HOUSTON -- As Chuck Hayes pounded Amar'e Stoudemire throughout a physical 36-minute mano-a-mano battle of quick hands and brute force, it was clear the Knicks needed a second option. As Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari clanked their way to a combined 8-for-24 effort (including two for 10 from downtown), it was obvious the Knicks needed more consistent firepower.
As this team sputters into a daunting back-to-back in San Antonio and Oklahoma City facing the reality of going home in a six-game tailspin, it is without question the Knicks need a shot of adrenaline.
There has been some resistance to breaking up this roster -- honestly, at most it would be losing two key rotation players -- but the season has reached a point, here at the exact middle after 41 games, where it's time to either cash out or go all in. The playoffs are 41 games away and at three games over .500, the Knicks (22-19) are already starting to look like the first 41 took a lot out of them.
You say the Knicks need a starting center to help Amar'e, I tell you that Mike D'Antoni prefers to play Amar'e there in a small-ball set. "Every time Amar'e plays center, we got an advantage on everybody," D'Antoni said at the shoot-around Wednesday morning. "I don't care who it is. That's my mindset . . . I think we're building a team where when he plays center, we can be really, really good."
You say Carmelo is a ball-stopper and an inefficient scorer. I tell you to check the tape from the Redeem Team in Beijing and ask yourself how Carmelo looked playing in a system that D'Antoni was in charge of as an assistant coach for Team USA. Envision a system in which Carmelo and Amar'e could interchange in the pick-and-roll, where one is an outlet on the perimeter for mid-range looks while the other is the roller or post-up option. Either way, both are comfortable.
You say Carmelo doesn't play defense and doesn't rebound. Check the three spot right now and show me how much you're getting there in those categories. It's not like you're giving up Ron Artest here. Defense is a nostalgic element here, but let's not completely dismiss the importance of offense, especially when you have to match up against Big Three teams such as the Heat and Celtics and the new-look Magic.
You say the money can be better spent elsewhere, such as for a center and a backup point guard. Or maybe to chase the 2012 free agents such as Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. Well, let's consider two things: 1. How much longer do you really want to wait for players who you can't guarantee will be available? 2. With no idea how the new CBA will work, it's better to act now and get star-quality talent while you can. (And that's assuming you can, because Denver still has to engage, which they haven't).
Carmelo fits the Knicks, period. He is tough, arguably the toughest player in the league when going to the basket. He and Stoudemire have the same kind of swagger. They play a physical, intimidating style and both are hungry for big city love and the big market stage. With Raymond Felton, another player with a bulldog mentality, you have three grinders.
Now let me ask you this: what if you need to include Felton in the deal? The Nuggets want to move Chauncey Billups ($3.7M guaranteed next year even if they waive him) and Felton's contract ($7.5M next season) works for them because it is shorter than what they would have gotten if they acquired Devin Harris ($8.5M in 2012-13). Is Felton a deal-breaker? Billups comes with a ring and the ability to shoot the three, which certainly helps in this system. But he's older, while Felton appears to be hitting his prime (though lately he's struggled as the high ankle sprain has hindered his performance).
Of course by giving up Felton for Billups, you then have to worry about a point guard in 2012. Since no one knows what the new CBA will be, you can't assume anything. You can't assume you'd have the cap space to sign Paul or Williams. You can't assume you'd have the Bird Rights to keep Felton by going over the cap because what if the new system is a hard cap? There are a lot of ifs to consider.
But there is little else to consider when it comes to Carmelo. If you can get him, you get him.
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* - Amar'e remained mum on the latest in the Melo-drama. When asked if he was surprised the Nets dropped out of trade talks, he replied, "It wasn't a concern of mine. I really don't care what New Jersey is doing." Stoudemire and Anthony are friends and, according to sources, have maintained communication throughout the season. But Stoudemire has been extremely careful with his public thoughts about Anthony's situation out of respect to Carmelo, Walsh and his teammates. "I try not to pay attention to it," Stoudemire said of the rumors. "Our goal here in New York is to become a better team and a playoff team."
Asked if he was at least interested because Carmelo is a friend or because it involves his team, Stoudemire said, "Neither. It's not really a concern of mine right now. The concern of ours is to break this losing streak."
* - The Rockets got exactly what they wanted out of their two games with the Knicks - two wins. They will now root for the Knicks to crash and burn this season and give them reason to swap the 2011 draft pick. Coincidentally, there is also a belief here in Houston that the Rockets could emerge as a surprise team in the Carmelo sweepstakes. They have Yao Ming's expiring contract to offer and those Knicks picks. They might not even request that Carmelo sign an extension and instead hope to talk him into it once he's here. Of course the Knicks wouldn't mind if Carmelo was traded without an extension because they could still target him as a free agent.
* - A guy who might be openly rooting for the Knicks to trade for Carmelo is Eddy Curry, because he would finally get himself out of this organization. I have little doubt that George Karl would immediately play Curry and try to get the most out of him just to make it look like a steal for Denver. Curry's not in the best shape, but in a halfcourt, post-up system, he can still score.
* - Speaking of waiting, Jared Jeffries was a DNP-CD against the Knicks (as was, it should be noted, former Net Terrence Williams). The worst-kept secret in the Rockets locker room is that Jeffries is dying to come back to New York. One scenario could come after the Knicks trade Anthony Randolph for a first round pick to open up a roster spot. Then Jeffries can work out a buyout with Houston and sign a veteran's minimum deal with the Knicks.
By the way, with Troy Murphy making a trade request, how do you think he'd fit in D'Antoni's system as a big man who can shoot the three and rebound? Can't defend well, but off the bench he could be very good. The catch is the Knicks wouldn't want to use their Carmelo assets (read: Curry contract) to acquire him, so he'd have to work out a buyout with the Nets and sign a vets min with the Knicks. Unless the Nets find no takers for Murphy, it's highly unlikely they'd be willing to buy him out of whatever's left on his $11.9M salary just to see him hop across the Hudson at a major discount.
* - Kelenna Azubuike missed his 41st game this season as a result of his long recovery from knee surgery over a year ago, which means 80 percent of his $3.3 million salary this season is eligible to be paid by insurance. Don't overlook this as a potential key piece in an offer to the Nuggets, who are looking to save as much cash as possible (which we've been telling you since September) in any type of Carmelo trade. I hate talking about any player this way, like they're a piece of meat or nothing more than an asset, but right now that's just the nature of the business. I had been hoping to see Azubuike get healthy enough to play just to see how he'd fit in here at both ends of the floor.