In the wake of aggravated harassment charges filed against a 19-year-old Staten Island resident, New York Knicks owner James Dolan has suddenly found himself at the epicenter of his team’s increasingly toxic tumult.
But while the episode has shed an unfortunate spotlight on the notoriously reclusive Dolan and one certifiably unstable fan, it pales in comparison to the media maelstrom that lies in increasingly likely wait: Carmelo Anthony leaving New York.
Lunatic rants of a loose-cannon kid are one thing. Having your franchise’s best player in a generation—and your business’ biggest draw—flee the scene and leave $30 million on the table?
If that doesn’t send Dolan a message, nothing will.
The whole scenario would've seemed impossible just a few short months ago, when Dolan was telling those closest to him that he expected his charges to challenge for an NBA championship.
ESPN New York’s Ian Begley was one of several reporters to first report the story, which unfolded the day before the Knicks’ first game of the season:
In a recent meeting with the coaching staff and some team executives, Dolan said he believes the Knicks have enough talent to win a title and that he expects them to do so this season, league sources with knowledge of the owner's message during the meeting confirmed.
"He told them he believes they have enough talent to win it all," one source said, "and he expects it to happen this year."
Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out as Dolan planned: After a pair of backbreaking losses, New York is now 5.5 games behind the Charlotte Bobcats—not a typo—for the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed.
That alone would be cause enough for alarm, if the underlying narrative thread weren’t so potentially disastrous: that the chances of Melo re-signing with New York are becoming slimmer and slimmer with each mounting loss.
Anthony himself hinted as much during a postgame interview following the team’s 107-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Saturday night. From ESPN.com, via the Associated Press:
"It's same things, different days," Anthony said. "It's starting to get tough to handle. It's definitely tested me. The frustration has definitely sunk in."
Desperation, dejection and doubt: the telltale signs of a superstar sinking to wit’s end.
If Dolan’s private security team can scrounge and scour the web looking for damning or damaging invectives, you better believe they’ve got their pulse on Anthony’s growing impatience.
Three years after Dolan decided to go all-in on a Big Three gambit—adding Anthony and eventually Tyson Chandler to a frontcourt already featuring Amar’e Stoudemire—Melo has become the singular steed to which the Knicks have hitched their wagons.
Following a tumultuous 2011-12, New York spearheaded a bevy of savvy veteran signings en route to a surprising 54-win campaign a season ago. The template, it seemed, had finally been found: Use New York’s limited financial wiggle room to surround Melo with a slew of spot-up shooters and capable—if not exactly world-beating—defenders.
To say he Knicks have come crashing down to earth would be selling the circus short: Not only has New York’s offense fallen off a cliff—from an overall efficiency of 108.6 a season ago to 103.8 thus far this year, per ESPN.com—their defense has cratered to a woeful 106.2, the fourth-worst mark in the league.
Through it all, the play of Anthony has served as a singularly merciful distraction—an incendiary sideshow to an overhyped, overpaid main attraction.
Indeed, while the Knicks as a whole have turned “regressing to the mean” into their own macabre art, Anthony’s production has remained at near-MVP levels:
Sadly, not even Melo’s own basketball brilliance has been enough to blind him from the writing on the wall: If his goal is to win an NBA championship, he’d be far better balling elsewhere.
Anthony himself suggested as much following a recent practice, as reported by the New York Daily News’ Peter Botte.
"(Winning a championship is) the only thing I care about. Anything else is irrelevant to me as far as when it comes to basketball,” Anthony said after practice in Greenburgh. “A championship is the only thing that’s on my mind."
For Dolan, that could mean one of two things: Anthony might be willing to take a pay cut in order to better bolster the team’s depth—something Anthony intimated over All-Star weekend (via ESPN New York’s Ian Begley.
That, or Melo’s perspective has become so jaded the only recourse he feels he has is to flee the fiefdom of failure that is Knicks management, and try for a trophy elsewhere.
Should New York’s nightmare come to pass, the Knicks will likely be forced to spend next season even deeper in the doldrums: a slew of cap-clogging contracts and a roster with neither the depth nor the pedigree to be taken seriously.
Whether Dolan would feel the pinch in the pocketbook is hard to say.
Still, it’s become increasingly clear—as evidenced, however in the extreme, by one man's malicious remarks—Knicks fans are fast approaching a psychological tipping point.
Losing Anthony, a player on whom the team has staked both its plans and its brand, would only accelerate the process.
If that happens, Dolan continuing unabated down his blundering path would serve as the clearest sign yet the Knicks are, at their heart, less a basketball team than a basketball tyranny.