Why are the Knicks struggling this season? There are lots of plausible explanations, including:
- The team’s curious decision to retool and play a bigger lineup despite extensive evidence that they’re much better off playing small
- Dismal point guard play, partly due to injury and partly due to Raymond Felton’s general ineffectiveness
- Iman Shumpert’s inconsistency
- JR Smith’s slow start
- Tyson Chandler’s regression
And then there’s Mike Woodson. The coach stubbornly insisted on playing his so-called “big” lineup until Andrea Bargnani’s injury took the decision out of his hands. He’s been far too loyal to Smith and Felton, giving both players steady minutes despite oft-poor play. He’s completely destroyed Iman Shumpert’s confidence – Shumpert’s career seems headed in a “Landry Fields” direction at this point. And then there’s the defense. The Knicks have become infamous for switching on every defensive possession, a practice Woodson has both lamented and defended this season.
Howard Beck looked past all these issues and found the real problem at Madison Square Garden. It’s all Carmelo Anthony’s fault.
Beck’s column, “Flawed NY Knicks Still Paying Dearly for Carmelo Anthony’s Original Sin,” suggests that the Knicks would be much better off if Anthony had opted out of his Denver contact and then signed with New York as a free agent. It’s hard to argue with that logic. If Anthony had waited until after the season and signed with the Knicks, they would have been able to retain Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton and the draft picks they sent to Denver. (They almost certainly would have had to renounce their rights to Wilson Chandler to free up enough cap space to sign ‘Melo…) They wouldn’t have used the amnesty provision on Chauncey Billups – which means they may not have acquired Tyson Chandler, which also means they could have amnestied Amar’e Stoudemire instead. They also would have had assets available to possibly swing a trade for Chris Paul.
With all due respect to Beck – who is an excellent writer and reporter – there are a couple of fundamental problems with this thesis.
Let’s assume that the Knicks don’t cave to Denver’s demands… does Anthony play out the year as a Nugget and hit free agency? Or does Masai Ujiri trade him somewhere else? It’s not like the Knicks were Anthony’s only suitor. If talks between the Knicks and Nuggets broke down, it seems very reasonable to assume that the Nets would have jumped right in.
Beck is dismissive of that possibility, saying Anthony only wanted to play for the Knicks and everyone in the league knew it. But he undercuts his own point in the same article, quoting an anonymous team official that said money was Anthony’s “first, second and third” priority. Do we really think Anthony would have turned down the Nets – and a more lucrative long-term contract?
If the Knicks didn’t make the deal, I suspect Anthony is a Brooklyn Net today.
So what happens to the Knicks in that scenario? As you may remember, the Nets didn’t get Anthony, but they did land Deron Williams – a player nobody really knew was available – at the deadline. So flip that script – the Nets get ‘Melo, the Knicks send some combination of Gallinari, Chandler, Felton and picks to Utah for D-Will. Then they re-sign Williams to a max contract and go into the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season with a core of Williams, Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields and whoever’s left over from the Williams trade. Maybe that prevents them from acquiring Chandler, a move that looks worse the further we get from his Defensive Player of the Year award… but Williams’ name on a long-term deal also takes them out of the running for Chris Paul, and tie their fortunes to two players – Williams and Stoudemire – with chronic injury problems.
I’d further submit that a team built around Williams and Stoudemire simply wouldn’t be that good. Complain about Anthony all you want, but he’s far more durable than D-Will – a player that seems to be hitting the down side of his career a lot earlier than anyone anticipated.
Now, that’s not to say that the Anthony trade didn’t make it difficult for the Knicks to build a deep roster. But they did. Glen Grunwald – after taking over for Donnie Walsh – built a fairly deep team around Anthony, one that played small, shot tons of three-pointers, and went on to win 54 games, the Atlantic Division and a playoff series. And he did that despite the fact that the Knicks let another talented player – Jeremy Lin, perhaps you’ve heard of him – walk, getting nothing in return.
So let’s return to the original question: why are the Knicks so bad this year? Is it really because Carmelo Anthony wanted to lock in a long-term contract and avoid the uncertainty of the CBA negotiations? Or is it because:
- Knick management totally failed to capitalize on the small-ball identity that got them into the second round of the playoffs
- While the desire to get younger made a lot of sense, management failed to recognize the fact that Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace apparently had more to do with the team’s cohesion than Mike Woodson and his coaching staff
Can’t blame Anthony for either of those issues.
If you really want to find the root cause of the Knicks’ troubles, you’d have to go much further back anyway. If there’s a real “original sin” in play here, it is Madison Square Garden’s short-sightedness; their all-encompassing focus on quick fixes, on big, splashy trade and free agent acquisitions.
Let’s face it… the Knicks haven’t really attempted to build through the draft since David Stern’s frozen envelope gave them Patrick Ewing. Almost every other Knick of note – from Charles Oakley and Larry Johnson to Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell to Stoudemire and Anthony and Chandler – arrived in New York via trade, or as a free agent. And that means every one of those players was either expensive from the day he arrived, or he cost the team some other asset. The Anthony trade is a symptom, but it isn’t the disease. The NBA’s entire economic system is biased towards developing through the draft. First-round picks stay under team control longer. Good players on rookie contracts are the league’s biggest bargains. And the Knicks have done a laughably bad job of capitalizing on that fact. And until they atone for that sin, nothing else they do really matters.