For Carmelo Anthony, there is only next season.
Entering the 11th season of his NBA career, the fourth (sort of) with the New York Knicks, he's yet to see it all, or even do it all. There is no championship ring on his finger; no Larry O'Brien Trophy-hoisting memories for him to reminisce about.
The absence of such hardware and the nostalgia that goes with it has left 'Melo here, facing pressures he has never incurred, searching for answers to questions he has never had to ask. Not even in the Big Apple.
There have been doubters and obstacles, just not like this. Free agency has never been looming the way it is. The Knicks are only growing more desperate and therefore, potentially unappealing, and 'Melo is approaching the dreaded age of 30.
Next season isn't just crucial then; it's everything.
'Melo isn't blind to Father Time or the restrictions birthdays place on careers.
He isn't 25 anymore and with a shoulder injury that will be considered lingering until proven otherwise, it's becoming increasingly clear he isn't invincible. Just as he isn't immune to the critics' interpretation of his success and failures, he's not protected against the possible austerity of age.
Time is running out for Anthony, something he is completely aware of.
“My window is closing,’’ Anthony told the kids attending his Queens College camp, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. “I’m trying to bring a championship to New York ASAP.’’
Read between the lines of his seemingly foreboding sentiments as you will, but know that this is less an omen for his future (or lack thereof) in New York, and more a stunning realization that he may be entering the last quarter or so of his career.
Remember, Anthony isn't just attempting to overcome his own misfortunes. He's trying to end a 40-year championship drought for a team and city he calls home, in addition to a personal decade-long dry spell.
Balancing such burdens is a distressing task, one that's grueling enough when you're a fresh body with time. 'Melo doesn't have time. Nor are we able to say he's healthy.
"I took one MRI a couple months ago and it was healing back in place,” he said of his decision to not have surgery on his shoulder, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. “So that was the decision — should I get surgery or should I not? I’m not really a big fan of surgical procedures."
This is the same 'Melo who did everything humanly possible to avoid getting his knee drained midseason. Upon leaving a lopsided loss against the Denver Nuggets to a chorus of boos from Pepsi Center's finest, he had the buildup of fluid excavated.
Which isn't to insinuate 'Melo is stubbornly kiting surgery and deliberately putting himself in harm's way. Under the knife or not, his health is an issue because he's 10 years deep into his career and there were a variety of setbacks last season.
At this point, 779 games (playoffs included) into his life at the NBA level, injuries aren't so much fickle inconveniences as they are career-threatening mistresses.
Anytime something goes wrong this late in the game, it has the potential to get worse. Maybe you're the same; maybe you're not. Either way your clock is ticking already as your youth escapes you. Injuries only complicate things that much more.
The great bruising Carmelo Anthony is no exception.
The Next Step
There is no championship to be won in New York next season (the Brooklyn Nets included).
Collectively, the Eastern Conference improved a great deal over the summer. The Chicago Bulls can now shoot threes with Mike Dunleavy, and a superstar by the name of Derrick Rose is set to return after nursing an ACL tear for more than year.
Then there's always the fact that the Miami Heat are still the Miami Heat. Down Mike Miller, with or without Greg Oden—it doesn't matter. They have LeBron James and two straight championships to their credit. Until further notice, they're the team to beat.
Discounting the talent the Western Conference has amassed wouldn't be wise either. Last season, the West had 10 teams that finished with a record of .500 or better. In the East, teams under .500 routinely make it to the NBA's sweet 16 (see the Milwaukee Bucks).
To believe that the Knicks, with the additions of Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace, will be the last team standing next June is nonsensical.
If they did, well hell, that would be incredible. But let's assume that they won't, because most likely, they won't. Even if you could muster up the courage (or inanity) to argue they're a favorite, the odds are stacked against them anyway. They always are when 29 other teams are seeking claim to the same honor.
Come next summer, when all is told and the Knicks and 'Melo are without a title yet again, what's he to do? Does he opt out? Join LeBron and Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers? Re-sign? Go all in on the summer of 2015?
Options abound for 'Melo, giving him the kind of freedom he's yet to have. He didn't make it to free agency in 2011, choosing to force his way to the Knicks and sign an extension prior to the lockout instead. The prospect of absolute sovereignty is new to him.
Future independence in mind, Isola says Anthony is expected to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, at which point the Lakers, presumably among others, will make an aggressive play for his services.
Returning for the last year of his contract in hopes that Stephen A. Smith of ESPN's report on LeBron being open to joining the Knicks in 2015 is true remains a possibility as well. But it's a long shot to say the least, as it dictates LeBron opt in for another year with the Heat.
More likely than not, 'Melo is going to hit the open market and face a decision of his own.
Some, like myself, tend to assume his heart is in New York. Playing in a market like this as the face of one of the league's premier franchises should be too tempting to desert.
That doesn't mean he will stay. He doesn't have the time to fiddle around with a middling, albeit expensive, outfit, and he can't rest all his hopes in promises the Knicks have yet to keep.
Hoopworld's Steve Kyler reported that New York is prepared to let 'Melo assemble his own team in 2015, an intriguing notion that may wind up meaning nothing.
'Melo was supposed to have a star sidekick in Amar'e Stoudemire when he first arrived. Due to circumstances beyond STAT's control, he hasn't been the 1b to 'Melo's 1a. J.R. Smith hasn't been the ideal partner either and Anthony may not have the time (there's that word again) to wait for Iman Shumpert to become the star he figures him to be.
Depending where the Knicks' season ends next year—first round, second round, conference finals, etc.—'Melo may look at the roster, see a team that is neither good enough to win a championship nor projected to have any financial flexibility, and bolt.
Los Angeles and a jillion other franchises will be waiting to whisk 'Melo off his feet. Any one of those organizations could have a more championship-ready core, better blueprint or, free agency willing, the promise of playing next to LeBron.
Perhaps that what will be what's too inviting to pass up, even if it means abandoning the team he (passively) fought tooth-and-nail to join.
We just don't know. Not even Anthony himself is ready to cop to anything, according to Isola:
“As far as ruling anything out, I haven’t even, to be honest with you, thought about anything past today,” Anthony said on Saturday in Queens, where he was hosting a youth camp. “My mind is not even thinking about next season, next offseason right now. I’m just trying to do what I do this offseason to get right, work out, train and get right and prepare myself for this season. When that time comes, I’ll deal with that.”
You see, it's not just about where the Knicks finish per se; it's about whether Anthony feels they're at a point where he can continue to lead them.
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking the Knicks didn't ask too much of him last season. They did. Far too much. And we could be destined for a repeat next year.
Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Smith, STAT and company don't combine to form the most ideal (i.e. healthy) supporting cast. They could surprise us, of course. STAT could play in 50 or more games, Smith could shoot 45 percent from the field, Shumpert could make the jump from budding talent to fringe star and Bargs could amount to more than a poorer-than-poor-man's Dirk Nowitzki.
Or Anthony could be left nearly alone like last season. And the thought of navigating another year's worth of that for the chance—not guarantee—to team up with the stars of his choosing in 2015 might not be worth it.
Once more, we just don't know. But we will. Following next season, all that goes into it and how prepared 'Melo is to cope with it, we, like the man of the article himself, will find out what the future holds beyond next season.
Pocket all the free agency, age and injury hogwash for a second. Think next season, and next season alone.
Anthony still doesn't have a championship and he sorely needs one. Not just to end New York's stretch of ringless despair or even his own, just to belong.
He is the only top-five pick from the 2003 draft without a title to his name. And he and Darko Milicic are the only ones that don't have at least two.
Then there's the stigma that's dogged him since his days in Denver. NBA players are far from flawless, but 'Melo is constantly under a microscope because he's not LeBron. He's not the do-it-all talent The Chosen One is. Neither is anyone else, but he's been pitted against LeBron for so long that the absence of a championship is damaging to his legacy.
Superstars are supposed to make their teams better, to carry them toward success when it matters most. Thus far, 'Melo's regular-season accolades mean nothing next to his postseason flops. In 10 years, he's made it out of the first round twice, and second round once.
Coupled with his score-first, I-might-do-something-else-later tendencies, 'Melo needs to prove that he can still evolve as a player and leader 10 years later. That he can be someone who won't be ridiculed for all he didn't do, but all he did, even if it wasn't enough.
Next season is going to help shape how he is remembered. Be it his last in New York or another one of many still to come, 'Melo has a lot riding on the next 82 games (plus playoffs) of his life.
The turf war with the Nets, the need to advance his reputation beyond that of a scorer and playoff failure, the internal battle about where he will go next, and who he'll be when he goes there—all of it will be traced back to next season, the most critical of his career.