It finally happened.
After months of excruciating, very public back and forth between the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, the former face of the franchise is trading in his orange and blue jersey for, well, a different orange and blue. On the afternoon following a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Anthony had expanded the list of teams he would be willing to accept a trade to, a deal quickly materialized sending Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the Bulls’ 2018 second round pick.
For the Knicks, the package of assets they received in the deal is a bit underwhelming, but any possible Melo trade ceased being about recouping assets a long time ago. At this stage in the game, the Knicks simply needed to get Anthony off of their roster so that they could move on both from a PR standpoint and symbolically as a team.
The Knicks have no one to blame but themselves for the minimal return they received for their star player. From inexplicably including a no-trade clause in Anthony’s contract to tanking his value while simultaneously alienating him and erasing any possibility of a cooperative collaboration, the Knicks botched their handling of Anthony every step of the way. They created such a toxic situation that the only option they had was to trade him for the least bad package available to them.
In Kanter and McDermott, the Knicks at least acquired two guys who are young-ish, at 24 and 25 respectively, and theoretically fit with the rest of the young core. But despite their draft pedigree, (3rd and 15th respectively) no one would classify either of these players as a blue chipper, or even really as a starting caliber player at this point in their careers.
McDermott might have some untapped potential as a floor spacer on the wing if the Knicks can use him correctly. However, his defensive deficiencies and athletic limitations mean that even if they can maximize his potential, his upside is a decent role player.
Kanter is even worse on defense than McDermott. and offensively replicates a lot of the things that Willy Hernangomez does. Plus he just adds to the Knicks’ logjam at the center position. And if Kanter decides to opt into his contract next year, the Knicks will only gain about $10 million in salary cap relief.
Granted a Bulls pick that will likely fall near the top of the second round is a nice asset to have, especially for a New York team that owes all of its future second rounders to Philadelphia, but it’s not the kind of pick that generally headlines a trade for a player of Anthony’s caliber. Ironically, the Knicks might get a high pick in a different way through this deal. The trade of Anthony allows the Knicks to go into full-on tank mode this year, increasing their odds of landing in the top five of what looks to be a top-heavy draft.
The real value of this trade for the Knicks, other than exorcising the negativity surrounding Anthony from the roster, is that they can finally unleash Kristaps Porzingis. In his third year, Porzingis is now, finally, the unimpeded, unquestioned face of the Knicks and will be expected to carry the superstar’s workload that accompanies that distinction. If he can realize his vast potential and become the player many around the league think he can be, then the outcomes of the other players in this trade are irrelevant. The Knicks seem to finally have a direction, and the future of the franchise looks brighter than it has in a long time.
The Thunder on the other hand, made their second big splash of the offseason, again stealing a disgruntled talent from a team with which he had no future. In acquiring Anthony, the Thunder continued to load up for a run at the Warriors. A mere two years after Kevin Durant spurned them, Sam Presti has miraculously constructed a team, seemingly from thin air, that might be the top challenger to the Warriors in the league.
Talent-wise, the trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Anthony stack up against any threesome in the league. With their different styles of play though, it will be fascinating to see them try to blend their game’s together, especially without the benefit of an offseason to train.
While Paul George was lauded as a perfect complement of secondary playmaking and defense to Westbrook’s one-man show, Anthony represents a different beast entirely. Carmelo Anthony’s entire career, for better or for worse, has been predicated on his prodigious volume scoring. Anthony has, often justifiably, taken criticism for ball-stopping and highjacking the offense, and his career usage rate reflects this. At 31.42%, he ranks eighth in NBA history. As high as that is, six spots ahead of him on the all-time list sits his new point guard Russell Westbrook with a usage rate of 32.55%, good for second in NBA history.
Westbrook was always going to have downshift on offense a little bit this year to make room for George and his not-quite-as-high-but-still-lofty usage rate of 25.8%, but he’s never had to share the court with two guys who soak up that many possessions. It will be up to Westbrook and coach Billy Donovan to make sure there are enough shots to go around.
On the flip side of that, Anthony has never had a teammate as talented as Westbrook, or George for that matter. Despite the meteoric rise of Hoodie Melo this summer, Olympic Melo was the original revered Carmelo Anthony alter-ego. Olympic Melo traded in his selfish ways in the presence of more talented teammates and thrived in his role as a secondary assassin. Unfortunately, Anthony really hasn’t had the opportunity to play with guys that could bring his Olympic side out in the NBA (seriously, his most talented teammate ever was probably a 32-year-old Chauncey Billups). The hopes for OKC and their chance for success this season hinge on the presence of an MVP and fellow Olympian unlocking that guy.
The possibility of small ball lineups featuring Westbrook running the spread pick-and-roll attack with Steven Adams rumbling down the lane and Anthony and George on the wings is tantalizing. And he has the potential to be a crucial player against teams that like to switch everything on defense, as the Warriors do. Should the Thunder get the right mismatch, Anthony and his deadly isolation game will make the opposition pay. Even at his advanced age, Melo can still brutalize wings in the post and blow by bigger, slower defenders on the perimeter. Additionally, effectively replacing a defensive sieve like Kanter on the roster means that Anthony’s nonchalant defense will be less harmful than it might be on another team.
If everything gels for the Thunder, they look poised for a deep playoff run. The combination of new talent alone would make them the most interesting team in the NBA.
There is so much more at stake for this team though. With Westbrook still not yet agreeing to a contract extension, all three of the Thunder’s stars can be unrestricted free agents next year. If things go poorly, the Thunder could be left with a roster more barren than the Oklahoma countryside.
And then there’s the man himself: Carmelo Anthony.
There’s a certain twisted symmetry to the two trades that bookend Anthony’s tenure in New York and they’re reflective of just how much has changed over the course of six-and-a-half years.
In another time, the Knicks paid an exorbitant price to acquire Anthony from the Nuggets and billed him as the prodigal son, returning “home” to save the franchise. Fast forward to present day and this version of the Melo trade is about new directions, not taking Ryan Anderson’s contract, and adding a final complementary piece to an already star-laden roster. Anthony is still the centerpiece, but now more of a flier than a savior.
But the two trades also reflect how Anthony has matured as his career has progressed. When forced to choose between a potential winning situation and maximizing his earnings, he has always chosen the money. He did it when he forced his way to New York in 2011 instead of signing as a free agent outright. And he did it again when he stayed there instead of jumping ship to Chicago in 2014.
This time around though, he chose an opportunity to compete at the highest level. After all the Knicks’ shenanigans and almost-trades with Houston, he gave up the dream of a big market and even waived the trade kicker in his contract to go to tiny Oklahoma City. He finally sacrificed for a chance to win.
Maybe he’ll finally be rewarded with a trip to the NBA’s promised land. It would certainly be poetic for Carmelo to accept a secondary role and help Westbrook, a player who has endured similar criticisms during his career, get his revenge against one the greatest and most selfless teams of all-time.
At the end of the day, this trade was about finding the best path towards achieving the glory that has eluded all of the involved parties.
The Knicks decided their best shot at restoring glory to the Mecca of basketball is in the future, and that it depends on a lanky Latvian unicorn.
The Thunder decided that the best way for them to claim glory after coming so close, was to push all their chips into the middle of the table on this one, possibly final, hand.
And Carmelo, he decided that going to Oklahoma City was the best chance for him to attain the glory that he’s never tasted and that’s haunted him his entire career. Maybe now, Carmelo can forge a new alter-ego: Carmelo Anthony, NBA champion.