There was once a time when Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson couldn't coexist, when their ideologies conflicted and their legacies were traveling in two vastly different directions.
A few years and two very (very) expensive moves later, their paths have converged, intersecting at the cross streets of desperation and extravagance, the place James Dolan's New York Knicks fancy home.
After officially agreeing to become the president of something and pseudo-savior of everything, Jackson, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard, is being paid $60 million over the next five years to remodel New York into a respectable franchise.
He joins the Knicks more than three years after the lucratively paid Anthony, who has been unable to end a four-decade-long championship drought while watching the team manipulate its skyscraping visions into lavish shanties.
For what the Knicks need, Jackson is perfect. He has little front-office experience, a bare resume that includes advising a botched Detroit Pistons coaching search last summer. But he has presence, mystique—the ability to lend 13 gleaming championship rings to New York's title-starved image.
What the man who has almost everything still needs, though, is help from an unexpected collaborator.
Understanding the Plan
Before even joining the team, Jackson left his mark.
According to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, LeBron James has become enamored by his addition, so much so that he's expected to "look at" the Knicks in free agency, whenever he decides to explore it.
This is exactly what the Knicks want, what they've wanted even before Jackson: to become and remain a choice team able to swing free-agent decisions similar to how Pat Riley and the Miami Heat have since 2010.
Good ol' Riles started with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James in 2010, and hasn't stopped since. Extensions of his reach and Miami's allure include Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller and, on a smaller scale, Greg Oden.
Players have accepted pay cuts, however small or large, to play for Miami. The Knicks want that power. It's why they're selling fans on their inevitable attempt to sign every superstar under the sun in 2015, when they're projected to have mountains of cap space.
It's why they brought in Jackson.
See, Jackson's arrival creates a common misconception. There are those who will take his hire as a sign of radical change, and in a way, it is.
Sixty-eight-years savvy, Jackson wouldn't have agreed to join the Knicks if Dolan didn't grant him autonomy. Whether he actually enjoys that freedom remains to be seen, but it's possible he will. And that's different for New York.
But the Knicks' plans haven't changed. They won't change. They still expect to stage free-agency coups and remedy longstanding issues quickly and effectively.
When Phil Jackson is standing in front of a top-tier free agent, the Knicks want him to begin his recruiting pitch with an old Pat Riley trick: throwing his rings on the table.
All 13, in fact.
An NBA source says that a big part of the Knicks' thinking behind pursuing Jackson is to recruit free agents to New York, starting with re-signing Carmelo Anthony, who can opt out of his contract on July 1.
Nearly four years after the Knicks' recruiting pitch to LeBron James came up woefully short, Garden chairman James Dolan is counting on Jackson to become the organization's closer.
For what the Knicks want, they need a reversal of fortunes, not thinking.
For what they want, they need Jackson, his reputation and his championships.
And for what Jackson must do, he needs Anthony.
The Importance of Keeping 'Melo
Previous insults aside, Jackson and Anthony need each other. They both it know it, too.
Before agreeing to sign on, Jackson, per The Knicks Blog's Adam Zagoria, wanted assurances that Anthony wouldn't leave in free agency. The Knicks cannot actually guarantee Anthony's return with absolute certainty, but that's likely what they did.
Anthony, meanwhile, spoke highly of the Jackson hire, calling it a "power move," per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. He eventually waxed even more optimism over the Zen Master's arrival.
"The big picture, absolutely, for the big picture this is definitely more attractive," Anthony admitted, via Newsday's Al Iannazzone.
Nothing Anthony says is wrong, nor is it coincidence. The Knicks deliberately ceded power and money for Jackson's aura, for the championship climate his lore creates. But he needs help.
If Jackson were haunting New York's sidelines, maybe he alone would be enough. Playing under him directly is something few would pass up if given the opportunity.
Problem is, Jackson isn't coaching anything. He's governing the Knicks from afar, via New York's front office or Los Angeles' sunny beaches. The closest he'll come to coaching is sitting courtside or greeting players as they emerge or re-enter the tunnel.
Depending on the day and level of morale within the Concrete Jungle, the Knicks will be coached by Mike Woodson, or Steve Kerr, or John Calipari, or Jeff Van Gundy, or Elmo, or Whoopi Goldberg's character from Eddie.
Whoever is coaching the Knicks won't have the same pull as Jackson, who subsequently won't have his usual influence because he's not coaching. He needs to plant a superstar seed.
To bilk a line from the iconic Field of Dreams: If you build it, he will come.
In the Knicks' case, if Jackson builds it, if he buttresses New York's reputation by putting one star in place, others are more likely to come. And who better to put in place than someone who's already in place?
Don't come bearing "Carmelo Anthony is overrated," George Karl-inspired vitriol here. That's weak and outdated.
If anything positive can be taken away from this maddening Knicks season, it's Anthony's performance. Despite New York being on course to win 20 to 21 fewer games than last year, he's pacing himself toward a career-high 11.2 win shares.
This isn't the same ball-stopping, perspective-lacking Anthony who arrived in 2011. This is a refreshingly humble, bewitchingly mindful Anthony who is passing more frequently while predominantly scoring within the flow of the offense.
Put simply, Anthony has evolved as a player and person. He's hitting a whopping 44.1 percent of his spot-up three-pointers this season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), evidence he can play without the ball. He's registered 21 double-doubles thus far, more than twice as many as he recorded in the two previous seasons combined.
Anthony has changed enough to be the player Jackson and New York needs.
Together They Must Stand
More important than anything, Anthony is still willing to change.
"I'm willing to do whatever," Anthony told reporters, via ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk. "As long as it's gonna put me in a position to win, I'm willing to do whatever. I'm not sold or stuck on my play."
Anthony is the type of player, the now-flexibile superstar, others will want to play alongside. He hasn't even shied away from accepting a pay cut in his next contract. And while any salary reduction he accepts is unlikely to be mind-bendingly substantial, the gesture, however authentic, matters.
Never mind that Anthony is approaching 30. Never mind the perils building around 30-somethings bring. Anthony is what the Knicks need. He's what Jackson needs.
For the team to escape this decades-long rut, for it to have a real chance at Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love and—second-decision-willing—James in 2015, it needs a resident superstar who can sell those outside the organization on what's happening inside.
When partnered with Jackson, Anthony can be that superstar. Together, the unlikeliest of allies can be enough to rehabilitate the Knicks, bringing their cross-grained, unchanging fantasies closer than ever to becoming reality.
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