There's only so much even the glitziest NBA superstars can do at any given moment to shape—if not change outright—how they're perceived. If you're Carmelo Anthony, an All-World scorer stuck on a New York Knicks squad bereft of balance and riddled with injuries, there's not much you can do aside from what you do best (i.e. put the ball in the basket) and hope that the rest turns out in your team's favor.
But Anthony won't have to be "stuck" for long, if he so chooses. The soon-to-be seven-time All-Star told Rafi Kohan of The New York Observer this past October that he would, indeed, exercise the opt-out clause in his current contract and test free agency for the first time in his 11-year career as a pro this summer.
At which point he'll be "free" to decide where he wants to play, but still subject to criticism regarding what his choice would imply.
If he sticks with the Knicks, he runs the risk of coming off as a "money-grubbing ball hog" who doesn't prioritize winning above all else. New York can offer him an extra year and about $33 million more than any other potential suitor, thanks to the incumbent advantages built into the current collective bargaining agreement.
However, a sedentary decision for Anthony could come at a cost to his legacy beyond dollars and cents. The Knicks' cap sheet is clogged until the summer of 2015, and still might not be clean enough to lure in another superstar-caliber talent via free agency at that point, with Melo's massive salary on the books and Iman Shumpert due for a raise.
And it's not as though the Knicks will have many opportunities to add cheap talent through the NBA draft. They've already promised away their first-round picks in 2014 (from the Anthony trade) and 2016 (for Andrea Bargnani), thereby making their top choices in 2015 and 2017 untouchable in transactions for now.
In short, the future looks bleak for the Knicks, whose 17-27 record so far through the 2013-14 campaign points to a present that isn't all that pretty, either. It's no wonder, then, that Melo has spent so much time and effort fending off speculation about his path going forward. When you're the biggest pro basketball star in the Big Apple, the city's media throngs are bound to hound you with questions when the door will soon be open for your potential exit.
Words With Friends
Those questions bubbled to the surface once again this past weekend, when the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the teams long rumored to be at the top of Anthony's free-agent wish list, made their annual pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden. Kobe Bryant, a close friend of Carmelo's, was queried about luring Anthony to L.A. in July, when the Lakers are scheduled to have ample cap space to make such a play.
"Well, everybody wants to play in Los Angeles," Bryant told the attendant horde prior to the Lakers' 110-103 shortfall in New York on Sunday (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles). "I mean New York is a beautiful place, don't get me wrong, but it is colder than s--- out here. You know, palm trees and beaches obviously are a little more appealing."
"All jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I will be more than happy to give it to him."
Bryant is uniquely equipped to offer such advice. Like Anthony, Bryant was (and, to some extent, still is) ridiculed for his scoring-centric style of play. He spent seven years between his last Shaquille O'Neal-accompanied championship and first as the Lakers' unquestioned "alpha dog" shooting to his heart's content while trying to prove that he could take a team to the top "on his own."
Throughout those dark days, Kobe was dogged by doubts about his ability to do so. Bryant often blamed his lack of solo success on the subpar supporting cast with which he was surrounded—and not without reason. Any star would be hard-pressed to compete for a championship when having little choice but to lean on the likes of Smush Parker, Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown for help. Bryant went on to say:
It can contribute to a lot of frustration. That is why I was so frustrated with this organization back in 2006 and 2007 because I didn't want to be known as a scorer. I wanted to make sure I had a team around me that could contend for a championship. So this is a team sport. A lot of times you have to work with what you have around you. You have to be lucky in the sense of having an organization that can put a great team around you and be successful.
So far, the Knicks haven't quite been able to do that. Since Anthony arrived via blockbuster trade in February of 2011, they've seen Amar'e Stoudemire decay into the NBA's most regrettable cap casualty, Tyson Chandler fluctuate between Defensive Player of the Year and walking injury, J.R. Smith careen from Sixth Man of the Year to human headache and Raymond Felton regress back to his bowling ball physique.
And that's without getting into Metta World Peace's knee problems, Andrea Bargnani's myriad ineptitudes (and recent elbow injury), Mike Woodson's constant incredulity and the daily back-page gossip fodder surrounding the Knicks' front office and long-time owner James Dolan.
As the conventional wisdom dictates, so long as Dolan owns the Knicks, they'll always be dysfunctional, to the extent that building a title contender in New York will be nigh on impossible. And since Forbes once again ranked the Knicks as the NBA's most valuable franchise, at approximately $1.4 billion, there's no reason to believe that Dolan will relinquish control of the team any time soon.
Mr. LaLa in La La Land?
Interestingly enough, the second and third teams on Forbes' list double as those most likely to pry Anthony away from New York's riches.
The Lakers, who checked in at No. 2 in franchise valuation, could be loaded with cap space this summer, with only Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Nick Young and Robert Sacre signed beyond this season. If Nash fails to play in at least four more games and Young opts out of the second year of his deal, the Lakers' cap sheet could be even cleaner.
Provided the team renounces its rights to its priciest free-agents-to-be, most notably Pau Gasol, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill.
The Lakers' lackluster campaign thus far (16-29, in a virtual tie for 14th place in the West) would seem to dissuade in-their-prime superstars like Anthony from seeking championship refuge in L.A. This iteration of the Purple and Gold, which Melo torched for 35 points just two days after setting a franchise and arena record with 62 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, looks to be a long way from returning to the NBA Finals.
But if the crisis under Mike D'Antoni carries through until the spring, the Lakers could find themselves with a golden opportunity to reload with a blue-chip prospect from the 2014 draft. That scenario could prove to be the perfect one for which Melo would jump ship from the Knicks. He'd be free to be himself, to score at will as he has throughout his career, without having to worry about being the face of the franchise (at least until Kobe retires) and with another young stud to provide support over the long haul.
Those who doubt Anthony's ability to thrive in such a scenario need only look back to his performance with USA Basketball at the 2012 London Olympics to see that he can, indeed, be a key cog on a great squad. Anthony settled in beautifully as a spot-up shooter on Team USA, alongside a field of fellow superstars who could create easy scoring opportunities for him.
As a result, Anthony wound up as the leading scorer on a team that featured LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love and Bryant (among others) and delivered Melo his second straight gold medal.
Of course, the L.A. scenario won't come without some serious risks for Anthony. Aside from what he'd be leaving behind (i.e. more money, the love and admiration of his hometown), Melo would have to consider the possibility that Bryant will never return to his pre-Achilles injury form. The mileage on Kobe's 35-year-old body already portends both a serious susceptibility to injury and slow recovery thereabouts. The fact that Bryant suffered a fracture in his left knee just six games into his comeback this season all but confirmed that lingering suspicion.
There's also the not-so-small matter of Melo's contentious relationship with Mike D'Antoni. The two had their differences (to say the least) to the extent that D'Antoni resigned his post with the Knicks in March of 2012. According to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the player and coach aren't on speaking terms, which clearly could be a problem should the two be reunited in L.A.
And as tempting as it is to think about Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid in a Lakers uniform as a "prize" for the futility of D'Antoni's current team, there's no guarantee that the lottery balls will bounce so clearly in their favor or that whoever they draft will pan out as planned.
No. 7 in Second City?
To that end, the Chicago Bulls, who came in third on Forbes' list, make sense as a suitor for Anthony's services. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "Chicago is much more in play for him than L.A."
And for good reason. Next season, the Bulls' roster will feature a superstar point guard who can create scoring opportunities for Melo (Derrick Rose), an All-Star center (Joakim Noah) and an up-and-coming wing (Jimmy Butler) who can cover for him defensively, and a head coach (Tom Thibodeau) who can command and demand his respect with equal efficacy.
Now that Luol Deng is off the books and Carlos Boozer's salary will be eligible for amnesty, Chicago could, with some creative cap management on the part of GM Gar Forman, have enough financial flexibility to sign Anthony outright.
The Bulls, though, are hardly without their own blemishes. Rose is currently rehabbing from his second season-ending knee injury in a 19-month span. Noah's heavy workload in recent seasons has exacerbated his existing foot problems. Butler has regressed somewhat since becoming a full-time starter. Thibs might decide to sever his already fractious ties with the Bulls after seeing Deng, a favorite of his, shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for draft picks and luxury-tax savings.
That move, in particular, was just the latest in a lengthy line of decisions made by Chicago's front office that point to owner Jerry Reinsdorf running the Bulls, in Wojnarowski's words, as "a big market franchise with small-market sensibilities."
Safe at Home
Say what you will about James Dolan's competency as a owner and decision maker, but at least the guy could never be mistaken for a spendthrift. Should the Knicks ever find themselves with the proper combination of smart management and steady coaching, they may yet use their extensive resources carefully and wisely to bring in championship-caliber talent to help Melo.
Contrary to popular belief, Anthony might not have to choose between winning and earning after all. Shumpert and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. have both shown tantalizing potential as young, athletic swingmen who could either develop into stars for the Knicks or be dangled as trade bait for other assets. Once Stoudemire, Chandler and Bargnani come off the books in 2015, New York should have a chunk of cap space to be filled with more complementary talent.
And if the Knicks aren't any good next year, they'll have their own first-round pick with which to add another piece to the puzzle.
Maybe, then, Magic Johnson was right to advise Anthony to stay put.
Maybe, Bryant will do the same if/when Carmelo comes calling for a nugget of wisdom this summer. And maybe, just maybe, Anthony can have it all, even without making a drastic move to redirect his own legacy.
But only if his Knicks fashion themselves into a winner. Bryant encapsulated the point with this quote:
The only way to do that is win. That's it. I won five championships and there's some of you guys still say that. You just got to take it and roll with it. The important thing is winning a championship. That's the only way to shake it. That's the only way Michael [Jordan] shook it. That's the only way any top scorer will be able to shake it.
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