By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks aren't going to do anything meaningful this season.
There's still an outside chance that with Carmelo Anthony's return and some better guard play the Knicks can win the Atlantic Division, but does that really matter? There's no chance this team, even playing their best basketball, would be able to challenge the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. There's no move they can make that would change that, either.
One can only hope the franchise has learned from its past mistakes (contend now, at all costs!) and will decide to start preparing for its next run in 2014-15.
This group of players has run its course, as has the Anthony era. The trade for Melo was a failure. The idea of building around him hasn't worked. It's time to accept it, cut losses and move on.
I can't stress enough that very little of this was Melo's fault. Anthony is not a player on the level of LeBron James. But surrounded by the right people on the right team, Anthony could challenge for a championship. The Knicks failed to do that and Anthony sees it, too. If he really wants to win a championship, why would he come back to the Knicks? I wouldn't. Here's the worst thing that can happen to the Knicks: lose Anthony, their franchise player, without getting anything back.
Even if Anthony decides he wants to return in free agency, it's not in the Knicks' best interests to pay him the maximum potential salary. Investing $25 million per season, even on a player of his caliber, isn't the way to build a successful NBA franchise. It simply takes up too much cap space, which prohibits the team from putting enough pieces around him to put a winning product on the floor. That's nearly 40 percent of the team's cap dedicated to one player. Maybe you can win with LeBron making that type of money, but there's not one other player in the league worth that much of a team's salary cap.
It's time to rebuild. And the Knicks are in a much better position to do it quickly than in the mid-2000s. This season is already lost, and it will be ridiculously painful to watch the Denver Nuggets get a top-three pick in this year's draft, but it's medicine the Knicks will just have to take. Perhaps they will learn that in the future that they should at least top-five protect all their first-round picks that they trade.
The plan is simple and easy to execute: trade Anthony and get a 2014 first-round pick, young players or additional draft picks and expiring contracts to get the salaries to match. Since Anthony is on the last year of his contract you won't get full value for him, but something is better than nothing. The person with the most value on the team is Tyson Chandler. Elite rim protection is at a premium in the league, and Chandler is on a somewhat reasonable contract with one more year left. The Knicks can get picks and players for him in a trade.
New York could also use those trades to get rid of players with contracts going into the 2015-16 season like Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and perhaps even Iman Shumpert, who the Knicks would have the ability to retain that year. It would clear the books for two max contracts and perhaps others as well, depending on what other young players the Knicks might still have on the roster (Tim Hardaway Jr.) and get back in their Anthony and Chandler trades. The Knicks would have at least one draft pick each season moving forward, some young players, and cap space to go along with the glamor of New York to lure players. It's not a bad position to be in.
Part of this process would also include a new head coach. With 2013-14 left for dead, retaining Mike Woodson for the remainder of the season would be fine. The change would be made in the offseason with the Knicks targeting a true top-tier coach that they think that bring them to the promised land in 2015. Whether it's a Van Gundy or someone like Tom Thibodeau (if he becomes available), the Knicks would have a good coach capable of winning a championship. A good coach also draws talent, which the Knicks will need two summers from now.
Despite the hole the Knicks put themselves in by building a flawed roster, trading an unprotected pick for Anthony and trading another pick for Andrea Bargnani, if they make the right moves they can turn this thing around relatively quickly. Unfortunately, there's little reason to have confidence that owner James Dolan will do any of the things outlined above. He doesn't have the patience, foresight or good judgment to take a step back in order to take two giant step forwards. He loves Carmelo and will do anything he can to keep him even if it means hurting the franchise long-term. The best thing that could happen is for Anthony to tell the Knicks what he told the Nuggets: I'm not re-signing with you.
That might be the only thing that would save the Knicks from themselves.
This is a real plan that can work if the Knicks front office smartens up. There's nothing unrealistic about it except for thinking the Knicks are intelligent enough to pursue it. Odds are they will bury the franchise even more in an attempt to stay afloat. The bottom line is that Knicks fans should still have hope for the somewhat immediate future, as long as their team's owner doesn't decide to snatch it away from them.
This would be a good time to start holding your breath.
On Tuesday, I'll go through some of the teams that could be a realistic trading partner for Anthony.
You can follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk for the latest on the Knicks, Giants and everything else New York sports.
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