Picture Carmelo Anthony on the wing, sizing up his defender. He is isolating, the way he has done thousands of times before. There’s the familiar jab step. The hard dribble to the left. He steps back and rises for his high-release jumper. Swish. At 33, after 14 years as a professional, Anthony is no longer quite as fearsome. Now that he is with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’ll carve out a role that is closer to what he has done in international competition time and time again, finally bringing the glorious Olympic Melo to the NBA.
In Oklahoma City, there is absolutely no way that he can lead the team in usage. As long as he’s not playing too many minutes without both Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony will likely be third in that category. Westbrook and George are established superstars, not up-and-comers, and Anthony should have no problem deferring to them as the primary creators. He should also be OK with playing power forward most of the time, or at least buying into a system where he and George are interchangeable at the forward spots, with both of them switching screens and crashing the glass. It took Anthony a long time to add the Thunder to his list of acceptable destinations, but let’s be clear about this: They are giving Anthony a golden opportunity. Next to Westbrook and George, he can rejuvenate his career and alter his reputation. More than perhaps any other perennial All-Star of his generation, Anthony has been polarizing, even in his prime, because of his inconsistent defense and ball-dominant style. He needed a team that had proven playmakers, and they needed more firepower after Westbrook’s historic but taxing season. Together, they can realistically think about playing games that matter in the playoffs and perhaps even reaching the conference finals.
All of this adds up to the biggest challenge of Billy Donovan’s coaching life. With little notice before training camp begins, Donovan has to install a system that forces his three stars to share the ball and make each other better. For Donovan, the good news is that they all wanted this. Westbrook and George played the recruiting game. Anthony waived his no-trade clause. All of them are coming off seasons where they played with flawed teams, and all of them are motivated to win. Anthony, in particular, is coming off four years with four different coaches in an organization defined by drama, dysfunction and disarray. If that was not enough to make him humble, hungry and ready to buy in, nothing will. If there was ever a time to sacrifice, it is now.
Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott are headed to New York. Now that the Anthony trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder has finally been agreed to, let’s take a look at what it means for the Knicks going forward. Let the rebuild around Porzingis commence: There’s no question the Knicks are Kristaps Porzingis’ team going forward. With Anthony out of the picture, Porzingis should see an increase in field goal attempts and usage in the upcoming season. Of course, not having Anthony around will allow defenses to focus more closely on Porzingis. But the 22-year-old will have the chance to play through growing pains without the burden of outsize expectations, as no one expects the Knicks to compete in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18. Just how Porzingis handles a leading role will be key for New York going forward. Some numbers from last season suggest he’ll be just fine. Porzingis said: “Carmelo was a mentor to me. He was a big brother from day one. I texted him to tell him I appreciated that I was able to learn from him. Having him around was important for me. I respect him a lot. I also told him that if he doesn’t bring his Rolls Royce with him, I’ll take care of it.”
The Knicks actually were more effective when Porzingis played without either Anthony or Derrick Rose, who now is with the Cleveland Cavaliers. New York was more than five points better when Porzingis played without Rose and Anthony than when all three were on the floor (a plus-1.2 net rating without Anthony and Rose; minus-4.3 net rating with them). Porzingis probably will look brilliant at times but also will struggle for stretches this season. That’s only normal – and perfectly fine. But the focus now for the Knicks is the big picture. The win-loss record won’t matter as much as the development of Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the other young Knicks. If New York really is committed to building around a young core, this trade is the first step in that process.
How do Kanter and McDermott fit? The Knicks had hoped to get a first-round pick in any package for Anthony, but completing a deal before training camp clearly became a priority. Could New York have received a better return for Anthony if it had waited until mid-December, when free-agent signees can be traded? Maybe. The package the Knicks ended up with certainly wasn’t strong. But it does allow them to move forward from the distractions surrounding Anthony (which mostly were not of his own making) and rebuild in earnest. It’s too early to say whether Kanter or McDermott will be a part of the team’s future. Kanter, who averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds for Oklahoma City last season, could prove to be an interesting pairing with Porzingis on offense. He also could be useful off the Knicks’ bench. Kanter also is the fourth center on the Knicks’ roster, along with Joakim Noah, Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn. So it would surprise no one if the Knicks moved one of the big men to clear the surplus. After all, assuming Kanter exercises his player option next season, the Knicks would be spending a combined $72 million on him and Noah over the next two seasons. That doesn’t seem like an ideal use of cap space. McDermott averaged 9 points in 23 minutes last season for the Chicago Bulls and the Thunder, hitting 37 percent of his 3-point attempts. The Knicks certainly can use strong outside shooting, but McDermott, like Kanter, has been a subpar defender in his three NBA seasons.
One thing seems certain at this point: the trade just makes head coach Jeff Hornacek’s job a bit more difficult. The coach wants the Knicks to think defense first but doesn’t appear to have the personnel to execute that vision. The 2018 second-round pick New York acquired for Anthony should be an early one, considering it will be conveyed via the Bulls. What about the money? The Knicks were probably never going to get a great return in this trade. Anthony’s age (33), no-trade clause and large contract thinned out the market for the 10-time All-Star. Also, the entire league knew the Knicks needed to move Anthony. So there was very little chance they’d get a strong offer.One thing that worked out well for New York? The club didn’t take back any long-term contracts, which was one of its goals from the outset. Instead of Anthony’s $28 million player option in 2018-19, the Knicks now have Kanter’s $18.6 million player option potentially on their books. McDermott is in the last season of his rookie contract, and the Knicks have until Oct. 16 to extend him. But they’re more likely to wait to see how/if he fits into their long-term plans before making a big investment. The club already has nearly $67 million committed to Noah, Hardaway, Courtney Lee and Kanter (via his player option) next season. If the Knicks keep Kanter and decide against re-signing McDermott, they’ll have saved about $8 million with the Anthony trade. But they still would project to be over the cap in that scenario, and the savings would mostly be negated by the first-year salary of their 2018 first-round pick.