At one time, Anthony would have been pelted with vicious insults if he even entertained leaving New York. The Knicks were the team he wanted to play for; they were the team that mortgaged draft picks and tangible assets so he could sport the storied orange and blue.
Abandoning New York despite its repeated commitments to him would've been treason, a knife to the back of the franchise willing to do anything and everything for him. But things change.
Anthony is no longer a lock to remain in the Big Apple, nor is his potential departure viewed as a cowardly cop-out. Some even expect him to leave; some even believe he deserves better.
I was told this last week, I was told a few days ago, I had it reiterated to me by somebody I trust yet again this morning, that Carmelo Anthony is gone, he is leaving New York city [sic]. There are those like myself who still hold up the possibility that that may not be true (...) but for what I'm being told, he is gone. And he is gone because he's at the mindset that in order to achieve any amount of success he would had to sacrifice not just this this year but next year as well, because of this current roster.
With playoff hopes dwindling and the Knicks still resembling an extravagant failure, it's difficult to blame Anthony's, let's say, skepticism.
If he wants to leave in free agency this summer, he's earned that right. He's elevated his play, tailoring his game to meet New York's off-ball needs, putting up numbers that leave no doubt he remains a top-10 superstar. If he can find a better situation, a more championship-ready team, then by all means, he can desert New York.
But that's assuming such options exist.
Leave For Who?
There are scores of reasons why Anthony could want out of New York—deficient supporting cast, chaotic and inconsistent front office, weather, Andrea Bargnani's continued refusal to divulge shampooing secrets, potential lottery finish, etc. Perched above all else, though, is winning. Anthony wants a title, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to nab one.
"I'm willing to do whatever," Anthony told reporters, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "As long as it's going to put me in a position to win, I'm willing to do whatever."
Including accepting a pay cut? Maybe.
Changing his playing style (again)? Yup.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says Anthony has indeed given leaving some thought, citing two teams in particular the superstar is expected to consider:
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.
The chance to play alongside a healthy Derrick Rose would be a boon for Anthony's offensive game. He has never partnered with a truly elite point guard. Yet after spending three-plus years witnessing the on-again, off-again status of an injury-prone Amar'e Stoudemire, there's obvious risk in signing on to play with Rose's rickety knees.
Considering who Chicago would also have to relinquish to create enough cap to sign Anthony—Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, maybe even Taj Gibson—there's little reason to believe this would be a fertile marriage for either party.
Houston is an intriguing destination because it provides Anthony with the opportunity to sync up with two superstars in Dwight Howard and James Harden. Any play the Rockets make for Anthony, however, starts with dumping Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, continues with merely picking up Chandler Parsons' team option and allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency in 2015, and ends with believing the ball-dominant Harden and Anthony can coexist with the former acting as the primary playmaker.
It is possible that both situations pose more immediate potential than what Anthony sees in New York. But it's equally possible they don't.
The Power of Zen
The Knicks are paying newly instated rookie president Phil Jackson $60 million for a reason: presence.
Allow me to be very clear here before phrases like "Knicks-basher" and "New York-hater" get tossed around: Jackson was brought in to change the culture and perception of the Knicks, not the primary plan.
New York will still attempt to rebuild quickly through free agency, chasing superstars they've been unable to land in the past. Only this time, Jackson can lend his 13 championship rings to the cause, daring any who prioritize winning to ignore them.
That's a good thing. For what the Knicks want, for what they need, Jackson's mystique is a great thing—one already paying dividends.
Whenever he hits free agency, LeBron James is now expected to "look at" the Knicks, per The New York Daily News' Frank Isola, because of Jackson. Now, you don't want the Knicks to make James Plan A again, but that's power. That's reach.
So no, Jackson's arrival doesn't mark the dawn of a new plan, where the Knicks scrape, claw and gradually rebuild through the draft. But yes, it does make the Knicks more likely to successfully retool their roster around new superstars while improving their on-court productivity through system basketball.
Again, all good things, all things Anthony should want to stick around to experience.
Like Smith notes, Anthony doesn't want to hear about 2015 and the pursuits of additional superstars—James, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, etc. He cares about 2014, about now. Can't really blame him either, but Jackson could potentially change his mind.
Maybe he's able to sell him on waiting one more year. Maybe his resume is enough to convince Anthony to stay, working just like it should on prospective free agents in 2015.
Maybe Jackson grabs an inescapable hold of Anthony's interest by pointing out he stands to maximize his earning potential even further by simply opting in for 2014-15, as previously outlined by CBS Sports' Ken Berger:
But the whole discussion introduces an interesting possibility into Anthony's free-agent equation. What if he decided to opt in for the 2014-15 season with the Knicks at $23.3 million and waited to see if A) a new coach, and B) another max free agent in the summer of 2015 could bring the Knicks back to contention? If Anthony then decided to re-up with the Knicks in 2015, the five-year max deal he'd get then, plus his max salary in 2014-15, would maximize his earnings over a six-year period more than any other option currently fathomable. The question, of course, is whether Anthony and his agents would want to incur the injury risk that would come along with that decision.
Waiting is taboo for players approaching the wrong side of 30. The sooner stars can cash in, the better.
Unless it's not better.
Home May Be Where the Rings Are
Signing with Houston or Chicago would demand Anthony accept a pay cut of some kind, even if that strictly includes him receiving a four-year deal instead of the five-year pact New York can offer. More likely, it's going to entail him sacrificing that one year and then some.
Put in that light, the Knicks actually offer Anthony more flexibility than most other situations, if not all of them. Either he signs for five years at the max—or a predetermined pay cut—or he opts in for one more year, only to explore the more opportunity-dense 2015 free-agency field and/or make more money over the life of his next contract.
Is that not worth the risk, the extra patience, when considering what the prize—Rondo-, Love- and James-centric pursuits—would be in 2015? Or when considering how limited his options are this summer?
Or when considering that Jackson, master of Zen and keeper of rings, wants him around?
"I have no problem committing in saying Carmelo is in the future plans," Jackson said at his introductory press conference Tuesday, via Iannazzone.
When a basketball mind like Jackson wants you—even in modified capacities—you listen intently. You stick around to see what happens, to see if his championship cache can become your path to a title.
"He'll give New York every option," a source told Woj of Anthony. "But he has options—and he's going to explore them all."
And explore them he should. Neither Jackson nor anyone else can guarantee his arrival perfects New York's current blueprint. But he gives the Knicks and Anthony options and faith they didn't have before.
All season, the Knicks have been giving Anthony reasons to leave without ever looking back, and though many of those deterrents still exist, they are finally giving him cause to exercise his freedom of choice on them before anyone else.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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