Not the 9-21 record, not the team-wide statistical downturn, not the agonizing rolled ankle—none of it.
Neither did the New York Knicks, of course. This isn’t what they paid for, footed the league’s second-highest payroll for or sacrificed the team's future for.
But while fans take solace in the faint flutters, however unfounded, of Melo trade rumors, reality’s booming baritone echoes above it all:
Good luck with that.
With the team caught somewhere between floundering and drowning, the Knicks front office finds itself faced with two equally unappealing prospects: riding out the season from hell, or blowing it up completely.
Should the Knicks land on the latter, trading Anthony—more durable than Amar’e Stoudemire or Tyson Chandler, more proven than Andrea Bargnani—would seem to make the most sense.
At 29 years old and with only two first-round playoff wins to his name, Melo’s days as a franchise cornerstone seem likely to end in Manhattan.
Which is why the most likely outcome will see Melo re-up with New York next summer for a maximum five-year, $129 million deal—a full $32 million more than any other team would be able to offer.
It stands to reason that things would have to get worse—a lot worse—for Melo to even consider leaving that kind of tender on the table.
But as the finger pointing escalates and the losses stack ever higher, it’s fair to ask whether the Knicks are officially approaching the point of no return—that moment when no amount of money or market clout will be enough to keep Anthony in Knickerbocker garb.
At the same time, the last thing James Dolan wants is to trade Melo to a conference contender or possible future rival. That leaves the Western Conference, but even there, the pickings seem slim from a personnel standpoint.
Why, after all, would Dolan deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs when the only things he’s liable to get in return are low draft picks or salary-matching filler?
All the while, Dolan’s efforts to do something, anything to reinvigorate and reinforce his battered charges continues to backfire with spectacular aplomb—jilted egos and broken spirits abound.
Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Metta World Peace have each seen their names strewn about speculative headlines and fire-stoking rumors.
To think that such guesswork wouldn’t affect a player’s psychological standing is akin to believing that basketball players are wired more like mercenary machines than actual human beings.
Melo is no different. He’s heard about the rumors, however few have emanated from the beat’s big dailies. He knows the trade-talk murmurs are out there, no matter how fantastic or fringe.
Compared with the injuries, the compromised chemistry and the bad basketball, such concerns might seem like mere dust flecks on a radar screen already bursting with real blips—the bombs and the missiles and the rockets compromising the franchise's facade.
But he also knows his age, knows his flaws better than anyone’s liable to give him credit for. He knows he’s fast approaching 30, that arbitrary line in the sand that—fair or not—bifurcates the up-and-comings from the biding-their-times.
The 30,000 minutes? They take their toll.
The nine-figure bank account? Passion and pride are its maintenance fees.
The cauldron of pressure that is the New York media? The lights feel warm for only so long.
Which is exactly why Knicks fans need to start coming to grips with a grisly possibility: Anthony bolting town.
Melo knows he has five, maybe six good years left in him. Seven if he’s lucky. Why spend them beating back the slings and arrows, when a slightly smaller city with lower expectations might prolong his career?
Needless to say, there aren’t too many franchises that fit that bill—teams ready to roll the dice on a flawed superstar closer than some might think to a career's nadir—just as there aren’t many willing to part with potentially promising assets in a trade.
Dealing Melo wouldn't just be harder than most Knicks fans think; it would set the team back a good four or five years. Even if Dolan found a willing trade partner, he'd be looking for an in-kind deal—the next big name to keep the seats filled and the advertising revenue rolling.
But with Melo at his apex and his future productivity subject to the strains of time, teams with the means to trade for him would likely limit their offerings to flotsam and future draft picks.
Whether or not fans would even accept that—rebuilding in a town that never does—is hard to say.
That it might be impossible to do makes it all moot.
For good or ill, the most likely ending to this sordid saga—imbued as it’s been with only the occasional silver lining—will come not with a bang, but a whimper: a five-year deal to keep the franchise's biggest superstar in the past two decades bolted to the books.
Surrounded with the right pieces and shepherded by a management committed to financial stability and forward-thinking creativity, Melo might well make his final years in Manhattan ones to remember.
But if this season is any indication, Knicks fans may soon find themselves actively campaigning for what would’ve seemed impossible just two years ago.
Melo taking whatever he can on the open market—be the destination a contender on the cusp or a team bursting with cap space—while the Knicks bite the bullet, choke back their pride and let him go.
The result being something that, however unfamiliar, the Knicks and their fans desperately need to experience: a flash of terrible pain for the sake of a better, brighter future.