As the New York Knicks' 2013-14 campaign teeters on the brink of disaster, it's the upcoming offseason that could prove truly catastrophic.
Carmelo Anthony is enjoying the finest season of his career, but learning an agonizing lesson in the process—no matter how well he plays, he can't make the Knicks winners on his own.
The reigning scoring champ has pumped in 165 points over his last four games, an average nightly contribution of 41.3 on .532/.528/.824 shooting. The Knicks are 1-3 over that stretch, which includes losses to the free-falling Atlanta Hawks (1-9 in their last 10) and the 17-42 Orlando Magic.
It'd be nice to write this off as bad luck.
Anthony knows better. This is business as usual in the Big Apple:
Carmelo Anthony has scored a career-high 922 pts in losses this season, 197 more than any other player.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) February 25, 2014
"It's pointless," Anthony said after his 44-point, nine-rebound effort couldn't save the Knicks from a 110-108 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, via Ian Begley of ESPN New York. "You score 40, 44, all losses. You kind of ask yourself, is it worth it?"
Worth what, you ask?
Well, how about the reputation damage he's taken? It's hard for him to shake the notion that he's not a "winner" when his $88.8 million roster, per ShamSports.com, sits 5.5 games out of an Eastern Conference playoff picture that holds three sub-.500 teams.
Then again, this team could reach its full potential (see: one-and-done postseason showing) and that narrative wouldn't change. His critics want to see something more substantial, even though he's already been doing comparatively significant things, as CBS Sports' Ken Berger notes:
In his previous 10 seasons, Anthony has never missed the playoffs -- never had a losing season. He is often maligned for venturing out of the first round only twice, but such a record of winning and postseason participation should not be diminished. It's a streak that not even LeBron James or Kevin Durant can match.
The Knicks would need to close the season with 20 wins over their final 25 games to escape with a .500 record. If 38 wins are needed to claim the last playoff ticket, New York has to close out with a 17-8 spurt.
The same Knicks that have dropped nine of their last 11 games and haven't had consecutive victories in nearly a month.
Maybe 10 straight playoff trips doesn't sound like much, but they're at least something on which Anthony can hang his hat.
Or, they were rather. He'll be losing that streak in a matter of months despite doing whatever he can to make sense of the medically red flagged, square-peg-round-hole roster around him.
With nothing short of MVP numbers (28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 25.3 player efficiency rating), he can lift this team just a shade above mediocrity. Once he leaves the floor, though, everything comes crashing down around him.
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None of the blame belongs on Melo's shoulders, but superstars always bear the brunt of their team's highs or lows.
As if Anthony's the one who built a supporting cast where the No. 2 option is a colossal draft bust (Andrea Bargnani, 13.3 points) and the No. 3 scorer is a volume scorer growing nearly silent (J.R. Smith, 12.9 points on 38.7 percent shooting). Like Anthony committed $21 million to 20 minutes a night of Amar'e Stoudemire's shadow or spread the bad blood between Tyson Chandler and coach Mike Woodson.
There are major issues with this franchise, and none of them involve Anthony. With no avenues toward assistance, these will remain problems going forward.
Help Isn't Coming
"There's only three ways to get players -- sign them, trade for them or draft them," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote. "The Knicks have no draft picks this year, no cap space and very limited trade assets."
In other words, it's bad now and will be bad later.
If Anthony, who has made it clear he intends to test the free-agent market over the summer, opts to stick around in New York, it will be impossible to keep selling the winning-means-everything script:
It's getting to a point where if Carmelo re-signs in NY he can no longer say his top priority is winning. At least not with a straight face.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 25, 2014
What could keep him inside the Empire State?
As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale notes, Anthony could latch on to one of several motivations:
Maybe the Knicks are able to sell him on a 2014-15 campaign swathed in uncertainty, ahead of a 2015 free-agency period draped in financial flexibility and even more uncertainty. Maybe Anthony's loyalty compels him to stay in New York. Maybe the $130(ish) million payday is too much to pass up. Or maybe ebbing hope in what the Knicks are doing prompts him to accept a pay cut.
Selling the 2015 class to a 2014 free agent seems unbelievable—until you remember these are the Knicks. Of course, that means Anthony will have another nightmare season to endure before trying his luck on the recruiting trail.
He has already said he would "without a doubt" consider a pay cut if it helps brings premier free agents to New York, via ESPN New York, but he'll need to find superstar running mates willing to join him.
He'll be 31 years old before making that pitch and didn't exactly hit the genetic jackpot. As good as Anthony is, I'm not sure a declining version of him is enough to outweigh the dysfunction inside Knicks owner James Dolan's world.
While Anthony would have to leave a year and roughly $33 million on the table to get out of New York, Dwight Howard proved last summer that money isn't everything.
Better Options Elsewhere?
By default, that answer almost has to be yes.
There's so much chaos within this franchise, it's hard to picture a worse situation.
Woodson's seat has been blazing all season. Raymond Felton's future is up in the air as the point guard is reportedly facing a felony weapons charge, via Tom Harvey of the New York Daily News. The rest of the roster is too beat up, too green or too inconsistent to help Anthony along.
Who should Carmelo Anthony sign with this summer?
If loyalty and a few extra dollars make the struggle worth it, then maybe Melo will have a long-term future in the city.
But that grass has to be looking awfully green at the moment.
If Anthony's eyeing the 2015 class, maybe he'd rather pair his selling skills with Kobe Bryant and have the two try to lure Kevin Love to the Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe Anthony wants to join an in-place superstar, like Derrick Rose with the Chicago Bulls. Perhaps he'd even sacrifice enough money to turn the Miami Heat's Big Three into a star-laden four-headed monster.
No one really knows what's driving his decision, but we'll get that answer over the summer.
Anthony knows it doesn't have to be this bad. He understands the salary restrictions this franchise is facing and can see there are no building blocks around him.
There isn't a basketball decision that could lead him back to the Knicks. But these choices aren't always made for basketball reasons.
We'll see where Anthony's priorities truly lie.