Just six months ago, the New York Knicks entered the 2013 playoffs with plenty to be excited about: a 54-28 regular season record, the second seed in the Eastern Conference and the NBA's leading scorer at the helm.
Now, with Tyson Chandler sidelined and the team’s 2014 campaign off to a bumpy start, the fun and fervor of last year’s demon-exorcising season has been met with the stinging reality of a near-future possibility: life after Carmelo Anthony.
The nerves began in earnest a few weeks ago when the star forward stated he would not exercise his $23.5 million player option in 2015, opting instead to test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. But, Anthony has also indicated that he “wants to retire in New York,” essentially giving the Knicks the green light to match or exceed whatever offers Melo might receive on the open market.
Given how much New York has already invested in Anthony—financially as well as philosophically—it stands to reason that owner James Dolan will grant his franchise cornerstone a fresh four- or five-year max contract, assuring the Brooklyn-born Melo remains a Knick for life.
That’s the assumption. But, if the Knicks’ struggles continue—if the losses mount and missing the playoffs looms large—it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where one or both sides decide it’s time to part ways.
With that, let’s examine, in order of probability, the three scenarios facing Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks heading into next summer, along with what strategies the team ought to pursue should each come to pass.
Scenario 1: Melo leaves money on the table to play somewhere else
It might be the most unlikely outcome—by a huge margin—but it’s not entirely unfathomable. For this to come about, two things would have to happen.
- Melo gets a great offer from a team at, or close to, contention. Rob Mahoney outlined a number of possible suitors, although each would need several things to break right.
- Anthony leaves the Knicks at the altar. In this case, New York's season would have to end on a nightmarish note—missing the playoffs, a locker room in shambles or the always fascinating palace intrigue of the Garden becoming too much for Melo to shoulder.
The Strategy: Batten down the hatches
If Melo walks, the Knicks—with roughly $68 million committed—still stand to be well over the 2014-15 salary cap. Even assuming Metta World Peace declines his $1.6 million player option, the Knicks will have little to no wiggle room to bolster their roster.
Save for a lopsided trade (unlikely), a bounce-back year for Amar’e Stoudemire (highly unlikely) or an All-Star performance from Andrea Bargnani (highly highly unlikely), it’s hard to imagine a Melo-less Bockers remaining relevant in the East. Should Melo bolt, Knick Knation will have two, and exactly two, things to look forward to: the free-agent class of 2015 and booing Carmelo Anthony for years to come.
Scenario 2: The Knicks let Melo walk
By all accounts, Anthony and owner James Dolan have what can best be described as a professional understanding: Anthony knows Dolan is willing to spend for a contender (or what he thinks is a contender), and Dolan knows Melo puts bodies in seats and No. 7 jerseys in laundry hampers.
That symbiosis is the biggest reason why most expect Anthony to be donning the orange and blue well into his 30s.
But, Dolan is nothing if not a loose cannon—an exacting executive with a legendary temper and mean streak to match. And, given his willingness to subject even his biggest star to the Garden’s paranoia panopticon, Dolan has shown time and again that no player is expendable—financially, psychologically or otherwise.
Just ask Jeremy Lin, who, after single-handedly halting the Knicks’ dire downward spiral back in 2012, was cut adrift for playing a little too loose with his free-agency leverage. Obviously, Lin is not Melo, but if Lin’s soap opera offseason proved anything, it’s this: When it comes to James Dolan, it’s best to tread lightly. Even if you’re Carmelo Anthony.
The strategy: Batten down the hatches (angry fan remix)
If losing Jeremy Lin caused anger on the fringes, Dolan cutting Anthony adrift might cause a full-throated fan revolt and leave the Knicks just as hampered as in Scenario 1, at least until the summer of 2015 when the decks are (mostly) cleared and the team hits reset for a free-agent free-for-all.
Scenario 3: Melo Comes Back For the Max
When all is said and done, neither Anthony nor the Knicks can avoid this simple fact: Short term, the two are much better off with one another than without. This season’s early rust aside, Melo, who turns 30 next May, is still very much in his prime. He’s coming off the best, most efficient season of his career and has, thus far, managed to avoid the kind of injuries typically associated with quick declines.
Long-term? That’s a much different story. Assuming the Knicks give Melo what he wants—a five-year, max extension—the team’s margin for error, like its title window, will only get narrower.
The strategy: Stay the course, clear the decks
If Melo remains and the team stays intact, the Knicks will have over $91 million committed for next season. So, barring any unforeseen trades, what you see is what you get—at least for the next 18 months.
Come the summer of 2015, however, the Knicks will once again have some financial flexibility: Both Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books, and only Raymond Felton and JR Smith will hold player options.
Already, Knick fans are starting to talk themselves into achieving what they failed to do in 2010—sign LeBron James, who has consecutive player options of his own for 2015 and 2016. Short of that, the Knicks will have plenty of big-name free-agent options to target: Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, Eric Gordon, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, just to name a few.
At that point, with perhaps a pair of max players in tow and their flexibility once again compromised, the Knicks will have to cobble the rest of the roster with mid-level exceptions and veterans' minimum contracts.
Whether Carmelo Anthony stays or goes will determine which of two plans the Knicks will be forced to pursue: short-term pain for the sake of future flexibility or, if Melo remains, the same salary high-wire act they’ve spent the last three seasons trying to pull off.