By John Schmeelk
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If you want to find the true genesis of the moves the Knicks made this offseason, you have to go back further than the Derrick Rose trade. You have to go all the way back to July 14, 2014, when the Knicks re-signed Carmelo Anthony to a five-year, $124 million contract.
When Knicks president Phil Jackson was asked during Friday’s news conference what prompted him to speed up the Knicks’ rebuilding process by trading for Rose and signing older veterans, he went right to a talk he had with Anthony.
Jackson asked Antony whether the team was moving quickly enough for him to try to win in his window. He didn’t say what Anthony answered, but it was easy to infer the answer was “no.” From Anthony’s perspective, it’s a completely truthful and understandable response.
Jackson recognized that Anthony is older and his championship window is closing, and that prompted the team to move faster to improve. Anthony specifically thought a top point guard was needed, and since Jackson didn’t (understandably) like the point guard market, he traded for Rose.
Once the Rose trade was made, the dye was cast. Jackson said he always liked Joakim Noah for the way he played and Courtney Lee was a great fit due to his complementary skills as a shooter and defender. So while the Rose trade was the immediate trigger, this offseason and its path really dates back to the Knicks’ decision to retain Anthony back in 2014.
Most felt the Knicks had to do anything they could to keep Anthony that summer since he was still a top scorer in the league, was the face of the franchise and the Knicks had given up so much for him in their trade with Denver. The other two options were letting him walk for nothing, which would have been a terrible idea, or signing and trading him to a team such as Chicago or Houston for young pieces to precipitate a faster long-term rebuilding process.
The argument for moving on from Anthony that year was that no matter what the Knicks did, they would not have been able to put enough pieces around Anthony to win while he was still in his prime. Based on the first two years of his new contract, including his knee surgery last year, those arguments look accurate.
Anthony’s presence on a bad team would also have a few other effects. The first was that it would keep the Knicks good enough to never have a high enough draft pick to land a franchise player. His injury last year prevented that from being the case when the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis.
The other effect of Anthony’s presence would be the pressure it would put on the front office to try to win quickly, perhaps at the expense of the future, so Anthony could make a run while still in his prime. The presence of a no-trade clause, something the Knicks should never have agreed to, exacerbated the problem. That’s where the Knicks winded up this summer. They made these moves for Anthony and the chance to see him win significantly in a Knicks uniform. There’s no evidence he threatened to demand a trade, but it is clear the organization did not want to move on from him.
Jackson admitted Friday that he understands the risks of these moves. He knows the injury histories of Rose, Noah and Jennings. This can go really well or very, very, badly. But he feels the potential reward is worth the risk. These moves, if they don’t work out, will make it much harder to put good, young players around Kristaps Porzingis in three or four years, right when he is entering his prime. That’s the risk, and it isn’t a small one.
The reward is a 50-win season and a shot to win one or two playoff rounds. The Knicks argue that the development of Porzingis will be aided by playing with playoff-caliber teammates in high-stress playoff games, and there’s truth to that. That experience cannot be manufactured any other way.
With all the injury risks the Knicks brought on, what’s the chance they get to 50 wins? 30 percent? Or is it as high as 50 percent? There’s no way to quantify it other than to say the Knicks’ front office will be holding their breath every time one of their new additions hits the deck.
Jackson seems to think that Rose’s youth will help him overcome his past leg injuries and his eye injury really held him back last year.
Jackson seems to think that Noah, two years removed from knee surgery and coming off shoulder surgery, will be fine and ready to go this year because his base (legs) are solid.
Jackson seems to think that Brandon Jennings’ Achilles, one year removed from surgery, will let him play like his old self.
Anthony’s knee has to hold up, too.
We’ll see if Jackson is right. We’ll also find out if resigning Anthony to that five-year contract was smart, or if it put the Knicks into a five-year whirlpool where they might make the playoffs a couple times but never actually win anything significant.
The next two years are as much of a referendum on bringing back Anthony as it is acquiring Rose and Noah. Jackson has bet his entire Knicks legacy on it. He has bet the franchise on it. Now we just have to see if it works out.
• Jackson said trading Robin Lopez was like “getting a tooth pulled” due to his gritty play last year, shooting a hole in the theory that the Knicks gave up nothing to get Rose. He also said point guard Jerian Grant “had a future,” far more tepid praise. There’s no way to know how free agency would have went if the Knicks didn’t trade for Rose or just brought him into their cap space, rather than trading assets for him (if that was even possible). Now all that can be done is see what his one-year impact can be.
• Listening to Lee, he is a smart basketball guy. He understands his role as a defender and floor spacer perfectly and embraces it. He won’t put up big numbers, but he’ll be one of the most valuable Knicks this year.
• Noah has the right attitude, and you can already see his leadership, something this team needs desperately. He will set a tone on the defensive end and be a great teammate. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how great his body lets him be.
For all things Knicks, please follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk