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May 10, 2012
Knicks
Looking Ahead to More of the Same

by Bradford Doolittle

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The easy answer is to trade Carmelo Anthony. Let's just put that out there, right off the bat. The question: How do the Knicks get from here to a championship?

There are slew of "what's next for the Knicks" articles floating around today, now that New York has been eliminated from the playoffs. New York was competitive against Miami after its opening game blowout, and Anthony was the primary reason for that. Players dropped around him like flies, but the less talent Mike Woodson had to put out on the court, the better Anthony played. Most of these obit pieces, as they are called in the industry, will be more focused on how to build around Anthony, not without him.

A couple of weeks ago, I made the unpopular case that Anthony is not a championship player, and I believe that. It's not that I dislike Anthony. It's not that I've never watched a basketball game. Anthony seems like a jovial enough guy. He's been great on "Nurse Jackie" and we happen to share the same all-time favorite player -- Bernard King, from whom he could learn a few lessons in intensity. What I don't like is Anthony's style of play, which I don't believe is conducive to winning a championship. He sucks up too many possessions, doesn't play both ends of the floor and doesn't do enough to make his teammates better. These are not the attributes of a championship player.

These are subjective statements, of course. To put some more teeth to it, let's look at list of players who have had what you might call a Carmelo Anthony Season. The markers we'll use to generate this list are these: 31 percent usage rate or more, 21 percent assist rate (the Basketball-Reference.com version) or less and a true shooting percentage of .560 or less. As you can see, these are typical Anthony statistics, only I'm being extra generous with the assist rate, which he didn't hit until this season. This is out of respect for Bernard.

Season    Age  Tm  Lg   G    MP  PER  TS% AST% USG%
2003-04    19 DEN NBA  82  2995 17.6 .509 13.8 28.5
2004-05    20 DEN NBA  75  2608 16.7 .526 13.1 29.2
2005-06    21 DEN NBA  80  2941 22.0 .563 14.3 32.0
2006-07    22 DEN NBA  65  2486 22.1 .552 19.2 33.4
2007-08    23 DEN NBA  77  2806 21.1 .568 16.1 30.2
2008-09    24 DEN NBA  66  2277 19.0 .532 18.1 31.5
2009-10    25 DEN NBA  69  2634 22.2 .548 15.9 33.4
2010-11    26 TOT NBA  77  2751 21.7 .557 14.7 32.0
2011-12    27 NYK NBA  55  1876 21.1 .525 21.0 31.8
Career            NBA 646 23374 20.4 .544 16.0 31.2

I required a minimum of 2,000 minutes and whittled down the list to wing players. I was left with 16 instances in which a player had a Carmelo Anthony season. Anthony, as you might imagine, had four of them. Dominique Wilkins had five -- he was Melo before Melo. Some of the most unconscious gunners in NBA history also populate the list: World B. Free (twice), John Drew and George Gervin. No player in this paragraph owns a championship ring.

There three other names on the list, and each of these players do own rings: Richard Hamilton, Mark Aguirre and Michael Jordan. Only Jordan won a title during a Carmelo Anthony season, and that came in the last year of his Bulls career. Hamilton and Aguirre eventually down-shifted their offensive appetites and became complementary players on title-winning teams in Detroit. So if you're going to win a championship with Anthony, you're going to be doing something that has pretty much never happened with a player of his type.

But here's the qualifier I should have included before: Anthony has the talent to be almost any kind of player he chooses to be. You'd like to see the improved assist rate from this season as a sign that he's figuring things out, but in reality it's just a by-product of New York's lack of a point guard for most of the games he played. Remember, Jeremy Lin and Anthony played together in just 20 games and for just 27 percent of the minutes the Knicks played in the regular season -- and Anthony shot under 40 percent in those minutes. Anthony's assists per 40 minutes dwindled from 5.2 in January to 3.9 in April. In the playoffs, it was 2.2. Melo is as Melo does.

Despite his max contract, Anthony still has trade value if only because of his marketability -- the very reason so many angry Knicks/Melo fans sought me out on Twitter after the aforementioned column went live. The Nets, just to name one franchise, would probably love to get their hands on Anthony. Nevertheless, there has been no indication that the Knicks have grown dissatisfied with Anthony. Quite the opposite -- according to reports at the time, Mike D'Antoni parted ways with the Knicks because James Dolan wouldn't consider trading his team's biggest star.

So what do you do? Your options are limited:

  1. You can't draft an impact player from this year's deep pool of prospects. The Knicks don't have a first-round pick because they traded it to Houston.
  2. You can't sign an impact free agent. The Knicks have $53.2 million committed to the threesome of Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire.
  3. You probably can't trade Stoudemire to free up cap space or bring back a similar talent. After Stoudemire's largely unproductive season in which he looked to be in athletic decline, no one is going to want to take on the $65 million he's got coming to him beyond this season.
  4. You can't trade Anthony, because Dolan is running the team.

Chandler could be traded, but that would be self-defeating. He's coming off a season in which he posted the best true shooting percentage in league history and won Defensive Player of the Year honors. He's the one player in New York's Big Three worth the money he's making. You could trade him, but why would you want to?

While Chandler is part of New York's core trio in terms of salary and overall play, Lin emerged as one of the foundations on the offensive end. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if there is any combination of Lin, Anthony and Stoudemire that work on the floor in tandem, much less as a trio. Lin is headed for restricted free agency and the Knicks will surely match any offer he gets, if only because it will be virtually impossible for them to acquire a comparable talent with a cap exception. So you have Anthony, who won't be traded, Stoudemire, who can't be traded, Chandler, who shouldn't be traded, and Lin. Get used to this quartet, Knicks fans, because it's not going anywhere for at least a couple of years.

That means the key will be for New York to find a coach to make all this work and, right now, it sounds like the Knicks are going to cast their lot with Mike Woodson. Woodson deserves credit for New York's defensive improvement down the stretch but, at the same time, that effect is probably overblown. D'Antoni wasn't just not a defensive coach, it's well known that he didn't devote much time to even practicing it. A simple change in emphasis could account for the late-season defensive uptick. Woodson was no defensive genius in his time in Atlanta -- despite all of the young, elite athletes he coached with the Hawks, his squads never posted a single-digit ranking in defensive efficiency.

The best thing the Knicks could do would be to drive a Brinks truck into Phil Jackson's driveway and tell him to take what he wants. It's not just the 11 championship rings -- Jackson's ego and ability to manipulate star-level players might be the best hope to get Anthony to truly buy into a team concept. His Triangle Offense might be just the structure the Knicks need to get their combination of top talent to work efficiently on the floor. Then there is the fact that Jackson played on the Knicks' only title teams, which provides a nice bit of symmetry for those of us with a taste for history.

Let's face it, though. Phil Jax is probably not going to make a grand return to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks make decisions in all sorts of dysfunctional ways, so Woodson is probably soon going to sign a contract extension. He was, after all, a college roommate of the Knicks' new permanent general manager, Glen Grunwald. That's why this franchise has won just a single playoff game in the last 13 years, during which it has spent over $1 billion on player salaries.

If healthy, the Knicks will probably be better next season. There is just too much talent on hand not to be. If Woodson stays, we'll be treated to a lot of the same isolation basketball he coached in Atlanta. We'll have the same questions about whether Anthony and Stoudemire can co-exist. We'll wonder if Lin is being used properly. The Knicks will play a slow tempo and Chandler will again be asked to prop up the defense for his less interested teammates. And it again won't be a championship formula.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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