Patience is a virtue Carmelo Anthony spent a decade basking in, using a streak of playoff berths neither LeBron James nor Kobe Bryant could call their own to marginally beard the absence of a championship.
NBA title activists no doubt slammed Anthony for his postseason failures, but playoff miscues are far more respectable than strings of lottery appearances lined with the occasional winning record. If championships were the standard, Anthony was constantly within chasing distance, putting together 10 consecutive playoff berths.
That very streak is in jeopardy now, with the New York Knicks parlaying 54 wins and an Atlantic Division title in 2012-13 into top-to-bottom entropy, replete with the league's second-highest payroll. Nabbing Anthony's 11th straight postseason berth isn't out of the question with 25 games to play, but hope is waning.
With free agency on the horizon, so is Anthony's future in New York.
How Far Away Are the Knicks?
All season, Anthony has parroted the same refreshing and (frankly) surprising optimism, culminating in an open All-Star-Weekend admission that he would be open to accepting a pay cut to remain in New York. But it comes with a caveat: Anthony wants to win.
"I want to win a championship, so I’m going to do whatever I have to do to win a championship," he told Sage Steele and Tim Legler on ESPN’s SportsCenter, via the New York Post's Marc Berman. "If that means testing free agency, what happens on that market, so be it."
Winning is something the Knicks aren't doing now and by most other appearances, don't plan on seriously doing until summer 2015, when superstars Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo become available. So to win, or rather, have the opportunity to win in New York, Anthony must continue to exhibit the same patience he's upheld since 2011.
At this point of his career, that's a risk he cannot afford to take for much longer. Anthony will be 30 when he hits the open market, so, in theory, the Knicks must be a team he considers on the verge of contending if he's to stay.
For the Knicks to merely return to 2012-13 status, though, there have to be significant changes afoot this summer, with addition by subtraction and actual addition. That's something Anthony has made a priority: ensuring the Knicks have a plan.
"I told people all the time, if it takes me taking a paycut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying: 'Take my money and let’s build something strong over here,'" he said while in New Orleans for the All-Star Game, via Berman.
Number savants aren't the only ones who understand building "something strong" is unlikely to happen this summer. Remove Anthony's projected 2014-15 salary from New York's books, and it's still markedly above the league-imposed cap. Add his payday into the mix, assumed pay cut and all, and forget about it.
Barring salary dumps of epic and nigh-impossible proportions, that leaves 2015, when the Knicks are actually forecasted to have room to spend freely. But by the time 2015 free agency rolls around, Anthony will be on the wrong side of 31, wearing thinner on patience and even thinner still on time.
Another year and change doesn't seem like much. To a young player, under 30, it most certainly isn't. It might even be a reasonable time frame for the aging and loyal Anthony, whose preference has always been to end New York's four-decade championship drought himself.
How Much Faith Does Anthony Have?
Assuming Anthony has the poise and patience necessary to wait until 2015, he then has to trust the Knicks can land him a strong stable of sidekicks, or, you know, make good on all the promises they've yet to keep.
Cap space and an unbridled willingness to spit in the face of heavily punitive luxury taxes and spend freely means little without execution. There's no guarantee the Knicks restock the roster with one or two of Rondo, Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert, among others.
Signing any superstar is easier with Anthony in the fold, for sure. Age will come into play, but if his production this season is any indication, he's still a teammate of choice. The question is: Is New York a destination of choice?
Big-market appeal only goes so far. New York is a popular locale flooded with brand-advancing and pocket-deepening opportunities, but it's also home to one of the most dysfunctional NBA franchises in recent memory.
This season, in which the Knicks are in danger of missing the playoffs, is a potential eye-opener for those outside the organization. Stubborn on-court systems—Dear Mike Woodson, Please put an end to the manic switching on defense. Signed, Everyone Ever—have been accompanied by political mayhem.
The Knicks fired general manager Glen Grunwald after he assembled a 54-win team on a pauper's dime. They gave up a first-round selection for former No. 1 pick, now-defunct (and injured) paint-clogger Andrea Bargnani. They signed J.R. Smith's brother Chris to a sketchy contract. They signed J.R. himself to a contract.
They've dangled their only two-way player, Iman Shumpert, in every trade proposal imaginable. They've bankrolled covert surgeries. They've allowed Raymond Felton to make a mockery of the point guard position. And now, when, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley, Felton is facing weapons-related charges, those in power—owner James Dolan and general manager Steve Mills—are locked away upstairs, presiding over this terror-stricken sideshow from afar.
Worse than all that, though, the Knicks are giving Anthony every reason to leave, wasting the best version of him anyone's ever seen.
Case in point wrapped in the self-contrived bedlam of New York's season: Anthony is on pace to set a career-high in win shares with 11.7. The Knicks, meanwhile, are on pace to win 24 fewer games than last year (30).
And now Anthony's supposed to remain patient and put his trust in that? When all signs point to the Knicks whiffing on another scheme forged in the shadows of Neverland, alongside Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and living, breathing, talking Centaurs?
Running Out of Time and Excuses
Winning is all Anthony claims to care about, and we've gotten to the point where, if he buys into improvements more than a year from now, he's either all talk or doesn't understand the term "victory."
"He has been in the league for a long time," Dwight Howard told USA Today's Sam Amick of Anthony. "He hasn't made it to the Finals and at this point in his career he wants to win. You can see it every night when he plays."
I'm not here to say Anthony will leave. He likely won't, if only for want of other options. I'm also not here to tell you the Knicks organization deserves him, because they don't. Not in their current state of impotence and frailty.
But I am here to say that if Anthony wishes to win, and he's truly prepared to do whatever it takes to win, he'll do just that. That could entail taking a pay cut, but mostly, it demands he do something else: Stop waiting.
There is no 2015. There is only now for Anthony. Today, not tomorrow. If he wants to win and the Knicks want to keep him, the latter needs to back course-shifting change this summer, against all odds. Not 2015, but now.
"Unfair" isn't a word the Knicks get to use here, even though that's what it is. It's unfair and unrealistic to expect them to retool the roster and reel in another superstar this summer using only expiring contracts and the few other assets they have. But it's equally unfair of them to expect Anthony to wait any longer than he already has.
This isn't the same Anthony who naively forced his way to New York in 2011, knowing he crippled the Knicks' pliability. This isn't the same one-dimensional Anthony who has been called out for lack of leadership and inflexible, movement-killing offense.
This is the Anthony who has put everything into now, playing and scoring and hustling like a winner, for a team that's continuously put him in position to lose.
"It's a damn shame," Coach Woodson said of Anthony's season-long performance for an inadequate Knicks team, per Begley.
It is a damn shame.
It's a damn shame it's come to this, to a point where he must give the Knicks an ultimatum: Saddle up and build a winner now, or watch as Anthony rightfully destroys all future hope of a team forever selling tomorrows it has yet to prove exist.
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