Woe are the Knicks! Again! After a promising start to the season, New York has fallen into its trademark disarray. The team’s fans already had little to look forward other than a lottery pick on the horizon this summer (unless they trade it to someone), but now chaos has set in. They’ve lost 11 of their last 13. Derrick Rose vanished for one of those losses and we still don’t know why, whether it was some sort of family emergency or paralyzing apathy. And now Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are at odds, with Phil seemingly trying to bait Melo into dropping his no-trade clause so the Knicks can ship him out of town and hand the keys to Kristaps Porzingis. Earlier this week, Jackson and Anthony finally met, but by all accounts both parties left feeling disappointed and suspicious.
Woe are the Clippers! Again! After a promising start to the season, Los Angeles has fallen into disarray. They looked like an elite team for a minute there, blowing the doors off LeBron and the Cavaliers, bitching a bit less at refs… But then the regression to the mean set in and their liabilities and limitations started haunting them again. And then came Blake Griffin’s knee injury putting him on the shelf for at least two months. And then came Chris Paul’s thumb injury, putting him of the shelf for at least six weeks. Blake has missed time before; the Clippers know how to keep their head above water without him. But losing Paul is an insurmountable blow—one that could force the Clippers to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs and have to knock off a potential 60-win team like the Rockets just to advance.
The Knicks and Clippers are two franchises at desperate crossroads. One is plummeting despite its best efforts to retool. The other is a perennial bridesmaid that seems headed for another inward collapse. Melo is the lynchpin of the Knicks, indispensable for the moment but never quite cut out to carry a team (or blessed with the right one to carry). He’s been more than willing to cooperate with Kristaps Porzingis—but the Knicks offense still runs through him, and even if Melo dominates the ball a bit less than he used to, that’s still not a great plan for ushering in Porzingis, who, by any measure, is the franchise in waiting.
Meanwhile, the Clippers—who, if you believe in basketball deities, are the most cursed team in the NBA—might be forced to at last face the facts. Despite their protestations that their Big Three is as good as anyone else’s, the pieces just don’t add up to a title-caliber squad. There have long been rumors that Blake Griffin, a perennial All-Star whose game improves with each passing year, still only 27 and a free agent after this season, could be available via trade for the right price. Even if you believe, as Doc Rivers surely does, that this team still hasn’t hit its peak, this recent spate of ill fortune might be just the push he needs to move Blake, get back massive value in return, and start off in a new direction that jolts them out of their rut.
Which brings us to the trade rumor that has circled these two franchises for more than a year and is now resurfacing again at this moment of mutual peril: Blake Griffin for Carmelo Anthony, straight up, a deal that would give each team the fresh start it so badly needs, a deal so simple and obvious and, at least in theory, mutually beneficial that it sometimes seems as if stubborn pride (and Melo’s no-trade clause) is the only reason it hasn’t happened yet. Moving Melo may end up being a necessity for the Knicks; the Clippers dealing Blake doesn’t present itself as an inevitability in quite the same way, but if they want to shake things up, they don’t have many better options.
“It’s the kind of splashy midseason move that can breathe new life into a beaten-down bunch. Sometimes the illusion of progress is a decent substitute for the real thing.”
Facile as this trade might seem, it actually makes good basketball sense for both franchises. Put Griffin in New York and you’ve got a weapon as potent as Anthony who won’t dominate the ball and, in fact, excels at smooth distribution. A Porzingis-Blake frontcourt would be unspeakably destructive in the paint and both guys can use their athleticism to get buckets even when point guard play is lacking. Bringing together Chris Paul and Melo, meanwhile, would activate one half of the so-called Banana Boat crew. There’s an instant trust there that, presumably, would coax Melo into working constructively with Paul, maybe even shedding some of the ball-stopping baggage that dogs him outside of USA Basketball. He’s a more varied scorer than Griffin, which would take a lot of the pressure off Paul to generate offense. He’d also fit more naturally alongside DeAndre Jordan, whose terrain in the paint gets crowded whenever Griffin is around. There have been whispers that Anthony, especially now at age 32, is better suited to a more complementary role that plays to his strengths. In Los Angeles, he could remain integral without bringing out his more regrettable tendencies.
A deal like this wouldn’t be a silver bullet for either team this year. It doesn’t turn the Knicks into an Eastern Conference contender overnight. And there are no guarantees that Melo would fit in any better in Los Angeles, or that anyone can salvage the Clippers season at this point. What this trade would do, though, is radically alter the complexion of both teams, and both players, at a moment when all of them seem to need it. It’s the kind of splashy midseason move that can breathe new life into a beaten-down bunch. Sometimes the illusion of progress is a decent substitute for the real thing.