Which Way Will Go NY Go?

By Josh Eberley #41

The Garden has not been Eden in a very long time. It has been 46 years since the Knicks won the title and they’ve made the playoffs only six times this millennium. One can only imagine, it’s getting tough to #StayMelo. Oh, wait…even Carmelo Anthony—who led the team to a Semifinals appearance the last time they were in the postseason—is two teams removed from his time in Gotham.

The glory days have been covered to death, the gritty and gutsy Knicks of the ’90s have been overly romanced, but before we get to today, let’s look back to the start of this decade.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

After some lean and mostly miserable years, The New York Knicks acquired Amar’e Stoudemire during the 2010 offseason, aka the Summer of LeBron. Along with Stoudemire, offensive genius Mike D’Antoni had a young and serviceable roster comprised of Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and Landry Fields. Felton excluded, the other four were Knicks grown. It wasn’t quite the Heatles, but despite the lack of name recognition on the roster, the Knicks were 21-14 on January 7.

Patience isn’t always met with appeasement, but this Knicks team found something of note with this young and surprising core. You might be shaking your head. Being seven games over the .500 threshold may not strike you as something of note, but keep in mind, the Knicks hadn’t had a .500 season since 2000-01.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Sadly, most of you remember what comes next. Despite Stoudemire the having an MVP level campaign, the team progress and the roster coalescing—more importantly, despite Carmelo Anthony being a near lock to walk over in July 2011 when he was scheduled to become a free agent (Anthony had declined Denver’s three-year $65 million extension offer)—the Knicks went all-in on acquiring Anthony prior to the deadline, blowing up the depth and any roster cohesion.

The trade for those who have forgotten:

The Knicks sent: Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round draft pick (Dario Saric) and a 2016 first-round pick (Jamal Murray) to the Nuggets.

The Nuggets sent: Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman from Denver.

The trade shook the world. There was a lot of optimism about what Anthony and Stoudemire could accomplish together, but there was also a deep-rooted hesitancy to declare the Knicks a clear winner as they gave up a king’s ransom for a player who could’ve come for free five months later.

Ian Begley and Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York wrote:

“But the Knicks will make their postseason run without the core of the team. Felton, Gallinari, Mozgov and Chandler were four of New York’s top six players, and there is some thought that the Knicks gave up too much to get Anthony, a sensational scorer headed to a team that doesn’t necessarily need more scoring.”

Seven years later, the trade is widely regarded as a wash. We will never know what the Knicks could’ve accomplished if they stayed the course with their young core, waiting until the offseason to focus on Anthony.

The Knicks won one playoff series with Anthony, flipping five coaches over the next seven seasons. Save for one fleeting moment of temporary Linsanity, the Garden remained a favorite stop for opposing teams and a whipping ground for the hometown heroes.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Today, dare I say, the Knicks future looks mildly bright. They have an upcoming star in Kristaps Porzingis, 2017 draft pick Frank Ntilikina hasn’t even tapped into his potential and 2018 rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson showed up huge in Summer League. After prolonged suffering, the Knicks might have a core they can stay the course with. But will they? History tends to repeat itself and the Knicks are heading down the path.

Rumors are swirling. Kevin Durant’s future is uncertain as he is has an option to enter free agency in 2019; Jimmy Butler’s standing within the Wolves is tenuous at best; Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, has been linked to the Knicks repeatedly over the last four months.

It’s the the dog days of summer. Teams are walking on clouds. Most franchises feel like they did everything they reasonably could to better position their franchise for the future. But a year goes by quick and if you’re the Celtics, the Wolves or even the seemingly carefree Warriors, you begin to truly question whether your star is staying beyond the season and inquiries will be made.

Could a Celtics team that nearly went to the Finals without Irving who employ a GM with a history of selling high in order to secure future assets contemplate dealing him for a quality package prior to this year’s deadline? You can bet a non-protected first-round pick on that.

Similarly, the Wolves have quickly seen their narrative go from future Western Conference powerhouse to possibly another rebuild. They’ve seen virtually no growth from Andrew Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns looking for an Minneapolis exit strategy is a regular rumor. Butler declined a four-year $100 million extension to test free agency next summer. You can bet the Wolves will be active come the trade deadline, doubly so if the team struggles.

Durant might feel the itch to chase Finals MVP trophies elsewhere. Maybe he’s tired of the Twitter trolls and decides to shut them up with a new team. Crazier things have happened in the NBA.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

So back to the Knicks. Here’s where things could get interesting. The Knicks haven’t dealt away any of their future first-round picks, there’s linked interest between Irving and the franchise and there’s linked interest between Butler and Irving. The Knicks are also going to have money to spend, something they haven’t always been good at, but will be a prerequisite to landing Durant. According to RealGM cap expert Keith Smith, the Knicks could open up just over $46 million in cap space before doing anything else crazy next summer.

Jumping too hard and too fast can cause a decade worth of issues. The Knicks can just look across the East River and see their Brooklyn counterparts still paying the piper. However, failing to swing at what could be the League’s next super team would also be a colossal mistake.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Sure, there’s a future in which the Knicks dump Joakim Noah, move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. and bring in the trio of Butler, Durant and Irving next offseason, but waiting to pitch all three in free agency is wildly risky. Let’s not forget even Paul George, who felt like a safe bet to head over to Los Angeles, changed his mind and didn’t even offer up a face-to-face meeting.

The Knicks youth movement might have something down the line, but the Knicks have a small chance to be the next great power (especially in the East) and you can’t say no to that. This isn’t the Anthony situation repeating because Anthony was always a second-tier star and there was never any plan beyond his acquisition to hop the line of contenders.

If the Knicks were to acquire either of Butler or Irving while holding onto Porzingis, you’d have to think their pitches this upcoming offseason would be that much stronger. Having one of the three already at the table even as a UFA with the market power of New York, the allure of the Garden and future promise of Porzingis is seductive. Don’t forget, Durant has credited the Warriors players and the conversations they shared as the main reason he left Golden State. Having a star already wearing the colors shouldn’t be undervalued.

Yes, it’s risky. Yes, Butler or Irving could just walk and the Knicks left dealing future pieces for a rental, but don’t be naïve. The Knicks wouldn’t pull the trigger if there wasn’t some sort of a wink-wink understanding or strong-founded belief that Butler or Irving were committed to the plan.

The other important thing to consider: In the last three years, the cost for stars have been considerably low. Butler (Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen) George (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis), Irving (Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic, first round pick [which became Collin Sexton], Kawhi Leonard (DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and protected first-round pick), Chris Paul (Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Lou Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, a first-round pick and cash) were all dealt for what was considered a bargain the last couple seasons.

It’s terrifying to think that the Knicks might once again try to circumvent the slow and steady procedure that normally leads to a competitive team and yet, the landscape has changed. It’s 2018 and long-term health aside, the elevator makes it easy to forget the stairs.