Soon, Carmelo Anthony will have to make a choice.
As a free agent this summer, the New York Knicks veteran will have the option of either re-upping with his current team or seeking a new destination on the open market. With just two paths available, picking one or the other might not seem like an especially difficult thing to do.
After all, 'Melo is going to get plenty of shots and collect plenty of money no matter what he decides.
But this is a decision that could go a long way toward determining Anthony's place in NBA history. Built into the deceptively simple question of whether to stay or go are numerous repercussions that could add even more wrinkles to 'Melo's already complicated legacy.
Supposing He Stays
Anthony was refreshingly candid in his All-Star Weekend press conference, opening up about his struggles this year and the decision ahead of him. To hear 'Melo tell it, he'd prefer to stick around in New York and might even sacrifice to do so.
Any opportunities that I can have to kind of build that up in New York, I’ll do it. I tell people all the time, if it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. [James] Dolan’s step saying, ‘Take my money, and let’s build something strong.’ … As far as the money man, it don’t really matter to me.
If Anthony were to accept a reduction in salary, he'd get a real image boost—both in New York and around the league. He'd look loyal, committed to sticking it out through difficult times. Even a media market and fanbase as divided on a star as New York is on Anthony would appreciate that.
But he might also look foolish for casting his lot with an organization that has proven time and again it isn't capable of building a winning team around him. Loyalty's fine, but at some point Anthony should probably recognize that no matter how much money he's willing to leave on the table, it'll still be the Knicks' awful front office misspending the remainder.
In the years since the ultimate authority on basketball at Madison Square Garden has been James Dolan, going back to the end of the 2000-01 season, the Knicks have won one playoff series. They have recruited one high profile coach, Larry Brown, and you saw how that worked out. They have made the Carmelo trade and paid Stoudemire $100 million in uninsured money. They have had two winning records in full 82-game seasons in the past 13½ years.
The definition of insanity is widely understood to be: "doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." If 'Melo takes less money to stay with an organization that has failed him at every turn...well, it might be time to update that definition to include Anthony as a secondary example.
Does he really want to go down as the superstar who wasted the second half of his career on a franchise that wasn't worthy of him?
Of course, things could go badly for Anthony in a number of other ways if he decides to stay.
The worst of all possible outcomes features Anthony backpedaling on his earlier talk of a pay cut, agreeing to sign an extension with the Knicks and demanding max money in the process. In one fell swoop, that approach would legitimize most of the criticisms leveled against 'Melo since he first got to New York.
He'd be forever remembered as the guy who played for the money and prestige, was the problem all along and never did anything to fix it.
Objectively, it's silly to begrudge Anthony (or anyone else) the chance to get the most money possible. But legacies are silly things, and they're certainly not fair. Anthony wouldn't be the first guy to have a decision deemed practical in the real world define him negatively in the make-believe realm of professional sports.
Supposing He Goes
If Anthony skips out as a free agent, the narrative could play out a couple different ways.
On the one hand, it'd look like he was abandoning ship for the second time in his career. He managed just one appearance beyond the first round of the playoffs with the Nuggets before forcing his way out, and he'd leave the Knicks with probably just a single postseason run beyond the first round during his tenure there. To some, that'd make 'Melo a two-time failure.
At the same time, we just spent a few hundred words talking about how foolish re-signing with a franchise as clueless as the Knicks would make Anthony look. There's no reason for him to expect the Knicks to suddenly start making good decisions after so many years of making bad ones. So there would also be an understanding contingent of fans who couldn't fault 'Melo for getting out of town.
But the complicated nature of Anthony's decision doesn't end there. Far from it.
It's not just the leaving that could define Anthony's legacy. Where he winds up will matter a great deal as well.
If Anthony opts to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, many would accuse him of repeating the mistakes of his past. Sure, the Lakers have cleaner books than the Knicks, but they haven't had a great track record of sound decisions since Buss the Younger took over. Signing in L.A. would make it look like Anthony was just swapping out a big market on one coast for a big market on the other. He'd still be perceived as attention-hungry—a player seeking exposure, money and prestige over the best chance to win.
That's not a great look.
Were he to go to the Chicago Bulls, we'd have a different story on our hands. There, he could prove his willingness to subjugate his ego, become part of an established system, defend and function in a real team setting.
You Can't Please Everyone
In the end, maybe we're reading too much into this. Maybe we need to be a little more honest about what a legacy really is.
The truth is, legacies are largely out of a player like Anthony's control. Media and fans form opinions that calcify over time, and there's very little a player can do to change them after they're initially established.
To some, it won't matter what Anthony does. He'll always be a one-dimensional scorer whose selfish game was the thing holding his teams back from success. To others, staying or going won't sway the belief that Anthony has always been criminally underrated and doesn't deserve the blame for being stuck in bad organizational situations.
As is usually the case, the truth about Anthony lies somewhere between those two extremes.
And that's why we should care about his upcoming decision, and what it'll ultimately say about him as a player and person. If we're going to be objective about Anthony—willing to change our beliefs about him based on his behavior and not settle into some intractable stance—we'll actually learn a lot about him in the next few months.
Legacies are hard to change and harder to control. 'Melo can do both by making the right choice this summer.
Too bad it's almost impossible to know what that is.