When the New York Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, I was part of a vocal minority who railed against it. Melo was, I maintained, a volume-shooting subtraction-by-addition player who did not make his teammates, and his composite team, better. And the early results seemed to support my contention: for the first year or so after the epic trade that sent Danilo Gallinari to the Denver Nuggets along with the rest of the Knicks’ core at the time, the Nuggets were actually one of the NBA’s best teams while the Knicks didn’t get substantially better. In fact, they continued to languish, reaching a nadir last season with a 17-65 record. But this year has been different. It began in the offseason, when Phil Jackson helped orchestrate perhaps the best Knicks draft in a generation. It continued with the emergence of rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, doubted at first but now spoken of as a future superstar and maybe the future face of the Knicks. But none of it could have happened without one key factor: the evolution of Carmelo Anthony into a complete basketball player and leader. In recent years, when Melo wanted to carry the team, he did it by ball-stopping and shooting with impunity; this year, he still sometimes takes over on offense but he also sets the tone by hustling on both ends of the floor and making plays for teammates (and–imagine–setting screens!). The Knicks even made it to 20-20 just a couple of weeks ago, and were able to hang tough with the likes of the Golden State Warriors. They were no longer a team opponents took for granted, and Madison Square Garden rocked louder than it had in years. Then Melo’s knees began to bother him, and Porzingis hit the dreaded ‘rookie wall.’ Starting point guard Jose Calderon, underwhelming but also underrated, also missed time with injury. The Knicks began to lose games, and as of today have fallen to 23-31. And now, there’s talk of ‘selling high’ on Carmelo Anthony.
So, just so we’re clear: the Knicks traded a hustling, energetic, talented-but-incomplete core to get a ball-stopping, shot-happy one-dimensional scorer. They bottomed out. They nailed the subsequent draft, and brought in one of the most exciting power forwards to his the NBA in a while. They rounded out the bench. Last but not least, they finally saw the day when said one-dimensional scorer became the sort of total-package player many had always wished he could become. They became fun to watch again. And a few injuries and tough losses have got people contemplating giving away the player who, in his current form, amounts to found money?
This is the sort of thing that makes people say the Knicks won’t get out of their own way until further notice.
The Knicks don’t need a leader; they have one. They don’t need a scorer; they have one. They don’t need a big man, or a capable center; Robin Lopez has been a pleasant surprise as the latter, and on offense he’s a solid complementary piece. They don’t need heart or grit; they’ve exhibited that for most of the year, even during their recent losing streak.
What the Knicks really need, with all due respect to Calderon, is a starting point guard who can get into the paint and score.
Jose Calderon is a dangerous shooter if you sleep on him. He’s a solid all-around point guard. But he’s not the kind of point guard who can open up the Knicks offense, as currently configured. The Knicks need to pursue someone like Emmanuel Mudiay or Dennis Schroder, who can prevent defenses from keying on any one particular player. Someone who can run the pick and roll, but is also a threat to score off the dribble or attack the rim. This would open up the entire offense, and allow the Knicks to keep defenses guessing.
But instead, there’s talk of trading away the player who has evolved, before our very eyes and in our own arena, into the kind of player you might actually want to build around. Who, by the way, has openly stated that he wants to stay here.
Losing streaks can be stressful, especially when they come just after a franchise’s first true glimpse of hope in half a decade. But closer examination will show that trading Carmelo Anthony is not the answer, and will only trade one set of problems for another. Exactly this time last season, I would have enthusiastically endorsed a sell-high move on Melo. But now, he’s truly a player to build around–yes, even at 31 with intermittently ailing knees. The Eastern Conference has improved, but the Knicks are by no means out of the playoff race. They’re maybe one key move away from being a real threat to get through the East. This is no time to hit the panic button.
*postscript: in the two-hour interval during which I was finalizing this piece, the Knicks announced the firing of coach Derek Fisher. Along with aforementioned point guard, I believe the Knicks needed a coaching change. “Fire the coach” is a common and oft-overused refrain, but in this instance, I believe it was warranted. Today’s move is all the more reason not to panic-sell Melo.