NEW YORK — On the day he was installed as the Knicks’ new general manager last fall, Steve Mills was charged with a singular mission: Keep Carmelo Anthony happy. More to the point: Keep Carmelo Anthony, period.
Mills confirmed as much in his first press conference when he declared, without prompting, “We are fortunate to have a player like Carmelo Anthony on our roster.” He pledged his intent to keep Anthony in a Knicks uniform “for a long time to come.”
With his close ties to Creative Artists Agency and William Wesley, the powerful CAA operative and Anthony confidant, he seemed fit for the task.
But the Knicks’ disastrous season has seriously jeopardized that mission, and it is time for team officials to face a more existential quandary: whether they should be fighting to keep Anthony at all.
Anthony plans to enter free agency in July. His public remarks on the topic have been mixed. Privately, he is concerned about the state of the Knicks franchise and its ability to build a championship contender.
New reports of Anthony’s discontent seem to surface every week, with anonymous sources indicating that he intends to leave or is leaning that way (here's one example).
So it is time for Mills to ask Anthony the only question that matters: Are you staying or are you going? He needs a definitive answer in the next six weeks before the Feb. 20 trading deadline.
If Anthony is wavering, Mills has no choice but to trade him. Having surrendered a small ransom to acquire Anthony in 2011, the Knicks cannot afford to let him walk away.
That is the easy calculus. Here is the thornier equation: whether Anthony is worth the five-year, $129 million investment it will take to keep him. And just as critically, whether the Knicks can construct a title contender before Anthony goes into decline.
The answer in both cases: Probably not.
The Knicks should trade Anthony now, regardless of his intentions, if they ever hope to build a more sustainable model. While they are at it, the Knicks should move Tyson Chandler—and anyone else of value—to begin restocking their supply of draft picks and young talent.
This is the way the smart franchises operate in the luxury tax era: spend wisely, use draft picks prudently, develop young players, value your assets. And when you hit a dead end, cash out and start over.
The Knicks have reached that point with this roster of misfits and defective parts. At 11-22, the Knicks hold the fourth-worst record in the sickly Eastern Conference, with just a 24.6 percent chance of making the playoffs (per Sports Club Stats' statistical model). Even if they earn a berth, they have no chance of making a meaningful playoff run.
The Knicks have no first-round pick this year (it went to Denver in the Anthony trade). They have no salary-cap room until 2015. The roster today is likely the one they will have next season, which means another lost season for Anthony, who turns 31 next year. No one could blame him if he was losing patience or faith.
“They’re dead,” said a Western Conference executive. “They have no hope right now.”
But the executive does see a way out. “I would move those guys and restart.”
Two other team executives concurred, primarily because none of them believe that Anthony—a gifted scorer who does little else—can possibly justify the massive contract he is seeking.
Anthony’s new contract would start at $22.5 million—more than every player but Kobe Bryant and Amar’e Stoudemire. (For perspective, LeBron James, the four-time MVP, will be making $20.6 million next season. Kevin Durant, $19 million.)
In the final season of his new deal, Anthony would be 35 years old and making a staggering $29.2 million. That’s nearly 50 percent of the current salary cap.
Even assuming a steady rise in the cap, Anthony would be commanding an outsized share of the Knicks’ payroll, strangling their flexibility for the next half-decade—the same problem that has dogged the franchise for years.
Unless Anthony offers to sign for less—and his history indicates he will not—it is hard to see the Knicks building a contending team around him. It is abundantly clear now that Anthony is too limited and too single-minded to be a team’s leading star. He needs a strong point guard to keep him in check and to make the passes he won’t. He needs strong defenders to take the assignments he can’t. The Knicks cannot buy all of that help with Anthony occupying so much of the cap.
Right now, the Knicks are focused on 2015, when they could have $49 million in cap room. If they re-sign Anthony, that figure would drop to $25 million, with perhaps 10 roster spots to fill.
The Knicks are counting on Anthony serving as a magnet for other stars, but that assumes other stars want to play with a ball-dominating scorer who’s entering his 30s. The Knicks’ aspirations of landing Rajon Rondo seem far-fetched. (As another rival executive said, “I don’t think there’s a bunch of guys lining up to take a discount to play with Melo.”)
Assuming a successful reload, the Knicks would have a window of maybe two to three years before Anthony goes into decline.
If Anthony were a more complete player, perhaps the $129 million investment would be justified. But he is not. Eleven years into his NBA career, Anthony remains the same one-dimensional player he’s always been: a phenomenal scorer who doesn’t defend and never elevates his teammates.
Once regarded as James’ rival, Anthony is now fourth in the small-forward pecking order, behind James, Durant and Paul George.
Anthony has led a team out of the first round only twice. The Knicks have won one postseason series since he arrived. They are no closer to title contention now than they were before acquiring him.
For three years, the Knicks have contorted themselves in every possible manner to please Anthony and his CAA team: signing J.R. Smith, signing Smith’s brother, running off Mike D’Antoni and Jeremy Lin and hiring Mike Woodson (after he hired CAA).
It has gotten them nowhere.
The Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler era is a bust. But the Knicks could use the few assets they have to launch a new era. Trading Anthony might net them a pair of future first-round picks—though probably mid-first-rounders, in the opinion of one team executive. Or Anthony could be parlayed into a batch of younger, cheaper players—though suggestions of a trade for the Clippers’ Blake Griffin are far-fetched. Trading Chandler, still a valued defender when healthy, could net them another first-round pick or perhaps a young prospect or two.
Maybe those picks and prospects become franchise cornerstones. Or maybe the Knicks package some of those assets to acquire the next superstar who becomes available. That’s how the Houston Rockets snared James Harden (who enabled them to get Dwight Howard).
James L. Dolan, the Knicks’ ham-handed owner, told the New York Post in November that he hired Mills because he viewed him as a progressive, analytically minded executive. Here’s what a progressive, pragmatic executive would do: blow it up. Trade Anthony. Trade Chandler. Restock. Rebuild.
All the Knicks need is the right trade partner—“a team that so wants a star and so wants it now and will do anything to get it, and that thinks Carmelo is still a star,” as one Eastern Conference GM said.
What the Knicks need is another team like the Knicks.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.