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Kristaps Porzingis’ rise leads to questions about Carmelo Anthony’s future

As Kristaps Porzingis has emerged as the next star in New York, the Knicks suddenly no longer have to rely on Carmelo Anthony. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The New York Knicks came into this season with one clear objective: to see what they had in Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian they took with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft.

Porzingis almost instantly answered that question, becoming an overnight sensation that not only has led to him becoming incredibly popular – he was fourth behind only Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in jersey sales – but has convinced virtually everyone in and around the league that he can become the franchise’s first cornerstone draft pick to build around since Patrick Ewing more than 30 years ago.

The sudden ascendance of Porzingis has given the Knicks and their beleaguered fan base a surge of hope it has rarely felt this century, with only the unsustainable 54-win mirage that was the 2012-13 season the only thing that can compare. But that, coupled with the Knicks losing nine of their last 10 games to fall several games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture heading into Tuesday’s game in New York against the Washington Wizards, should leave the Knicks asking a very different question: What is Carmelo Anthony’s future in New York?

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As always with the Knicks, the answer is a complicated one, beginning with Anthony’s lingering issues with his left knee. Ever since New York committed more than $120 million to sign Anthony to a five-year max contract in July 2014, it has been a problem for him. After Anthony hobbled through the first half of last season in order to make it to the All-Star Game – which was played at Madison Square Garden – and then had surgery in the days after the game was played to repair a torn patellar tendon, knocking him out for the rest of that season.

“It’s not going to heal in a week or a couple days or two weeks,” Anthony said after finishing with 21 points, six rebounds and seven assists in 35 minutes in Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets. “What I had done, the procedure I had done, is going to take time to heal.”

Anthony has returned to the court and played well for the Knicks this season, averaging 21.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 46 games, but has missed three games in recent weeks – including Friday’s 91-85 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies – because of soreness in that left knee.

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The Knicks have gone to great lengths to say Anthony’s current knee issues aren’t related to last year’s surgery, but it’s hard to ignore complaints about that same knee just a year after the procedure was completed.

“If there were some blueprint that would tell us a player wouldn’t have any problems going forward, we’d probably try to follow that one, because there are no guarantees,” Knicks Coach Derek Fisher said.

“It’s hard to find that balance when you should shut a guy down and take two weeks off when it’s day to day. We always try to be responsible in that regard.”

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But even beyond the obvious questions about Anthony’s health as he approaches his 32nd birthday in May, there is the fact that he and Porzingis find themselves on decidedly different timelines. While Anthony is coming to the end of his time as a true difference maker in the NBA – if he hasn’t reached it already, given his age and the knee issues – Porzingis, who doesn’t turn 21 until August, still has plenty of growing to do despite the strong start to his professional career.

By the time Porzingis is truly ready to become a star in the league, Anthony will be out of his prime and approaching the end of his current massive contract, meaning he could miss out on his remaining window to chase a championship.

That’s why the possibility of moving Anthony via trade is something the Knicks should consider – but even that comes with complications they’ll be forced to navigate. Anthony’s no-trade clause means he’ll get the ability to approve any deal, automatically limiting the market for his services, and he also has a trade kicker that could come into play if the Knicks chose to move him in a trade this summer, when the salary cap is set to skyrocket, instead of moving him now.

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The no-trade clause, however, is the bigger issue, as that would likely mean Anthony would get to dictate his next home. Barring a trade like the long-discussed – at least in various forms as a hypothetical discussion on the Internet – swap of Anthony for Blake Griffin taking shape, it’s just hard to see the combination of Anthony finding a place he’d be willing to go and the Knicks getting a deal that they would like enough to be willing to send him packing.

So, barring that, the Knicks will be stuck trying to navigate a middle ground: attempting to build around Porzingis while also remaining as competitive as possible in the short term while Anthony is still a viable star. There’s always the chance that something unexpected could happen, like Kevin Durant choosing to come play for the Knicks this summer. He did, after all, just go out of his way to praise Porzingis as an NBA unicorn recently before facing the Knicks in New York. And the combined presences of both a future star in Porzingis and a present one in Anthony might be enough to convince the players at the top of the market below Durant, Memphis point guard Mike Conley and Atlanta forward Al Horford, to come to New York instead.

If that doesn’t happen, though, the Knicks will find themselves with the choice of either trying to ride out Anthony’s remaining three years or attempting to move him and putting their focus entirely into trying to rebuild their roster around Porzingis.

It’s a complicated problem, to be sure. But given where the Knicks have spent the vast majority of the past decade-plus – generally stuck somewhere between little and no reason to be excited about the future – it’s a problem New York will happily accept trying to solve.