has been excellent ever since he arrived, particularly on the offensive end. He is not LeBron James, but he is an outstanding player.

But Carmelo the concept? The idea that he is a one-man savior? That’s where it all went wrong. Let us remember how different these Knicks in December 2013 are from those February 2011 Knicks. Those Knicks had Donnie Walsh as team president and Mike D’Antoni as coach, but more important, they had been operating with one clear objective: Fix the mess that Isiah Thomas had left them when he departed in 2008. It had taken more than two years, and a lot of losses (all of which were in front of a perpetually sold-out MSG), but at the time of the Carmelo trade, they’d finally done it. They had cleared out enough salary cap space to add a superstar to Stoudemire—who was an All-Star that season—and, vitally, had tons of young, cheap talent surrounding him (from Danilo Gallinari to Wilson Chandler to Anthony Randolph) and loads of draft picks for the next few seasons. In other words, the Knicks were following the only non-­LeBron, non–Tim Duncan model that works in the NBA these days: Stay young, stay spry, stay flexible. To be fair, this was an easy model to follow: It was the exact opposite of how Isiah had run the team. And Carmelo made the next step criminally easy, telling the Nuggets he’d only sign a contract with the Knicks, which he would do at the end of the season if Denver didn’t trade him there first. Walsh didn’t have to do anything. He had the winning hand. He had played it just right.

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.

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Trade Carmelo