After a summer of unrelenting rumors, the New York Knicks officially announced Monday that they had finally come to a deal to move Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder sent their top bench player, center Enes Kanter, sharpshooting swingman Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second round pick to the Knicks in exchange for the 10-time All-Star. Anthony will now join forces with the NBA Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook, and perennial All-Star Paul George, whom the Thunder acquired from the Indiana Pacers back in July, to form one of the most imposing triumvirates in recent NBA history.
As a New York City native myself, losing a player of Anthony’s stature has been an emotional experience. For seven years, through thick and thin, Melo was the face of basketball in the Big Apple. I think back to how exciting it was when news first broke of the Knicks trade with the Denver Nuggets in February 2011. The All-NBA second team player from the year before was returning to his hometown. The Knicks had not had a player even close to Melo’s prominence since Patrick Ewing in the 1990s. From 2002 to 2010, the Knicks had a grand total of exactly one All-Star appearance. Melo would go on to be an All-Star in each of his seven years with the team.
In his first game with the Knicks, Melo dropped 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and immediately every New Yorker had an opinion about him. This would go on to become a constant theme of his time in the city. Everyone had an opinion about him. Depending on whom you asked, he was either a scoring wizard whom the Knicks needed to keep as the face of the franchise or a selfish cancer to the team who could not play with other stars. Regardless, Melo had numerous memorable moments as a Knick. On Easter Day in 2012, Anthony had perhaps his best game as a Knick, scoring 43 points, including a 3-point shot to send the game to overtime, and a nearly identical 3-point shot to win the game in overtime against the Chicago Bulls. On January 24th, 2014, he scored 62 points against the Charlotte Bobcats in a remarkable display of offense that set the Madison Square Garden single-game scoring record.
However, the one moment many Knicks fans will forever associate with Melo was when he was blocked by Pacers center Roy Hibbert during the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013. The Knicks were leading in a must-win game 6, but this block changed the momentum of the game and they would go on to lose the game and the series. This was furthest the Knicks had progressed in the playoffs during the Melo era and they have not made it back to the postseason since.
It is unclear what the exact causes of the Knicks lack of success during the last seven years were, but Anthony’s inability to collaborate with other star players was certainly a contributing factor. Amar’e Stoudemire was an MVP candidate before Melo’s arrival, but never was able to mesh his game with Anthony’s (Stoudemire was injured during most of the Knicks’ 2013 playoff run). Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” run occurred while Anthony was sidelined with an injury and came to an end once he returned. More recently, Melo failed to develop a successful frontcourt rapport with Kristaps Porzingis, which led to losing records for the Knicks in each of the Latvian’s first two seasons.
Despite his lack of team success, Anthony remained an essential part of New York’s basketball culture. Back in 2014, most New Yorkers were thrilled to see him re-sign with the Knicks after it was rumored that he had interest in moving to the Bulls. Over the past seven years, kids all over the city could be seen practicing Melo’s signature jab, and his number 7 consistently ranked among the top selling NBA jerseys. New York was begging for a superstar player in the years leading up to the Nuggets trade and it finally got one. It may be quite some time until another arrives.
The Knicks are not exactly set up for a smooth rebuilding process. They have one above-average player in Porzingis who is in no way prepared to become the leader of the team. The rest of the squad is mediocre at best and neither Kanter nor McDermott will do much to change that. The minimal return in the trade can largely be attributed to poor management by the Knicks front office. During Phil Jackson’s time as an executive with the Knicks, he constantly bashed Anthony to the media, which likely lowered his value. In addition, had the Knicks moved Melo during a previous offseason, he would have been worth more and they could have gotten an earlier start on their rebuilding process. Regardless, the Knicks finally made the right move and can now move forward with a clean slate.
The Melo deal is yet another tantalizing move in what has been arguably the most dramatic offseason in NBA history. Of the many teams who have been reshaping their rosters since the end of last season, the Thunder have been perhaps the most aggressive, acquiring not one, but two of the biggest names in the basketball world. Of course, any team playing in the Western Conference needs to be aggressive to stand any chance against the mighty Golden State Warriors.
Last season, the Warriors swept through the West with ease, eventually winning the title. No other teams were expected to put up much of a fight against a Warriors team that had the best regular season record of all time the previous year and had just acquired a generational talent in Kevin Durant. The front offices in the league were not prepared to position their teams for contention after the shocking Durant move, but this season, multiple organizations have made efforts to challenge the Dubs. The Boston Celtics, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference last year, signed Gordon Hayward, drafted Jayson Tatum, and traded for Kyrie Irving. The Houston Rockets traded for 9-time All-Star Chris Paul to pair with superstar shooting guard, James Harden. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves look scary with the addition of Jimmy Butler to their ever-improving young core.
Powered by a historic season from Westbrook, the Thunder were able to secure the 6th seed in the Western Conference a year ago before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Rockets. It was a respectable performance for a team without much starpower surrounding its franchise player. That being said, it is certainly not a sustainable result for the Thunder with Westbrook entering the final year of his contract. In an effort to dissuade their star from leaving, the front office traded for George, but he too is entering the last year of his deal and has expressed serious interest in joining his hometown Los Angeles Lakers next season.
Enter, Melo. Despite ESPN’s preposterous assertion that he is the 64th best player the league, Anthony is still one of the NBA’s most unstoppable scorers. At 33 years old, he does not have the athleticism he once possessed, but Melo has always played closer to the floor than other small forwards anyway. Despite an atrocious year for the Knicks as a team last season, Melo actually saw an increase in his points per game and three point percentage. He may receive non-stop criticism for his selfish play style, leadership skills, and defensive effort, but this is a player who has made ten All-Star Games and averaged over 20 points per game during each of his 14 years in the league. Make no mistake, the Thunder just acquired a serious weapon.
Now the primary concern for the Thunder is making the chemistry of this new roster click as quickly as possible. Westbrook, Anthony, and George are all phenomenal players, but as the old cliché goes, there is only one basketball. All three of them ranked in the top 25 in usage percentage last year and Westbrook and Anthony, in particular, have been criticized in the past for their selfishness on the court. It will be a major adjustment for each of these players who have grown accustomed to being the sole superstar on their respective teams. If they all buy into a team mindset and value winning above personal achievements, the Thunder will be a dominating force this season.
This process may prove to be most difficult for Anthony, who wants more than anything to win his first ring after 14 years of coming up empty. On both the Nuggets and the Knicks he was always the primary option on offense. In New York especially, Melo reigned as the king of basketball in the city for quite some time. At this point in his career, he will likely have to settle for being a secondary, or perhaps tertiary option, in a much smaller market. Anthony’s acceptance and ability to perform in this role will be enormously impactful in determining the Thunder’s status as a contender or merely just another good team this season.
Photo: Zach Beeker/OKC Thunder