Why Carmelo Anthony's Free Agency Will Be the Real Story of 2014 Offseason
Slowly but surely, the tide is shifting. If you look closely enough, you can catch a glimpse of it with the naked eye.
LeBron James ceding center stage to Carmelo Anthony.
Not in April, May or June, but rather in July.
The hoopla over James' potential foray into free agency next summer has already died down considerably. He hasn't stated definitively whether or not he'll opt out of his current contract after the 2013-14 NBA season.
What he has done, though, is far more important. To this point, he's squashed any talk of changing teams that might arise during the campaign.
He's insisted, time and again, that his focus is trained squarely on helping the Miami Heat make history as the first team since the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics to advance to four straight NBA Finals and just the fourth all-time to win three consecutive championships.
Chances are, if LeBron and the Heat do just that—which they're the odds-on favorite to do—then the four-time MVP won't be leaving South Beach anytime soon.
Even if the team falls short, it's tough to imagine James turning his back on the on-court success and off-court lifestyle he's enjoyed since arriving in Miami nearly three-and-a-half years ago.
The same can't quite be said of Carmelo Anthony.
The Carmelo Conundrum
Anthony joined the New York Knicks in February of 2011 with high hopes: bringing the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Madison Square Garden and becoming a legend in his hometown.
That plan, which came on the heels of protracted trade talks between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets, hasn't panned out as 'Melo had hoped. Anthony performed unevenly during his first year-and-a-half or so in the Big Apple before settling in as the league's premier scorer this past winter and spring.
Even then, the Knicks, with 54 wins and their first Atlantic Division title in nearly two decades, couldn't survive the second round of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
Now, after an action-packed offseason, the Knicks appear to have slipped a bit in the East. The Heat are as strong as ever and could be stronger with Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Roger Mason on board.
The Indiana Pacers replenished their bench, the Chicago Bulls welcomed back Derrick Rose and the rival Brooklyn Nets fired off warning shots with the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko.
Meanwhile, the Knicks traded players and picks for the enigmatic Andrea Bargnani, signed an aging Metta World Peace and a third-string Beno Udrih, drafted Tim Hardaway Jr., and watched as two of last year's veterans (Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace) took coaching jobs elsewhere.
Throw in the cap crunch that new general manager Steve Mills has to navigate, and it looks as though the Knicks may have peaked already.
Circumstances, then, would suggest that Anthony is likelier to hit the open market in 2014 than any of his 2003 draft classmates—LeBron included.
Anthony confirmed that long-held suspicion during a wide-ranging interview with The New York Observer's Rafi Kohan and followed that up with further comments to Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com about his desire to "experience" free agency.
To be sure, there's nothing inherently wrong with Anthony addressing this issue—however glorified the forum. The guy's never been a free agent before, so, naturally, he might not know how best to handle his impending status.
Nor should we expect him—or anyone else within the Knicks organization, for that matter—to be properly prepared for the maelstrom that's bound to accompany the most anticipated retention pitch to a celebrated athlete that New York has seen in years, if not ever.
The city's sports media machine is as rabid as any in the country and was bound to make a big, "developing" story out of 'Melo's free agency—regardless of how or when he talked about it.
What matters now is how Anthony handles the spotlight from here on out. Does he set the discussion aside and train everyone's attention—his included—on the task at hand for the Knicks or does he feed the proverbial beast to the point where all the frenzy about him joining Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers subsumes whatever promise New York's season might have otherwise had?
The answer could mean the difference between 'Melo being anointed a savior or branded a villain at season's end.
Free Agency Isn't Free
That, in itself, may be reason enough to place Anthony ahead of James in the national sports conversation—even if LeBron comes away with his fifth MVP and third straight championship.
James may be the best in the business, but 'Melo—a perennial All-NBA performer—is no slouch himself and will have pundits aflutter over the very notion of mentioning New York and LA in the same breath.
And before anyone turns on Anthony for soaking up the attention while James attempts to deflect it—as some in New York already have—consider a couple of key points.
Firstly, 'Melo hasn't been a free agent since high school, when he chose to play college ball at Syracuse over making the preps-to-pros leap to the NBA. Forgive him if he's not an instinctive expert when it comes to subduing the nervous excitement that comes with having some modicum of control over his own professional future.
James has already been through the NBA's silly season. Anthony is soon to experience it for the first time.
Secondly, let's not rush LeBron into relative sainthood just yet. Four years ago, James arrived at what turned out to be his last training camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers talking about how he'd deal with his free agency the following summer and focus solely on playing basketball for the time being.
Instead, James turned the 2009-10 schedule into a barnstorming tour of sorts during which he flirted with other suitors—the Knicks included.
LeBron is once again saying and doing all the right things during the preseason, but that doesn't preclude him from entertaining questions and thoughts about a future beside shores other than those in Biscayne Bay if he so chooses, newfound maturity be damned.
New York or New Team?
In truth, any developments involving Anthony are bound to be big-time headline material, if not bigger than anything LeBron figures to turn out.
After all, 'Melo is quite possibly the brightest sports star in a basketball-crazy town that doubles as the largest media market in the nation. Even the slightest shift on his part is bound to send shockwaves through the hoops landscape, from sea to shining sea.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing for New York. Along with declaring his intentions to opt out, Anthony has gone out of his way to assure Knicks fans that he wants to stay, that he wants to lead his boyhood team to its first title in over four decades.
"Does that mean I'm not coming back to New York? Not at all," he told Begley.
Which superstar's (potential) free agency will be the biggest story of the summer of 2014?
If anything, 'Melo is merely putting pressure on the Knicks' new management to make sure that the team around him is one worth returning to. That way, if Anthony leaves, he'd do so with the same alibi that LeBron had. The squad isn't up to snuff, the front office has failed in its quest to build a contender and, because of that, 'Melo, whose prime won't last forever, would be wise to seek out a role on a winner elsewhere.
In all likelihood, James won't have to look far to find a situation that suits him perfectly. He's already won two titles on a team with two of his closest superstar friends and a supporting cast that complements his unique skill set.
If things work out as they should in the months to come, LeBron would find himself on the precipice of history in Miami without any need to look elsewhere for his next ring.
If the Heat fall short of a three-peat, he can trust Pat Riley to retool the rest of the roster and Erik Spoelstra to position those pieces properly.
At present, there don't appear to be such strong ties binding Anthony to Mike Woodson or Steve Mills—nor should there be.
'Melo's been a part of but one playoff series win since Woodson took over for Mike D'Antoni in 2012 and is only just getting a feel for Mills, who replaced Glen Grunwald as New York's point man on player personnel decisions mere days prior to the opening of training camp.
Of course, this could all change by the time the summer of 2014 rolls around. Mills could spin a surprise move or two, Woodson could have his team playing top-10 ball on both ends of the floor and Anthony could find himself in the thick of the MVP race and perhaps the championship chase.
For now, all eyes will be on Anthony to see how he comports himself at center stage and if the applause of Broadway gives way to the appeal of Hollywood.
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