Basketball divorces are often nasty, even if it's inevitable that most marriages between player and team fail to fulfill their "'til death do us part" vows.
However, breaking up isn't always equally devastating for both parties; ask the New York Knicks. Just 82 days after officially ending their relationship with 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony via his trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks are firmly on the rebound. Simply put, the organization has found plenty of reasons to be in love with its new future.
Having moved on from Anthony as the focal point of the franchise, the Knicks have finally begun to optimize the roster around the game-changing skill set of
stretch center mythical creature Kristaps Porzingis. The 7-foot-3 Latvian, universally considered one of the best under-25 players in today's NBA, has blossomed as the fulcrum of the Knicks' offense. Despite persistent injuries to his left knee and right elbow, Porzingis has averaged 25.5 points per game - good for eighth in the Association and the highest scoring rate of any player who has yet to make an All-Star game. His inclusion in this year's star-studded festivities in Los Angeles rests on his health, not merit.
While not as splashy as Porzingis, the front office has started to flank its Unicorn with players who can complement his game. Most evoke optimism in their own right.
Fans who booed the Knicks' selection of French point guard Frank Ntilikina at No. 8 in his year's draft over established stateside talents like the Mavericks' Dennis Smith Jr. (No. 9) and the Hornets' Malik Monk (No. 11) have learned to both pronounce his unwieldy last name and appreciate the tantalizing two-way potential afforded by his albatrossian wingspan. At only 19, Ntilikina projects to be the sort of defensive plug at the point of attack that will allow Porzingis that extra split second needed to get in place as a help defender. The boos for the Frenchman have been fewer and further between.
Similarly, criticism about Tim Hardaway Jr.'s four-year, $71-million contract has died down as well. The Knicks may still come to regret devoting that much money to what amounts to a secondary scorer, but Hardaway is still only 25 and averaging just under 18 points per game. At the very least, the team has locked up most of what should be his prime years.
The changing perception of the Knicks' fortunes have certainly been aided by the uneven start to the Thunder's season. Anthony in particular has drawn flak for his awkward fit alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and All-Star Paul George. Anthony's efficacy as an off-ball scorer has seen him record a career-low 17.7 points per game, the first time in his 15-year career that he's averaged fewer than 20 points. The possibility of Anthony moving into a reserve role to stabilize the bench unit was laughed at by the man himself prior to the start of the season, but if Anthony's half-joking stubbornness persists, it will be at his team's expense.
Coach Billy Donovan must search for a rotation that elevates his squad above a middle-of-the-road team without alienating one of its most important players. Oklahoma City is already facing some trouble in paradise.
Like the 14-14 Thunder, the 15-13 Knicks are also playing like a low-seed playoff team. The key difference is that it's by design.
The Knicks' investments in youth wouldn't come to fruition as quickly if Anthony was still in town. With their former superstar gone, they no longer have to adhere to the win-now expectations that accompany employing one of the game's biggest stars. Instead of being a franchise equated with impatience and sizzle over substance, New York has a new timeline that allows it to build up the organization while shedding the onerous contracts of the former regime. The Knicks were able to put the one-year Derrick Rose project in the rearview while effectively benching Joakim Noah, prioritizing playing time and development for their young core.
New York hasn't enjoyed an organic youth movement in decades. As long as owner James Dolan continues to maintain a hands-off approach and the front office stays patient, there's no reason to think the Porzingis-led Knicks won't grow into a perennial playoff team. If things break right for them, legitimate contention, something Anthony's squad was never able to enjoy, could be in the not-too-distant future.
When Anthony returns to his former home at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the debate won't be "which team won the trade?" The Knicks have already won by being able to move on. Whether or not the Thunder can change their fortunes with Anthony in tow has no bearing on the future of Big Apple basketball.
Win or lose, Knicks fans have plenty of reason for optimism as they move on from their ill-fated relationship. All heightened expectations, for better or worse, now reside in Oklahoma City.