Sure, the New York Knicks' long-term hopes got a shot in the arm this week with the injection of Phil Jackson into the front office. But Carmelo Anthony has to understand that his best route to a championship ring still entails fleeing Madison Square Garden this summer.
According to sources that spoke with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, that's exactly what he will do.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith says Carmelo Anthony is leaving the Knicks in free agency http://t.co/ElQnWrqAma— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2014
And if he does, Knicks fans will be faced with an internal dilemma: Despise the figure they've admired for the last four years? Or wish the best for the most talented Knick to have worn the jersey in the last decade, but who management wasn't ultimately able to construct a championship-caliber team around.
Losing a player of Anthony's caliber would never be easy to digest for even the most reasonable of fans. Though once the emotion and blindness that comes along with fandom are factored out, a relocated 'Melo shouldn't be the villain some would make him out to be.
A Lopsided Proposition
When Phil Jackson and the rest of New York's front office sit down with Anthony this summer, they'll be accompanied by one gigantic elephant in the room.
Jackson can flash his two full hands of championship rings, he can offer more salary than any other team and he can promise 2015 to be the largest free-agency splash in league history. But no matter what the Knicks can bring Anthony, they'd be asking him to sacrifice yet another season of his prime in 2014-15, as the current roster is essentially locked in.
From Carmelo's perspective, approaching 30 years old and attempting to shake the reputation of a great individual player who can never win when it matters most, throwing a prime season down the drain isn't reasonable.
And although Jackson's presence makes the team's judgement much more trustworthy, 'Melo would be banking on Phil—a front-office novice—constructing a championship-caliber team in a single summer. With Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani coming off the books in 2015, New York is looking to pair a second megastar with Anthony.
It's also important to realize teams of the stripped-and-reloaded nature generally take at least one season to develop the chemistry and cohesion necessary to win a championship. Even the 2010-11 Miami Heat faltered on the league's biggest stage against the Dallas Mavericks in their inaugural season together. So by the 2016-17 season, Anthony could be in the third year of his contract, 32 years old and still without the hardware he's been after since 2003.
Considering all this, if 'Melo jumps ship in favor of a Chicago or Houston—as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has reported to be the external favorites—the decision will hardly derive from a lack of loyalty. From that Woj report:
Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.
"He'll give New York every option," one source with knowledge of Anthony's plans told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. "But he has options – and he's going to explore them all."
A Temporary Pain
There's no arguing with the point that New York instantly drops to the conference's cellar in 2014-15 without their star. But what has been overlooked when discussing the Knicks' gloom-and-doom fate post-Anthony is how feasible a franchise restart would be whether he bolts or not.
Draft picks aren't something the Knicks are rich in by any stretch, but 2015 is a rare draft in which New York actually owns its own first-round pick. With that in mind, a season at the bottom to kick-start an instant rebuild wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as this year's Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers can attest to.
|J.R. Smith||$6,399,750 (player option)|
|Raymond Felton||$3,950,313 (player option)|
|Iman Shumpert||$3,695,169 (qualifying offer)|
|Pablo Prigioni||$1,734,572 (partially guaranteed)|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||$1,304,520 (team option)|
|2015 First-Round Pick||?|
To go along with a top lottery pick in 2015, the Knicks would also have a clean cap slate to work with, to further promote a star-studded, revamped era of Garden basketball.
James Dolan certainly considered Jackson's recruiting ability when bringing him aboard, and with room for two or three high-salary free agents, the Knicks could still be able to construct a viable team through the 2015 plan, even without Anthony. Per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:
The Knicks believe Jackson has even more cache [than Pat Riley] when it comes to luring free agents to New York, and they believe his championship pedigree will give the club a greater chance of landing some big names once they clear significant salary-cap space after next season.
The Knicks generally aren't interested in traditional, player-development-oriented rebuilds and aren't even in a position with draft picks to carry out such a plan. If Jackson truly intends on taking the Knicks in a brand new direction, he'll have the opportunity to work with a nearly blank canvas in 2015 if Anthony signs elsewhere.
And if Jackson is the "basketball Einstein" Dolan has made him out to be, Knicks fans shouldn't have anything to stress about, even without 'Melo in the plans.
A Changed Man?
As his career has progressed, Anthony has garnered his fair share of negative labels on his game. Selfish. Loser. One-dimensional. All have been attributed to Anthony at one point or another throughout his career by a decided group who 'Melo can never seem to please.
They'd tell you he won last year's scoring title because he shot too often. His legendary 62-point game was tarnished by the zero in the assist column. A team with him as the focal point can never win a championship because he doesn't try hard enough. The list goes on and on.
No matter how fallacious these mantras really are, it's as if there's been a stigma associated with Anthony as he's matured into an NBA vet.
While leaving New York without a ring would attract a great deal of distaste near the Big Apple, fleeing would also display a few hints of humility that 'Melo's detractors have been begging for.
Anthony has, historically, never left a dime on the table in contract negotiations. He signed a max-level extension with the Denver Nuggets in 2006, then forced his way to New York via trade in 2011 as opposed to free agency because it locked in a deal under the old collective bargaining agreement.
Signing a deal with a team other than New York, though, would require leaving roughly $30 million out of his career earnings. The Knicks can offer a max of five years, $129 million, while all other front offices can dangle four-year, $96 million offers.
It's also important to note that, according to Yahoo! Sports, Houston and Chicago would be his preferred destinations abroad. Both squads have constructed their own playoff-contending rosters over the last few seasons—Chicago with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as primary pieces, and Houston with Dwight Howard and James Harden—and Anthony would be joining on as a secondary star.
As his prime years approach their wane, Anthony realizes now that certain sacrifices will need to be made if he wants to finally reach the top of the NBA mountain. To some, the word "sacrifice" has never been directly associated with 'Melo (though those who have seen him give complete effort all season for New York would disagree).
This summer could be Anthony's chance to finally put an end to the slander by giving up his alpha role and significant cash to better position himself for a title. Fandom and allegiances aside, that's something everybody should be able to praise.