The vast majority of the attention given to the Carmelo Anthony trade has focused on Oklahoma City, and rightfully so. The Thunder, coming off a campaign in which MVP Russell Westbrook was perhaps the NBA’s loneliest franchise player, have added two All-Stars this summer and possibly positioned themselves as the top challenger to the Golden State Warriors.
Meanwhile, the Knicks — the league’s most valuable club and the team on the other end of the Anthony deal — have been an afterthought in all this. The swap was one New York badly needed to make so it could fully turn the page on an era in which the Knicks haven’t secured a playoff berth in four seasons. But this new chapter without Anthony figures to present an entirely new set of questions.
Chief among them: Can 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis — who averaged 18 points a night as a second or third option — step into Anthony’s role and become the Knicks’ leading man?
At first glance, the answer would appear to be yes. This past season, Porzingis became a far more efficient scorer at the rim and from midrange. He improved from 58 percent at the basket as a rookie to 70 percent in Year 2 while also jumping from 41 percent from the 10-to-16-foot range to 48 percent. He managed to get better from the 3-point stripe, too, knocking down shots from the arc at a league-average clip. And it can’t be overlooked that the 7-foot-3 big man with the skill set of a guard actually managed to shoot better when Anthony (and former MVP Derrick Rose) was off the court than when they played together.
Still, that detail alone isn’t evidence that Porzingis will thrive without Anthony. In fact, when you look more closely, it appears that at least some of Porzingis’s success as a lead option stemmed from who his competition was. Specifically, he turned in some of his most accurate shooting during the first six minutes of second and fourth periods last season, per NBA Savant — times where he likely would’ve been feasting on second-string defenses.1
That speaks to why the Knicks were just 2-16 without Anthony2 the past two seasons: No one else on the roster could generate offense as efficiently as Melo while also facing the sort of defensive pressure he was seeing.3 That was especially the case in one-on-ones and post-ups, for which Melo has an affinity.
New York scored on 47 percent of Anthony’s one-on-one plays and came away with at least one point when he was aggressively double-teamed in the post 43 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports. The Knicks scored on just 34 percent of Porzingis’s one-on-ones and were successful just 23 percent of the time — for a measly 0.57 points per play — when opponents sent hard double-teams at him in the post. A lot can be attributed to Porzingis’s need to develop more lower-body strength and establish better position, as he often catches the ball way too far from the paint to back down his man.
None of this is to suggest that Porzingis — the rare budding star who has as much defensive ability as offensive ability — isn’t capable of eventually being the centerpiece of a team. At this point, he should be the least of the Knicks’ worries; the club should be using this coming season to figure out who to slot next to him going forward.
However, that open-tryout mentality will be complicated by the current roster configuration, as the Knicks are currently heavy on bigs they need to find playing time for. Enes Kanter (acquired in the trade), Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn are all talented, but figure to create a logjam at center if they all make it to opening night. The presence of 32-year-old Joakim Noah, who has three years left on one of the NBA’s worst contracts, doesn’t help matters, either.
A trade to move one of them — and possibly veteran swingman Courtney Lee, who deserves an opportunity to latch on with a contender rather than taking part in a rebuild — would make sense. Ideally, the Knicks would use those returns to get future draft picks and a young player or two who can defend, since Kanter, Doug McDermott (also acquired in the Melo deal) and Tim Hardaway Jr. are all solid scorers while being subpar on the other side of the ball. New York, which has ranked in the bottom 10 on defense for 11 of the last 15 seasons, will need to find some sense of balance — a process that will likely take the better part of the next few years as these players figure themselves out.
But even if the next couple seasons are marked by growing pains, at least the Knicks can finally turn their attention to roster development instead of wondering how to make the failed marriage with Anthony work.