Keep your panic buttons handy.
Now shouldn't be the time for the New York Knicks to panic. But sadly, it's getting there.
No amount of well-wishing or star-yearning will keep 'Melo from exploring free agency this summer. New York could pull a page out of its extensively written book on nepotism and promise his wife, Lala, a spot in the starting lineup and that still wouldn't keep Anthony from exploring the open market.
Freedom like he's never experienced awaits 'Melo after this season. Suitors can openly serenade him with lavish promises and luxurious-contract offers. The red tape that comes with forcing a trade is gone. Anthony can play the field, like John Mayer after one of his concerts, and entertain a parade of opportunities.
Desiring such plasticity and actually profiting off it are two different things, though. A want of options doesn't necessarily mean Anthony will leave when he gets the chance.
Publicly, he's hinted at just the opposite. On numerous occasions, 'Melo has reiterated his preference to stay, to retire with the Knicks.
True to his word, 'Melo has promoted a carefree approach to his impending free agency.
Loyal to their eternal fondness for complicating simple matters, the Knicks have laid the groundwork for making a liar out of him.
Who Are the Knicks Outside of 'Melo?
What are the Knicks?
Anthony's team, lost and desperate are all acceptable answers at the moment. They're all disquieting responses as well.
There is no collective face to the Knicks. No one area of the game positively defines them. Through nine contests, they rank 18th in offensive efficiency and 28th on the defensive end. They're 29th in rebounding and 23rd in assists per game. Nothing is flowing on either end of the floor, leaving the Knicks to scour their rotation for an identity.
Not even Anthony is enough to define this team on his own anymore. Reversions to hero ball and isolations aren't infrequent, but 'Melo himself has made more of an effort to play within the (nonexistent) fluidity of the offense.
More so than last season, he's passing out of double-teams and keeping his teammates involved. Hardly known for his playmaking abilities, 'Melo's assists opportunities per game—defined by NBA.com as "passes from a player to a teammate, in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist"—stand at 8.1. Similar marks have been notched by Dwyane Wade (eight) and Paul George (7.3), two stars routinely venerated for shrewd selflessness.
The difference is, Anthony's increased selflessness is overshadowed by his teammates missing shots. Though he's been afforded nearly one more assist opportunity than George a night, it's the reigning Most Improved Player who's dropping more dimes. And while his mark is nearly identical to that of Wade's, Flash is handing out 2.5 assists more every game.
New York hasn't found a niche with 'Melo thus far, let alone without him. And even if he could define the team on his own, why would he want to?
Composite efforts win championships nowadays. The days of one superstar carrying an entire team to a title are over. You don't get past LeBron James and the Miami Heat with one luminary. Or George and the Indiana Pacers. Or Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs.
Having yet to show that they have a an adequate sidekick or two in 'Melo's midst, the Knicks aren't giving Anthony any additional reasons to stay. If anything, they're adding to the barge of motives he has to leave.
Absence of Contingency Plan
The Knicks aren't built to regroup.
Unless they find a way to dump Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire's, among other, contracts, they'll have no cap space this summer. No backup plan that includes a quick, easy and painless rebuild.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says they'll try to sell 'Melo on 2015 instead. On the hope of signing fellow star forward Kevin Love. They'll ask him to wait. Again. For a star who may never come. Again.
In the meantime, they'll undervalue Iman Shumpert on the trade market, the lone teammate Anthony figures for stardom. They'll attempt to make an empty play for Rajon Rondo, pretending they have a chance at acquiring the star teammate Anthony seeks.
There is next to no hope of the Knicks doing something now. Maybe they move Shumpert, but chances are it won't be for an All-Star point man. Perhaps they maintain cap flexibility for 2015, but all that does is promise a then-31-year-old Anthony what he's wanted since 2011.
For better or worse, the Knicks' current roster is their best selling point. Prove to Anthony they can, at the very least, feign contention now and he'll see a future beyond broken promises.
Keep losing while failing to initiate the type of change they need, but don't have the assets or financial flexibility to implement, and their summer sales pitch becomes a lot less appealing.
Wasting an Opportunity
We're quick to judge 'Melo. Appropriately, his reputation as a borderline inefficient-volume scorer precedes him.
Watch him closely, though, and you'll see a different Anthony. An Anthony who is trying to keep Bargs' head up. Attempting to make smarter decisions. Trying to raise Stoudemire's spirits.
Making an effort to be a leader.
This is the best version of Anthony we've ever seen, and the Knicks are wasting it. Stranded on his own, 'Melo is trying to inject life into his team. Calling out their effort. Pleading with them to avoid a dark place. Hoping to marginalize the distraction free agency has become.
"I'm not even thinking about contracts or [stuff] like that," Anthony said, via Iannazzone. "I'll think about that in the offseason. Right now, my duty is to lead this team to win some basketball games, hopefully to win a championship."
No one should worry about him. Play on. There is no exit strategy. Free agency is a formality. It should be that easy—except it's not.
Anthony isn't a liar, at least he's not intending to be. Unlike many other stars, he's been refreshingly forthcoming about this summer and his future plans. He doesn't want to leave.
Every player, however, has his breaking point. If losses continue to mount, Anthony's optimism, his allegiance will be tested. His patience will be tested. It's already being tested.
Dysfunction is defining the Knicks' season right now. At a time when they should be basking in Anthony's loyalty and showing him they're right there, they're residing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Doesn't matter if it's early. The Knicks aren't winning. And Anthony wants to win. He also wants to stay.
Push comes to shove, if he cannot have it both ways, he'll be forced to choose. Forced to pick between the team that failed him and winning elsewhere.
"It's not panic time," coach Mike Woodson told the Knicks, via Iannazzone.
Now shouldn't be the time for panic. For fear. Anthony has tried to make sure of it. Tried to make light of this situation. But the Knicks haven't played along.
They've put themselves in a position worthy of concern. Of panic. They've turned the only sure thing about their future, Anthony, into an unnecessary parent of uncertainty.