NEW YORK -- Even when the New York Knicks were losing at a manic pace, losing at a Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas pace, the notion that they had made a bum deal with Denver was not worth the paper Mike D'Antoni's defensive schemes weren't written on.
D'Antoni's newfangled team had dropped nine of 10, George Karl's Nuggets had evolved into a monument to good, can-do chemistry, and still the Carmelo Anthony trade remained one of the best trades in Knicks history.
"This is a league of stars and talent," Toronto assistant P.J. Carlesimo said, "and the Knicks got two more stars and a ton more talent."
The Raptors found out the hard way Tuesday night, watching as the home team scored an absurd 78 first-half points on the way to a 131-118 victory that gave D'Antoni his 100th win as Knicks coach, a record north of .500 (39-38) and a reason to mock someone else's idea of defensive intensity for a change.
Anthony and Amare Stoudemire each finished with 23 points, leaving the Knicks with another case study in why their fans should forget the trade's short-term pain and revel in its long-term gain.
Not only do the Knicks have more star power and more winning postseason experience and more players who can make a big shot and command a Game 7 whistle in a first-round series with Miami or Boston. They also have a talent base that will attract a superstar coach in the event D'Antoni doesn't work out between now and the end of next season, a superstar coach who won't count against a shrinking salary cap.
Knicks fans should ask themselves this question: Would the likes of Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers be more willing to coach their team if the roster paired Stoudemire with Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Raymond Felton, or with Anthony and Chauncey Billups/Chris Paul/Deron Williams?
"When a franchise player or marquee talent comes along in the NBA, you have to grab him," Toronto general manager Bryan Colangelo said of Anthony. "The Knicks now have two considerable pieces, maybe a precursor to more, and as a first-round foe I'm sure everybody's worried about playing them."
Chances are, the Knicks will lose in Round 1 to the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics. But as a high Eastern Conference seed, you would surely prefer to take your chances with Indiana or Philly.
Heat president Pat Riley would FedEx LeBron James back to Cleveland if it meant avoiding another first-round series with the Knicks, who eliminated his team three straight years -- in three straight all-or-nothing games on Miami's home court -- in a different (but not forgotten) life.
When the Stoudemire-Anthony-Billups Knicks beat the Heat in Miami on that first Sunday night after the trade, Riley looked like he'd just seen Allan Houston make another endgame runner, or Clarence Weatherspoon shoot another endgame brick.
"Without question," agreed Carlesimo, "people aren't looking forward to playing the Knicks in the playoffs."
But the benefits of the Anthony deal aren't tethered to the Knicks' success or failure in this year's first round. "The biggest thing," D'Antoni said, "is the franchise is better for the long run with two of the best players in the game."
Even if D'Antoni isn't around to coach them.
The smart money says D'Antoni will return next season, likely a season shortened by a lockout, before Jim Dolan and Donnie Walsh (assuming Walsh is retained) decide if they can truly imagine a defensively challenged coach winning a title and inspiring a ticker-tape rain in a defensive-minded town.
If they can't paint that picture in their heads, they will go big-game hunting for a coach with the gravitas to lead the Knicks to their first championship since 1973. Jackson would be coming off a one-year sabbatical, his battery recharged and his love for the game possibly rejuvenated by the chance to come full circle in Red Holzman's seat.
Rivers is still talking about taking a vacation of his own, perhaps to watch his son Austin play his one-and-done season at Duke. Doc loved playing for the Knicks, loved the raging heartbeat of the city.
"For me, New York was the best, the best," Rivers said last spring. "Boston and New York are two sports-crazed cities, and you can't do any better, you really can't."
Of course, if D'Antoni's Knicks keep responding like they did against Toronto, Jackson and Rivers can stage their own celebrity apprentice contest for some other poor soul's job. But as long as D'Antoni treats defense the way NFL coaches treat kickers and punters, he will ultimately put himself in peril one time too many.
Jackson rejected the Knicks' past advances because his old team never had the requisite talent to book the homecoming. If nothing else, the Anthony acquisition gave him something to think about.
"You can't be afraid to make big deals," Colangelo said, "and that's what the Knicks did and it's going to pan out."
It's panned out for the Nuggets, who desperately wanted to be liberated from Anthony's diva-drama act. If Denver is deep and fun to watch, its roster is built to win 50 games and to lose in the second round year after year after year.
Meanwhile, with significant cap money to spend in 2012, the Knicks are positioned to make a credible championship run before Stoudemire's knees end up like Carlos Beltran's. And that wouldn't be so if Chandler, Gallinari and Felton made up Stoudemire's supporting cast.
Before securing his fourth straight victory, D'Antoni said he would do the Anthony trade all over again, regardless of whether Dolan forced his hand and Walsh's hand the first time around. "You would do it in a heartbeat," D'Antoni said.
"I think it's clear it's best for the Knicks."
Even if it's less clear that it's best for the coach.