If you were to take a bet during the pandemic on which player would be on the Knicks roster for 2020-21, Elfrid Payton or Carmelo Anthony, the smarter play was the former Syracuse star.
But there was Payton on a Zoom call from Portland on Sunday after the Knicks shootaround talking about his matchup against the Blazers’ superstar, Damian Lillard — still Anthony’s teammate.
Payton has stabilized the point guard position during the Knicks’ 8-9 start. Anthony chose to re-sign with the Blazers for the NBA veteran’s minimum of $2.6 million. The Blazers desperately need Anthony now with studs CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic out for an extended period.
Should the Knicks have made a harder play at Anthony, considering they were stuck with $18 million of salary-cap space?
A case could be made, yes, because of their shortage of offensive talent — ranked 30th in the league in scoring average at 101.3 points.
On the flip side, the case is stronger Knicks president Leon Rose made the right call in not going all-in on his former client in November. The Post has reported Rose’s dream duo after taking the job was adding Chris Paul and his buddy Anthony.
Anthony, at age 36, still draws a drove of attention. His presence could have been disruptive if things didn’t go his way in terms of playing time and ball touches. More to the point, the Knicks have established an identity as a gritty, defensive-first ballclub. That is not Anthony’s calling card.
Could Julius Randle had this bust-out season with Anthony, who plays both small and power forward, on the roster? Probably not. Randle needs the ball, has it on most possessions. For much of his career, so did Anthony.
Playing a lesser role in a winning Portland program that featured Lillard and McCollum is an easier proposition than Anthony reducing his role with an unestablished cast of Knicks that would have begun the 2020-21 campaign.
Randle may not have had the confidence to make himself the team’s alpha male with Anthony with him in the starting lineup.
In addition, RJ Barrett has been moved to more of a small-forward role with Reggie Bullock at starting shooting guard to give Barrett less ballhandling duties. Anthony’s presence would have deleted Bullock and given Barrett the shooting guard role.
Bullock, who doesn’t need the rock, has started all the games when he’s been healthy — 15 of the first 18. He was to miss Sunday’s game with neck soreness. As long as Bullock was available, coach Tom Thibodeau stuck with the same starting unit.
“I think we’ve got pretty good balance man,’’ Payton said Sunday. “Everybody gives each other space to do what they do well. And guys are, RJ’s found a really good groove, he’s playing really well. Julius has been doing it all year.’’
Barrett, despite his 3-point shooting woes, has been a relentless bull with a motor that doesn’t quit. He may also have been stunted in an offense in which Anthony would want the ball — more to shoot than create.
Barrett scrimmaged with Anthony before his rookie season in pickup games at Columbia. Anthony could have served as a terrific mentor but you never know how that would have played out.
Remember his former Denver teammate Chauncey Billups accused Anthony of caring more about his stats than winning.
“It meant too much because he could have games where he had 20, 22 [points], we win the game and he’s mad,’’ Billups said in 2019.
In the first days of training camp, Anthony said the stars were not aligned for a Knicks reunion.
“At this point, it wasn’t really a lot [of consideration],’’ Anthony said. “The Knicks were making moves and were trying to figure out the direction they wanted to go in. I’m sure they have a plan. I don’t think me coming in and trying to mess their plan up was good for either party.
“They are rebuilding and figuring out what’s in their near future. It was me personally wanting to be part of a situation I was already comfortable with. I felt it was the right fit at this point of time where I’m at right now this particular year.’’
In his second season with the Blazers, Anthony is averaging 12.2 points, shooting 40.5 percent — 45 from 3. He’s notched just 1.2 assists in 25 minutes.
As Jeff Van Gundy noted, the Knicks “aren’t going anywhere’’ until they improve their “offensive talent.’’
With a new order of Randle and Barrett established, perhaps adding Anthony at the trade deadline is not crazy. Of course, the Blazers, who take pride in resuscitating Anthony’s career last season, won’t be eager unless current injuries torpedo their season by late March’s trade deadline.
Portland signed Anthony to a one-year deal with eyes on a deep playoff run. The Knicks are trying to avoid another lottery. They want to be in the thick of a playoff race for the first time since the 2013-14 season when they were in it until the last couple of days.
With essentially 10 teams qualifying, — the 7-10 seeds face off in a play-in event — the Knicks could sneak in. They were eighth entering Sunday’s action.
Declining to make a big play for Anthony in November was the smart move. But don’t rule anything out in the future.