NEW YORK -- As the final seconds ticked off in the third quarter, Carmelo Anthony stepped just outside his own three-point line and let a 65-footer fly. The crowd roared, the Knicks bench drifted onto the floor and Anthony watched as the ball clipped the bottom of the net, on line but just a foot or two short.
As Anthony walked back toward the sideline, a wide smile creased his face. For one night in Melo's world, everything was alright.
This was the type of effort the Knicks envisioned at the start of the season, when dreams of shooting their way past Miami and Indiana were a little closer to reality. There was Anthony, chipping in 19 points on an economical 8-of-12 shooting. There was Iman Shumpert (17 points), Andrea Bargnani (16), Raymond Felton (13), Tim Hardaway Jr. (12) and Amar'e Stoudemire (11) supporting him, bolstered by a blistering three-point assault (59.3 percent) and an overall shooting night (57.1 percent) that left the hapless Nets in the dust.
"They came into the [game] shooting around 32 percent," Nets coach Jason Kidd said. "Tonight they looked like the team of last year."
They are the team of this year though, and that remains a crippling problem. The optimism that permeated the air in the visiting locker room Thursday night ("We want to build on this momentum," Anthony said) can't mask the truth: The Knicks are awful. A 113-83 nationally televised pasting of a stumbling cross-river rival offered a reprieve, but a fleeting one. The win improved New York to 4-13, 2 1/2 games out of first place in the beleaguered Atlantic Division but miles away from actual contention. Management, led by owner James Dolan, has constructed a roster incapable of winning at the highest level while misguided trades have left the Knicks devoid of young assets and without a movable first round pick until 2018.
As Dolan and Co. scramble to give Anthony reasons to re-sign next summer, rival executives look at the Knicks and wonder if its come time to send him packing. The Anthony era in New York has yielded two first round exits, and there is little hope for anything more. The defense is terrible (28th in efficiency), the offense is stagnant ("It's the Iso-Joe all over again," said a scout) and the Knicks are more dependent on an Anthony outburst or a staggering shooting display to win than ever before. The Tyson-Chandler-will-fix-everything narrative is fun, but hollow -- the Knicks were 1-3 with Chandler, including a 109-100 home loss to Minnesota.
There is so much ability in Anthony, but New York is just the wrong fit. Stick Anthony on Cleveland, alongside Kyrie Irving, and the Cavaliers instantly become conference contenders. Ship Anthony to Dallas to play sidekick to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs suddenly will thrust themselves into the heart of a rugged Western Conference playoff race. So few stars can duplicate Melo's talent. He is a pure scorer, unafraid of the pressure, fearless in big moments.
But there are no such moments coming in New York, no help coming his way. The notion that the Knicks can lure Kevin Love in 2015 or Kevin Durant in '16 is almost laughable. The 'Wolves are on the rise, with a bona fide playmaker in Ricky Rubio and the steady hands of Flip Saunders and Rick Adelman guiding them. Oklahoma City has complemented Durant with a top-10 running buddy in Russell Westbrook and has a savvy G.M. in Sam Presti, who will stockpile young talent until he finds the right deal to flip them. Not to mention defecting to New York will require leaving tens of millions in salary on the table.
Re-signing Anthony is the path of least resistance, but it's hard to see how it yields real results. With Anthony, the Knicks are committed to more than $90 million in salaries next season, leaving little wiggle room to improve. A five-year, $125 million(ish) contract for Anthony will gobble up more than a third of New York's cap space. The front office has grossly overvalued Shumpert, tossing his name onto the rumor mill for names like Rajon Rondo, Kenneth Faried and Omer Asik. Shumpert is in Rondo's class like Vin Diesel is in Hugh Jackman's, like Hilary Duff is in Julia Roberts. With no picks to sweeten any deals -- "Picks are currency in the post-lockout world," said a G.M. -- the Knicks roster is unlikely to significantly improve.
Rebuilding is painful anywhere, and in New York it's flat out excruciating. Asking a rabid fan base that pays a premium for tickets to swallow mediocrity is difficult, but what are they paying for now? At best, the Knicks are a 45-50 win team, one on vacation by the middle of May. At worst they are what they are now, a maddeningly inconsistent bunch that lives and dies by the three-point shot, that has a playoff pulse solely because of the dreadful conference they play in.
Anthony walked off the floor with a smile Thursday, the remnants of a sold out crowd of 17,732 in Brooklyn cheering him along the way. It was one last insult to a troubled Nets team, and Anthony savored every second. These are the type of wins he hoped to rack up in New York, the type of success he dreamed would be steady. Nearly three years after slipping on a Knicks jersey, Anthony and the team have reached a crossroads. It may be best for both to move on.