This July, Carmelo Anthony's career will change forever. Whether he re-signs with the New York Knicks after opting out of his current contract, or flees elsewhere to chase the elusive championship, 'Melo's next deal will carry him through the rest of his prime.
His personal and team results over that span are what will paint his legacy as an NBA star—as anything from a selfish underachiever, to loyal solider or humble champion.
Should Anthony accept the Knicks' maximum-level offer, he'd surely win over the hearts of New York fans, but those who rely on wins and losses to decipher greatness would never hold him in elite standing. And while taking a financial hit to join a better situation would be admirable, there would always be the decided crowd against 'Melo for needing two scenery changes to find a winning home.
While one player's decision can only finitely dictate his team's championship odds, it unmasks character more than any interview or tweet ever could. Anthony's next move will undoubtedly entice pundits and fans—fairly or unfairly—to begin the process of defining his career into a single narrative.
Hometown Hero; the Lovable Loser
The scenario the Knicks hope plays out this summer is also the one that could tarnish Anthony's league-wide legacy the most.
If Anthony and New York renew their vows this summer with a five-year, $129 million commitment, it would infer one of two things, from a wins-and-losses standpoint: Either Anthony trusts James Dolan's front office to surround him with a championship-caliber crew, or that he's solely interested in collecting the largest possible payout.
As holders of Anthony's Bird rights, New York can shell out a five-season deal to their star with seven percent annual raises. All other teams max out at four years with 4.5 percent raises—equating to roughly $96 million.
The most difficult aspect of Dolan's sell to Anthony will be his effective forfeiture of 2014-15, while Anthony would be wasting away a precious year of his prime with an essentially identical Knicks roster. All along, New York's plan has been to bring Anthony back and prep for a major free-agency run in 2015 while lusting after Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge.
Under this model, Anthony would be signing off on a plan in which the Knicks finally construct a contending team in his 13th pro season—not to mention the fact that multi-star teams of this nature typically take at least one season to build cohesion and chemistry.
Over his last three seasons, 'Melo has averaged .172 win shares per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference. Also according to Basketball-Reference, over the last five seasons, just seven players in their 13th year or later have posted that number in a single season: Chauncey Billups once, Kobe Bryant twice, Tim Duncan three times, Steve Nash once, Dirk Nowitzki three times and Paul Pierce one time.
Only one of those seasons—Dirk's 2010-11 campaign—culminated with an NBA championship.
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Even if Anthony does the Knicks a solid and settles for significantly less than the max, it's questionable to believe that a Dolan-spearheaded front office would construct the soundest team instead of the most marketable. If New York swings and misses on building a winner—like they did in 2010—Anthony runs the risk of fading into irrelevancy on a mediocre-at-best Knicks team through the age of 34.
Of course, despite a re-up with New York likely turning out to be the wrong basketball move for 'Melo, he would be forever lauded by Knicks fans for loyalty—even if the decision was strictly a financial one.
Despite growing up in Baltimore, Anthony was born in Brooklyn and attended Syracuse University for a year. There are clear ties between Carmelo and New York, and playing the bulk of his career in the Big Apple would be a rare opportunity, on a relational and personal level. If you're into that sort of thing.
A Temporary Villain; Long-Term Hero
Anthony also has the option of fleeing the city he forced his way to in 2011, in search of a fresh start elsewhere. Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have been frequently linked to Anthony all season long, while young, promising squads like the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards also plan on having the necessary cap space to bring on a max-level contract.
Earlier this week, the most ostensible evidence towards Anthony's potential departure was dropped by ESPN's Chris Broussard, when he reported that Bulls center Joakim Noah did his best to pitch his squad to the soon-to-be free agent during All-Star Weekend.
The sources said Noah told Anthony something to this effect: You can go to Los Angeles, but if you really want a ring, if you really want your legacy to be about winning, you should come to Chicago.
Anthony responded by telling Noah that he admires how hard the Bulls play and how hungry they are. Anthony also told Noah, according to the sources, that Derrick Rose is his son's favorite player.
Sources said Rose also wants the Bulls to add Anthony and would be willing to help recruit him if he is asked to do so.
Asked if there was any truth to Broussard's report, Noah didn't exactly deny his tamper-y conversation, according to ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell.
Noah says he doesn't want to address Carmelo rumors. Asked if it was accurate he said, "it doesn't matter." Never said No.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) March 7, 2014
If Anthony opts for a less lucrative deal and signs with any team besides New York, the immediate reaction from some New York fans would be a burning hatred that could last for the duration of his career. (An aside: Of course, much more knowledgeable Knicks fans do exist—ones who understand how great Anthony has been this season and hope for him to find a better situation.)
To a lesser effect, it wouldn't be outlandish for Carmelo to receive a similar treatment to the one LeBron James took in upon joining the Miami Heat.
But it shouldn't be dismissed that in leaving New York, Anthony would be doing something he's never been willing to do over the course of his career: leave money on the table. In 2006, he signed a max-level extension with Denver. He then demanded a sign-and-trade to the Knicks five years later instead of signing outright that summer. Anthony insisted on the trade as it was more lucrative and less risky compared to signing a deal in the offseason, even though it meant stripping the Knicks of several assets.
If 'Melo makes this sacrifice for the first time, and leaves more than $30 million on the table to better position himself for a ring ceremony, his detractors would have a difficult time labeling him the selfish egomaniac they've attempted to sell over his entire career.
Inevitable Fuel for Slander
Those detractors will likely find selfishness or ineptitude in whatever Anthony decides on this summer. If he returns to New York, he's a sellout. If he takes less money to join a winning franchise, it'll be devalued because he will have needed two scenery changes to find success—after all, they'd be quick to point out that he's never made it beyond the second round in any postseason.
But what isn't brought up enough is how Anthony—the perpetual loser, according to some—has never failed to lead his team to the playoffs in his career. He's been a part of five 50-win seasons and has never been on a team with a sub-.500 record, though that streak will come to an end this season.
One anonymous NBA GM called Carmelo Anthony "selfish" and another said he "can't be alpha male." http://t.co/1MRf9Uxe0Q— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 15, 2013
In a season marked by never-ending turmoil and a roster filled with disappointment, Anthony has posted the best numbers of his career. He's posted a career-high PER near 25, which tops last season's previous career-high, and has posted a shooting slash line of .467/.459/.836 since Dec. 5. While he's on the bench, the Knicks get outscored by 13 points per 100 possessions. His 8.3 rebounds per game—a career high—is good for second on the Knicks behind Tyson Chandler.
Though defense has never been regarded as Anthony's strong suit, he's held his opponents to a PER below league average, according to 82games.com.
There have been past instances of Anthony acting immaturely and letting stubbornness act as an obstacle in the way of team success. But those days appear to be long gone, as he's contributing in several facets while leading the NBA in minutes.
Regardless of where Carmelo ends up next season, there will be a hint of condescension from scattered opinions across the NBA realm. It shouldn't and likely won't affect his ultimate decision, but the lack of relation between 'Melo's elite body of work and the general opinion of him is disappointing, to say the least.
Trust Will Be the Deciding Factor
The issue with legacies, though, is how little a player truly controls his. Much of how Anthony will be remembered, as is the case with most stars, will be defined by his team's postseason standing from here on out.
Which is why his upcoming decision this summer comes down to one fundamental human element: trust.
Carmelo will sign away the remainder of his prime only to the team that can most strongly convince him that he can walk away a champion when all is said and done.
He's tasted greatness before, but there's still the one trophy missing from Anthony's case. He's taken home an NCAA title with Syracuse, and he's won two gold medals with Team USA. With a championship ring on his finger, he would join Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Jerry Lucas, K.C. Jones, Quinn Buckner and Clyde Lovellette as the eighth player in history to reach all three basketball pinnacles.
It's impossible to put a price tag or value on legendary greatness. A player of Anthony's caliber, in the prime of his career, has a true chance at reaching such heights. With the right role players, a strong coach and wise management, 'Melo has a chance at solidifying his status as one of the all-time greats by finally chasing down that elusive championship.
Which is why when the offers are on the table, for the first time in Anthony's career, it won't be about the dollar signs.
For the first time, the Knicks are realizing it now, too. But after three years of empty championship promises to their star, 'Melo will soon be subjected to much more realistic title pitches.
At this stage, all the Knicks can do is hope that Anthony takes a page straight from the organization's playbook: Worry about finance first and winning second.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.