Where Knicks’ Depth Might Have Been, Questions Abound

It was still four hours before midnight on when a giddy celebration broke out in the visitors’ locker room at the former Arco Arena. The whoops and the singing (yes, singing) could be heard down the hall.

The were a joyous bunch, having survived an anxious first week in which they lost two games, three rotation players and the facade of a contender. But they closed 2011 with a rollicking 22-point blowout of the rudderless , and that was enough to lighten the mood.

, wrapped in two oversize towels, declared that the Knicks “got their groove back.”

For one night, the offense hummed, with smart passing, spacing and coordination. Toney Douglas looked like a point guard. Josh Harrellson looked like a second-round steal. Anthony looked disciplined. Landry Fields looked revived.

It was a moment in time, a well-deserved dose of relief, albeit earned at the expense of one of the ’s worst franchises. A harsher reality still looms, however.

The Knicks are still a team without a true point guard, or a reliable bench scorer, or a proven big man to spell Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. Their bench is a patchwork of rookies, aging veterans and marginal players. The drop-off in talent after the Big Three is enormous.

This is the quandary the Knicks created for themselves when they shipped four starters to Denver for Anthony last February. That deal, pushed through by the owner, James L. Dolan — over the objections of the team president, Donnie Walsh — gutted the roster of its best young talent. Replenishing could take months or years.

It did not have to be this way.

Anthony could have waited for free agency to join the Knicks, sparing the roster. Dolan could have listened to Walsh, who was biding his time with more modest trade offers, knowing that Anthony wanted only the Knicks and that Denver had little leverage.

Had Anthony waited, he could have joined a lineup with the capable Raymond Felton at point guard and Danilo Gallinari as a versatile sixth man. The Knicks would have lost Wilson Chandler to free agency, but they could have kept Timofey Mozgov and their 2014 first-round pick. The roster would have been deeper, more balanced.

Or the Knicks might have parlayed those assets into Chris Paul, who badly wanted a trade to New York, if only the Knicks had the means to acquire him.

Would Commissioner David Stern, acting as the New Orleans Hornets’ de facto owner, have taken a package of Gallinari, Felton, Chandler (via sign-and-trade) and the 2014 pick for Paul? Maybe. Or perhaps the Orlando Magic would have considered the same package for Dwight Howard.

Or the Knicks could have simply kept their depth, filled in around the edges through free agency and retained some flexibility, which was Walsh’s approach.

What they have instead is a top-heavy payroll, with Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler making $50 million, a low-budget supporting cast and no chance for significant salary-cap room until at least 2015.

This could still turn out O.K., but the route the Knicks have chosen is riddled with question marks and assumptions.

Baron Davis’s back has to heal quickly. When healthy, in shape and motivated, Davis, 32, can be one of the top point guards in the league. The Knicks desperately need someone to create easier scoring chances for Stoudemire and Anthony and to serve as the third scoring option. Davis’s game has eroded in recent years, however, and his back issues could be a continuing concern.

Iman Shumpert, the intriguing rookie guard, has to be at least as good as advertised, or better. The Knicks know he can be a solid defender and slasher. But they do not know whether he can consistently hit the open jumper or make good decisions with the ball.

Harrellson impressed Saturday, with 14 points and 12 rebounds, but it came against a Kings team in disarray. If Harrellson can replicate the effort against Miami, Chicago or Boston, then the Knicks might have the frontcourt support they so badly need behind Stoudemire and Chandler.

For all the clichéd talk of the Knicks’ great offense, they really have only two reliable scorers, Anthony and Stoudemire. Douglas, Fields and Bill Walker are streaky. Jared Jeffries and Mike Bibby provide little.

Ideally, Davis becomes the starting point guard by midseason, pushing Douglas to the sixth-man role, for which he is better suited. Shumpert should overtake Bibby and Walker in the guard rotation or perhaps replace Fields as the starter.

A second unit of Douglas, Shumpert and Harrellson, though not overpowering, would at least be a serious improvement over Bibby, Walker and Renaldo Balkman.

If Davis regains his old form, perhaps the Knicks have their point guard solution for the next few years. If he re-signs next summer for the minimum, the Knicks could use their midlevel exception on a big man, completing their bench.

But those are just two more ifs in a long series. For now, the Knicks’ fate depends on a 32-year-old point guard with a bad back, a rookie guard with a sprained knee and a plodding second-round draft pick.

It may not be the formula for a contender, but this is the path the Knicks — and Anthony — chose last February.

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