If you recently opened a sports section in a New York newspaper, you may think the Knicks are in contention. Sports pundits and fans in the area are extremely excited about the team's recent success, and rightfully so.
The team's 11-9 record was its best through 20 games in four years, and the Knicks now sit at 14-13. Kristaps Porzingis is showing great progress and some say he may already be the best overall talent on the team. Kyle O'Quinn and Brandon Jennings have provided needed sparks off the bench. Finally, Derrick Rose has shown some signs of being at least a diet version of his former MVP self.
So what's the worry? Well, the fact is that this current unit, at least for the next several seasons, has a ceiling. That ceiling is more or less due to Carmelo Anthony. Now, let's be frank, Melo is a phenomenal offensive talent, but he is showing clear signs of aging and unfortunately slows down the development of Porzingis. There's also zero chance he waives his no-trade clause, so he is in New York to stay.
With Melo, plus a resurgent Rose and a developing Porzingis, the Knicks’ ceiling is a low playoff seed. Knicks fans may still take that outcome given the team's disappointing seasons in recent years, but we can do better New York!
First, we need to decipher what puts Melo in the best situation on this Knicks roster:
1. Melo needs to play more power forward. The small forward slot would be beneficial if Anthony were used more in the post. Defenses have gotten better in this regard, and considering he isn't as pass-friendly as he probably should be, it's relatively easier to defend him in the post even with a smaller defender. Having said that, Melo's most comfortable and effective move in recent seasons is the 15-18 foot jab fake/jump shot dance. By playing the 4, Melo should face slower defenders who he can take more advantage of in these iso sets. Defensively, there are issues here, so his time at the 4 may need to be staggered more with Noah at the 5 rather than with Porzingis at center.
2. Aggressive point guard play. Over the past few seasons, the Knicks have seen passive PGs like Jose Calderon and Raymond Felton defer to Melo at times. This creates less overall ball movement and more standing on offense. Now, when Rose is aggressive, it benefits the Knicks because it catches the defense off guard and opens the perimeter up for bigs and wings like Porzingis, Courtney Lee, etc. The issue the Knicks currently have, or at least can improve upon, is Rose's inconsistency. Additionally, Rose can sometimes get uber-aggressive, and his decision-making can be improved. Rose is a massive upgrade at the 1 for the Knicks. They just need a better and more consistent version of him.
So what can the New York Knicks do?
The Knicks need to look at a trade and find a way to get a better version of Rose as well as a strong defensive 3 who can space the floor, allowing Melo to play more 4.
A three-way deal with Minnesota and Phoenix could make sense. The Wolves have had one of the more disappointing starts in the league, and Coach Tom Thibodeau would benefit from having a familiar face back. The Suns still have a massive point guard quandary and are better off dealing talent for draft picks/future assets, continuing their rebuild. Here’s the proposed trade:
Knicks trade: Derrick Rose, 2017 1st round pick
Knicks receive: Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker
Wolves trade: Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, top 3-protected 2017 pick
Wolves receive: Derrick Rose
Suns trade: Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker
Suns receive: Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, 2017 Knicks pick, 2017 top 3-protected Minnesota pick
As noted earlier, Thibodeau would feel comfortable with Rose in place and probably needs to make this type of high risk/high reward move to get his season back on track. The Suns net two potential lottery picks to help their rebuild.
Why do the Knicks do it? Bledsoe would be an ideal fit next to Melo in this lineup. Bledsoe also has experience playing both guard slots (so he'll work with Jennings in those units) and has previously played well in Coach Jeff Hornacek's system.
Tucker is a staunch defender and gives the team that necessary extra defensive wing, which allows them to be more comfortable playing small ball.
Ultimately, the Knicks do need to make a trade to move to that upper echelon of their conference. These next two to three years will be awkward for New York, given that fans likely feel the torch should be passed to Porzingis, yet Melo will still lead the team in usage and possessions. The team needs consistent point guard play to hold down the fort and allow Anthony to play more off the ball, and to preserve him for iso sets only when necessary.
Phil Jackson needs to make such a trade to maximize his last licks from these Knicks.