Waiting for James: How the Knicks can build on the Carmelo trade, if Dolan lets them
With the passing of the NBA trading deadline Thursday afternoon, a number of things came into clear focus regarding the likely path of the New York Knicks, this season and beyond.
Let's start with the immediate future of the basketball team. Adding Carmelo Anthony, but subtracting nearly everything else of value on the roster that's not Landry Fields and Amar'e Stoudemire, puts them in about the same position they were prior to the deal.
That is not to say that the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony was a mistake. It's just that, absent any other acquisitions, the Knicks are likely to stay around sixth place in the Eastern Conference, meaning any path to the NBA Finals would probably go through series with Chicago, Boston and Miami—three teams that are better-equipped for the playoffs, and which would have home court advantage in a seven-game series.
On any given night, the Knicks are likely to have the two best offensive players on the court in Anthony and Stoudemire. But they are also going to lack any standout defenders in the starting lineup and will have just two—the newly-acquired swingman Corey Brewer and backup point guard Toney Douglas—in their rotation. And they're in really poor shape now at center, with the backup Ronny Turiaf forced into a starting role, and his backup likely still to be signed from a group of players currently without jobs.
In other words, the 2010-11 Knicks have added a gifted scorer, but they have the same weaknesses as before, and some of those weaknesses are more pronounced.
The logic behind making the trade is clear. The Knicks acquired Anthony without surrendering anyone close to Anthony's talent level in return. For all the accolades being thrown at the New Jersey Nets for acquiring guard Deron Williams the next day, keep in mind that unlike Williams, Anthony is signed long-term with the Knicks.
So between the three-year, $65 million deal that kicks in for Anthony next year, and the four years remaining on Stoudemire's pact, the safest investment for Knicks fans would be jerseys of the two stars. Very few franchises have a pair of elite players to plan around, so New York is theoretically in a strong position to build.
Here why it's theoretical.
Knicks' president Donnie Walsh, a good citizen and basketball-management ace who has brought the Knicks back to respectability, has been saying all the right things. And owner James Dolan outright denied that Isiah Thomas, the team president, a bad citizen who wrecked the team during his tenure, but who Dolan adores, had anything to do with the Carmelo Anthony negotiations. But numerous media reports had Dolan shoving Walsh aside while relying on Thomas for advice as the negotiations came to a close. The proof will be in what happens next. Dolan said Wednesday that Walsh's situation—his option for next year's contract hasn't been picked up yet—will be dealt with after the trading deadline.
It is incomprehensible in nearly any other context to imagine that Walsh's option wouldn't be picked up. Not only did Walsh manage, step-by-step, to remove the cancerous contracts he inherited from the Knick roster, but he added parts along the way that managed to entice Denver into making the Carmelo Anthony deal.
Danilo Gallinari was a Walsh draft pick. Timofey Mozgov, the center Denver insisted upon, was a Walsh signing after he went undrafted. Raymond Felton signed with the Knicks last summer for a relatively small outlay of both years and value. Even Anthony Randolph, swapped to Minnesota to help make the numbers work, was the product of Walsh's sign-and-trade deal with Golden State for David Lee.
The remaining useful players on the new roster are Anthony, Stoudemire, newly acquired point guard Chauncey Billups (who looked quite comfortable running coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense), Shawne Williams, a sharpshooter Walsh picked up off the scrap heap, and Walsh draft picks Toney Douglas and Landry Fields.
The last two, acquired by Walsh with late picks, represent more talent than Isiah Thomas managed to bring in during his complete draft history with New York. (It didn't help that Thomas consistently traded draft picks.) Having Walsh around will mean a far better opportunity to find creative solutions to the holes the Knicks now have throughout their roster, whether through a late first-round pick in 2011 (New York will have the worse pick between their slot and Houston's), or free-agent pickups like Mozgov and Williams. New York won't have both a first and second-round pick in the same draft again until 2013.
The other problem is a structural one, league-wise. The collective bargaining agreement for the NBA is set to expire at the end of the season. A reduction in the salary cap would complicate efforts to add a third star to Anthony and Stoudemire's lineup, while creating great difficulty signing free agents to lucrative contracts in general. Again, creativity is called for—something Walsh has in spades, and Thomas doesn't.
Still more frightening is the chance that Walsh, at age 69 and with his legacy secured, won't want to put up with Dolan and Thomas's meddling, or that Dolan will simply execute a plan to restore Thomas to the throne, despite the anger of the masses. It has been reported that Dolan enjoys being a contrarian. Nothing would be more contrary than vouchsafing a freshly restored house to an arsonist.
For the first time in several decades—with all due respect to Charles Oakley, John Starks and Anthony Mason—the Knicks have two of the best players in the NBA. The basic building blocks are in place. But whether the Knicks' owner has it in him to let Donnie Walsh finish the job is anyone's guess.