All photos by Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day
NEW YORK — The five-year anniversary of the blockbuster trade which brought star forward Carmelo Anthony to the New York was anything but a happy one for the player who has been the face of the Knicks’ franchise over the past half-decade.
For a competitor like Anthony, getting embarrassed on your home floor, in a 122-95 loss to the team that occupies the spot atop the NBA’s Atlantic Division that New York sat in three years ago (and the one that the Knicks have been far removed from ever since), would make any player a little grumpy.
But over his 13 years in the league, Anthony has been on the winning and losing side of enough games (881 in the regular season and 66 in the playoffs) to not let a single loss — even one in which the Knicks let a five-point early second-quarter lead turn into an easy 27-point rout for the first-place Toronto Raptors at Madison Square Garden on Monday night — affect him too much.
No, it wasn’t the defeat against Toronto itself, but rather the subsequent uneasiness of feeling defeated which caused the normally easy-going Anthony to appear far more agitated than usual after witnessing first-hand, the huge gap between the Eastern Conference-contending, 37-18 Raptors and his freefalling, 24-34 Knicks, which had lost for the 12 time in 14 games.
Uncharacteristically standing in front of his locker a short time after the final buzzer (when he would typically show up there for post-game interviews much later on, after receiving treatment), Anthony said, “I need to go home and just relax, decompress a little bit.”
Perhaps he wanted to reflect for a countless time on what he has gotten himself into with the Knicks since his arrival from the Denver Nuggets exactly five years earlier, on February 22, 2011.
If that thought didn’t cross his mind at home later on, it certainly appeared evident when he shook his head in disbelief after I reminded him of the four executives in charge (including three different general managers and current team president Phil Jackson), four head coaches and the roughly 70 different teammates he’s had during a far more unstable run in New York to this point than Anthony ever could have imagined.
“It’s a lot,” Anthony admitted. “It’s a lot to deal with.”
When I posed the idea of what the present-day Anthony might say about such a high rate of personnel turnover, at all levels, to his former Nugget self during the time he was traded for rising young Knick talent in the form of New York’s former first-round picks, forwards Danilo Gallinari (a lottery selection) and Wilson Chandler, along with 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov and point guard Raymond Felton, he said, “I can’t control that. I don’t really know what I would tell him or tell me back then, but that’s just something that you can’t control.
“I mean, when you look it, how many different coaches, four? Four different coaches, 70-something different players, I mean, that’s a lot to go through. It’s been tough. It’s challenging. It’s challenging to kind of stay strong and positive through all of this. I try not to pay that no mind though. I think I do a good job of not paying that any mind.”
One would have to in order to last through all of that for five years.
Trying desperately to stay the course through the Knicks’ difficult, existing situation, Anthony added, “The only thing I can continue doing is [to] come to work every day, and [keep] working hard and playing hard, and continue to be positive throughout this situation.”
That all sounds fine, and it’s commendable on Anthony’s part to avoid complaining about the still far too inadequate roster that Jackson has put around his best player.
However, in focusing on why New York got throttled by Toronto, Anthony portrayed particular symptoms that are part of the much larger, more overarching problems with the Knicks (which were outscored in the paint, 58-38, and thanks to its insufficient guard play, were dominated in the back court, 44-7).
“You can’t beat a team when you give up [about] 60 paint points, 11 3s,” he said. “You almost have to play perfect… to even be in the game.
“We’ve just got to want to [execute]. We’ve got to want to be out there, we’ve got to want to play, we’ve got to want to compete. I don’t think it’s anything to do with X’s and O’s, I think we’ve got to take it upon ourselves individually, take the challenge as a group.
“There was times tonight, for most of the game, when we [weren’t] communicating with each other out there.”
If that analysis for fixing New York’s woes sounds familiar, it’s because Anthony — who reached the postseason during each of his first 10 seasons, but who is now in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a third straight year — has repeatedly said things to the same effect over the past three seasons.
When you hear Anthony’s words go in that direction, it’s a clear indication that he’s admitting to himself that once again during his stay in New York, he doesn’t have nearly the help he needs for his team to be competitive.
Sometimes, players saying they need to play harder can be taken at face value. When the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors come off of an extended All-Star break and lose for only a fifth time in 53 games to start the season, by 32 points in Portland, the need to play harder means exactly what it sounds like.
Yet for a club like Anthony’s Knicks, it means something else. Players are proud, and as competitors, they never want to accept that they’re not good enough to win (yes even the NBA-worst Philadelphia 76ers’ players feel that way, though they know much better).
Saying as Anthony did, that the New York simply needs to “want to compete” is player speak for not wanting to admit that the talent simply isn’t there.
And when it came to that, Anthony exasperatingly said, “Regardless of the record, [it’s] just [the] losing… it’s hard to accept that. You can’t be satisfied with losing basketball games.”
And yet, he is satisfied with it, in a way. And so are Knicks fans, as he and they continued to be duped into thinking there is a solid plan in place for New York’s future to win with Anthony before the final three years of the five-year contract Jackson re-upped him to, is done.
As a free agent in the summer of 2014, Anthony could have drastically increased his odds at reaching the first NBA Finals of his career had he left New York for Chicago or Houston (imagine the much better chance the Rockets — who were just one round from the NBA Finals last year — might have had against the Warriors with an additional potent scorer like Anthony to complement James Harden and Dwight Howard).
However, as much as Anthony loves New York City and as much as he’d prefer to help bring an NBA championship to Manhattan over anywhere else, he’s also a businessman involved in a variety of different ventures, and the new owner of the North American Soccer League’s expansion Puerto Rico franchise (to begin play later this year) has just as strong, if not a stronger drive in wanting to be remembered for leaving a lasting legacies outside of basketball.
Thus, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Anthony, who chose this route. In essence, he made his bed, and the Knicks’ lack of leadership has mostly wet it ever since.
Although that disturbs a lot of Knicks fans, the many more don’t seem to care, and that’s also part of the problem, as they continue to fully support a bad product (78-144; .351 over the past three seasons), 226 consecutive Garden sellouts strong, and counting.
When Knicks fans should have been upset that their team was getting run off the floor by the first-place team in the same division, they instead cheered loudly for guard Jimmer Fredette’s Knicks debut, as he finally took off his warmups, with 1:49 left and New York down by 24 points. The cheers rose to a fever pitch when Fredette hit his first shot as a Knick, an absolutely meaningless 3-pointer, 14 seconds later.
Would Knicks fans in the club’s successful 1990s run been as excited for something so gimmicky, or would they have been far more inclined to be annoyed with seeing New York lose a game so badly? Apparently, entertainment now trumps winning.
Of course, many of today’s Knicks fans are the same ones that easily buy into the Garden public address announcer yelling, “Caaarmelooooooo Anthonyyyyyy” not only when it’s called for, but even when Anthony makes a routine fourth-quarter jumper in a game that’s already gotten out of hand in favor of the visitors, in the way that it did for Toronto on Monday night.
Although Anthony could have taken another path, being stuck with what he has now is also not what he signed up for when he agreed to leave Denver, and it’s especially not how he thought things would go under Jackson to this point.
No one thought Jackson would change the Knicks overnight. Slow yet steady progress was expected, for sure.
But a continuous turnstile amounting to, on average — nearly a new general manager or president and new head coach each year, and about 70 different teammates over five years, or the equivalent of roughly an entire new roster each year — alongside Anthony, who is the last remaining holdover from the time he arrived in New York?
Playing with everyone from Jared Jeffries and Renaldo Balkman (in 2011), to Dan Gazuric and Josh Harrelson a year later, to Earl Barron and James White the following year, to Chris Smith and Shannon Brown the next season, to Ricky Ledo and Travis Wear last year, to Sasha Vujacic and Fredette now, and dozens of others?
And Jackson getting 12 million reasons per year from Dolan over five years, only to thus far fail with getting his first choice as a head coach (in NBA champion, as a player now a champion head coach as well, Steve Kerr), be forced to give up on his own, handpicked head coaching backup plan in Derek Fisher after a little over 1½ seasons and preside over a 41-99 record, including a franchise-worst 17-65 mark last year?
Those things were never supposed to be part of the plan, especially not after Anthony won his only NBA scoring title three years ago while leading the Knicks to what remains their only division title since 1994 and their only playoff series win since 2000.
Nevermind that what New York accomplished that season probably wasn’t going to (and didn’t) last.
Winning 54 games and a division title that year (which now seems like a decade ago) was a very fortunate by-product of rolling the dice on some big names long past their prime (like Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace) and hoping for the best.
The Knicks were still under .500 (20-21) for the entire middle part of that season, and the reason they were able to win as many games as they did was due in large part to Anthony playing like an Most Valuable Player candidate for much of the time; the Knicks taking and making the most 3-pointers in NBA history ( primarily behind Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kidd and Steve Novak); and starting hot (18-5), while finishing strong (16-2), against a mostly weak schedule down the stretch, as Kidd began running on fumes in the final days of his playing career, just before he quickly set his sights on coaching.
The shortsighted move of staying with the erratic Smith as New York’s best second option to complement Anthony was bound to fail, and it did, the very next year.
And yet on the eve of the opening night of that 37-win season, Dolan made the severely misguided proclamation that he expected an NBA championship from his Knicks that year.
Give Dolan credit for almost always being willing to spend for and wanting to win, when a lot of owners in sports can, and don’t. But as with his extremely unrealistic prediction more than two years ago, he doesn’t often know what winning takes.
As a result, instead of hiring an experienced basketball executive to help Anthony turn the Knicks around, he went for the marquee name to make a big splash, in Jackson, whose decision-making and handle on things has been mixed, at best.
Jackson deserves credit for taking a calculated gamble on rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, for quickly admitting mistakes and being willing to start over, as he did with replacing Fisher with current interim coach Kurt Rambis, and for gutting the Knicks’ roster last season once he saw his own foolish, preseason prediction of New York being a playoff team wasn’t going to come to fruition. His addition of center Robin Lopez has also mostly worked out well.
However, Jackson has made his share of key mistakes, like not simply allowing the valuable contract of former Knicks center Tyson Chandler to expire in favor of what Jackson ended up doing — trading Chandler for one point guard that didn’t work out (Shane Larkin) and another (Jose Calderon) which is too slow, often can’t score anymore and is even worse at stopping the ball, all of which have led to many of New York’s problems this season.
It’s further troubling that Jackson, instead of giving more time to better develop his own first-round pick that he traded for this year (Jerian Grant), would put the focus on signing a player like Fredette, who can help only with shooting, who’ll probably rarely play on what’s left of his current 10-day contract, and who’s a terrible defensive liability (something the Knicks unfortunately already have plenty of), all while failing to place the priority on making a call Tom Thibodeau, a former longtime New York assistant, who is the best coaching prospect available, and who has stated that he badly wants to coach the Knicks.
For now, Thibodeau will have to keep waiting simply because Jackson remains stubbornly committed to force-feeding an outdated triangle system that no other team runs — and which New York is ill-equipped run with its current roster makeup — in a decidedly pick-and-roll league.
That might be only part of why Anthony sighed when reflecting on the thought of having played for as many coaches as he already has while wearing a Knick uniform. He keeps saying he believes in Jackson’s plan, even if Jackson himself might not even be entirely sure what that consists of yet. And many good Knicks fans — who are loyal to a fault and want so badly to cheer for something good (even if it’s a Fredette trey at the end of a blowout loss) — maintain the same blind faith in their so far, shaky second-year president and in an owner who might eventually have to do with Jackson what Jackson did with Fisher (that is, if Jackson doesn’t, at some point, first decide to return to the Los Angeles Lakers, and try to fix their mess instead).
In any case, it says says a lot that in Year 2 of Jackson’s five-year plan, that New York will be lucky (if the Knicks can somehow finish the season above, .500, at 13-11) to improve by 20 games this season, over last year, only to reach the same point it was at (as a 37-win team) before Jackson took over for Steve Mills (Anthony’s third general manager in New York).
That suddenly makes a five-year plan a shorter three-year plan, as the 31-year-old Anthony (who’s had recent knee issues) would enter his 14th season in the league, with maybe only so much mileage left.
Still, it’s up to Jackson, who’s getting a bunch of Dolan’s money to creatively figure things out even when there isn’t much he can do because of the Knicks’ limited assets and disjointed roster (which he has now largely overhauled himself).
Although Dolan wants to win, he also likes to make money, which is why the Knicks have often bypassed a more patient, true rebuild (the kind they probably need right now) for repeated attempts at quick fixes, only to fail time and again, over so many years. Stars like Anthony, and the Garden itself, where New York City tourists from all over the world attend every Knicks home game, are drawing cards in that respect. And they’re things that shouldn’t be discounted whenever guessing at what is discussed when Dolan and Jackson might privately discuss the team’s future plans.
Ideally, New York should have already been following the lead another team ahead of them in the Atlantic Division, besides the Raptors — the Boston Celtics.
Like Boston, which won an NBA title behind the formation of a Big Three, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Knicks attempted to do the same in a plan that seemed prudent when Anthony first came to New York. They tried to form the best front line in the NBA, with Anthony, Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire, along with Raymond Felton, who prior to Anthony’s arrival, was playing very well with Stoudemire before his own regression and Stoudemire’s injury woes ended those plans.
The Celtics, after their title-winning season in 2008, lost to Anthony and the Knicks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, and hit rock bottom a year later, one year before New York did the same last season.
What’s happened since, has been at opposite ends of the spectrum for each team.
This year, the Knicks beat the Celtics at home, on Jan. 12, leaving each team at .500, with a feeling that both franchises were on the slow rise back to prominence again.
Well, one of those teams was, anyway.
A mere six weeks later, Boston’s young coach is a developing star, and after going 14-6, the Celtics have launched themselves into the fourth spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, only one game behind Miami for third. Boston roster is also not only already younger and better, but the Celtics who had a pair of first-round draft picks and three second-round picks last year, own an embarrassment of future riches with four picks in each round this year, and five first-round picks, plus four second-round picks over the subsequent four years.
In sharp contrast, New York (still paying the price for its pre-Jackson deals with Denver and Toronto) is without a pick in this year’s upcoming draft, has gone 4-14 since beating the Boston last month, sits nine spots behind the Celtics, in 13th-place in the East, has already dismissed its own young coach, and at the moment, has no idea who the next one will be — while highly qualified candidates like Thibodeau, former Knicks star guard and ex-coach Mark Jackson, and ex-Knick head coach Jeff Van Gundy have all yet to receive a call from Jackson.
Meanwhile, point guard Kyle Lowry reminded New York of the type of All-Star point guard it could have had for the past couple of years, as he torched the Knicks with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists on Monday night, in the wake of Dolan nixing a proposed December, 2013 deal, in which the Raptors were willing to send Lowry to New York for a 2018 first-round draft pick and a choice among a quartet of dispensable players, all of whom are now long gone as Anthony’s teammates (Felton, Metta World Peace, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, Jr.).
Conversely, when the Knicks did trade with Toronto was when they shouldn’t have, 2½ years ago, when New York lost a valuable draft pick it could sorely use today, to acquire underachieving former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani, who has since been released by both Jackson and the crosstown, struggling Brooklyn Nets.
Since that time, Toronto, at 134-85, has been 58 games better than New York, as the Raptors close in on what would be their third straight Atlantic Division title in less than two months.
As far as the deal with Denver, it’s hard to argue on either side whether the trade for Anthony was worth it for the Knicks, the Nuggets or Anthony himself, if you go by the results over the past five years.
Denver (201-193) has actually been better than New York (184-214), while both teams have gone .500 (the Nuggets, 6-12, and the Knicks, 7-14) in the playoffs since then.
New York has an edge in that it won a first-round playoff series in 2013 while Denver hasn’t won a playoff series since the trade, with each team reaching the postseason in the first three seasons after the deal, but failing to do so since.
Generally, it’s been fairly even in the regular season with the exception of the Nuggets being bad last year (30-52) and the Knicks going a step further in being downright horrendous last season.
Immediately following the late-season trade, Denver finished 18-7 as New York went 15-12 in 2011.
A year later, the Nuggets (38-28) were only two games better than the Knicks (36-30) in a strike-shortened year.
One season after that, each team bounced back strongly at about the same rate, with New York going 54-28 and Denver, 57-25.
The next season, the Knicks (37-45) were only a game better than the Nuggets (36-46), and this year, they’re basically even again, with New York’s record negligibly better than Denver’s, which is presently at a rebuilding 22-35 thus far.
Since there hasn’t been a major difference for either side, and since the Knicks got the best player in the trade by far (in Anthony), it was worthwhile for New York.
That part was fine.
What’s happened since, however, has been a repeated, damaged bill of goods that the Knicks have been trying to sell to Anthony and to their fans, with both he and they once again being far too trusting and accepting that everything will work out just fine, all as Anthony will soon endure even greater instability than he already has, in the form of yet another coach and even more new teammates.
Maybe it will end just fine before Anthony’s time is done in New York.
But maybe not (most likely, not, realistically).
Five years. Four executives in charge of player personnel. Four head coaches. About 70 different teammates, including none remaining from when the centerpiece of the deal — the only one who’s still a Knick — first arrived. And, oh yes, that string of consecutive Garden sellouts without an end in sight no matter how the Knicks ultimately do, without or without Anthony.
And most of all, still no definite, concrete plan for the future (at least not in the way a team like the Celtics have operated).
Anthony doesn’t want to trade New York for anything. But he also knows that time is running out to make his trade to New York everything he has always wanted.