When Phil Jackson divulged over the summer that his biggest regret as President of the Knicks was not taking Jae Crowder when he had the opportunity to do so, it was as intriguing as it was dumbfounding.
With the Knicks now 43 games into their season — 19-24 after their 117-106 win against the Celtics on Wednesday — it’s become more clear why.
Part of the concern, a legitimate one at that, was his reluctance to make a move for Crowder because he would sit behind Carmelo Anthony. He instead took a second round pick the Mavs owed the Celtics and turned it into Cleanthony Early, a decision in hindsight that would make even the biggest optimist cringe.
Despite the Celtics losing, Wednesday night proved a clear indication as to why the indecision was not only so frustrating for Jackson, but also why Crowder is so valuable to the Celtics.
Anthony, currently knee deep in conflict with Jackson, put together 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting on Wednesday. He added four rebounds and three assists. Crowder, on the other hand dropped 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting with five rebounds and an assist.
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And while it’s nonsense to look at one game as a basis comparison, the differences amongst the two has been lurking all season.
As Crowder helped take control of the game, the difference between him and Anthony became borderline palpable as they guarded one another. Crowder, ever intense, yet composed, guarded Anthony, who looked apathetic and nonexistent on the floor, hardly ever running more than a few steps at a time. A hard fall from the presence he used to own on the floor.
The 32-year-old Anthony, once a top player in the league, was essentially nonexistent on both sides of the ball, and has been visibly on the decline for the majority of the season. And while his supporting cast hasn’t exactly been shining around him, a team that boasts Anthony, Joakim Noah, Derek Rose and Kristaps Porzingis is vastly underperforming from where they should be.
Which is where Crowder comes back into play. New York Post writer Marc Berman toyed with the idea of a Melo to Boston trade. Melo and 3 million cash to the Celtics, with the Knicks getting Crowder, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and the Celtics’ 2018 first round pick.
The idea of such a deal nestled the line of lunacy before the Knicks even took the TD Garden floor, but Wednesday was as much validation as necessary for the 26-year-old Crowder to stay around. While there is no such thing as untouchable, Crowder, along with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford are about as untouchable as they get — especially with the core they’ve established.
The Celtics may be one more piece or “star” away from being true contenders, but Melo isn’t that piece. Especially not at the expense of Crowder.
As frequent of a target as Anthony has been to the Celtics every time he was being shopped around or an impending free agent, it’s tough to resist the idea of him in green. But given his current on and off the court state, it’s become clear as ever that wherever he ends up, it shouldn’t be Boston.
Crowder is probably the biggest noisemaker off the court, but a tweet chastising fans for cheering an opposing player pales in comparison to locker room tirades.
The Celtics have made their calling card this season a blue collar and chemistry-heavy type of play. They aren’t going to match up with the top teams in the East from a skills perspective, but the way they can grind has kept them in the conversation as one of the East’s toughest teams. The addition of Anthony or subtraction of Crowder — or both — would ruin that.