Carmelo Anthony is vastly different now—both as a player and person—than he was immediately before his arrival with the New York Knicks. On the court, his game has evolved more toward the perimeter. Off it, he's grown four years older and has grown accustomed to life's ebbs and flows in the Manhattan spotlight.
But after parts of four seasons with the Knicks, Anthony's outlook on James Dolan's franchise remains very much the same as it did when he was a disgruntled Denver Nugget. Some common threads between then and now: Anthony understands that New York's roster, as is, isn't near title contention; the team employs a coach who doesn't mesh with the personnel; and the organization is desperate for long-term success.
In short: Anthony has been banking on change for nearly four years and has seen nothing come to fruition. According to a number of reports, including one from ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, it has already driven 'Melo out of town.
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.
After this disaster season, it's possible that New York has already lost its star. Though if they still believe they have a shot—new president Phil Jackson has said he envisions Anthony in the future plans—wholesale changes will need to be made from top to bottom.
A Stark Improvement for 2014-15
With Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire all essentially locked in for next season (Stoudemire and Bargnani have player options that will not be exercised), the Knicks will be greatly restricted from shifting the roster around very much this summer. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle in New York's quest for Carmelo: asking him to all but forfeit another year of his prime in 2014-15.
Asking Anthony to throw away yet another of his most dominant seasons—after wasting the previous four—is likely all the reason 'Melo would need to walk away.
With this in mind, it's crucial for Jackson's front office to somehow re-solidify the Knicks as a top-flight Eastern Conference threat for next year.
It won't be easy, but it's feasible. The 2012-13 Knicks finished second in the conference and won 54 games with Anthony as the focal point, Raymond Felton as the point guard and Tyson Chandler in the middle. With a few frugal role-player additions and a crafty trade or two, a rise to the top of the East doesn't seem far-fetched.
The team can look to send out cash for a late first- or early second-round pick on draft night. If they seek a major makeup switch, they can even shop Tyson Chandler's expiring contract in search of a more offensive threat from the center position. If the Cleveland Cavaliers remain as desperate as they are now, a Chandler-for-Anderson Varejao swap could be worth looking into, especially if the triangle comes into play.
A few affordable veterans—think Shawn Marion, Steve Blake, Shane Battier—will hit the open market and could provide a voice that has gone missing from the New York locker room since 2012-13.
Stoudemire's contract may finally turn into a decent trade chip as an expiring deal, but given his markedly improved scoring of late, the Knicks may be better off benefiting from his contributions in 2014-15 and letting him come off the books afterwards.
Bargnani's deal will be a bit harder to work around, as he's neither a viable trade chip nor a positive contributor. His deal will also be in its final season, but it'll be interesting to see if the team opts to simply let the contract expire or flip it to a team for deals that may help in 2014-15 but eat into future space.
Pieces—Either Big or Small—That Fit Together Moving Forward
If Jackson and his front office do manage to keep Anthony's attention beyond the topic of 2014-15, they'll need to sell him on their ability to construct a sustainable winner with Anthony as the focal point—something Dolan never allowed Donnie Walsh or Glen Grunwald to do.
The star-studded 2015 free-agent class has been a topic of discussion for much of the season, and there's a possibility that New York will attract one of the biggest names. After all, that's part of what Dolan and Jackson discussed prior to the 68-year-old joining as president.
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.
In the summer of 2015, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo are slated to become free agents.
It's important to note, however, that constructing the best team may not entail inking the best available name in the summer of 2015.
Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge—the primary headliners of that summer—don't have much of a role with a 'Melo-centric Knicks unit. Anthony has played his best ball at the power forward spot, where Love and Aldridge both spend the most time playing. Besides, Anthony—and Jackson—have seen firsthand just how "clumsy" an offense can be with Anthony flanked by an offensive power forward, per the New York Daily News.
The next man up would be Rajon Rondo, who would seemingly fit well with Anthony. In most systems, 'Melo works best with a point guard who is strong both defensively and vocally. Ideally, Anthony is paired with a point guard whose opinion and game he respects. That was the case with Chauncey Billups and later Jason Kidd. It's clearly not the case with Raymond Felton.
I include the disclaimer "most systems" because this may not be the case with the triangle. Phil's patented system has been known to run predominantly without the benefit of a dominant point guard. If Jackson brings in a coach who opts for the triangle, spending max-level money on a point guard would be like buying your finest winter jacket just after moving into your dream home on a tropical beach.
Instead of locking into another roster for the next five years, New York could instead opt for a roster made up of mid-level-salary players and perhaps sustain cap room over the next year or two.
The beauty in creating cap space—not that the Knicks would know about it—is that it doesn't need to be blown away in one summer. It can be used over the course of a year to take on salary in trades or saved for a perfect match in a future summer.
No matter the method, Jackson will need to convince Anthony that a sustainable model of success is about to be put into place and that he won't be making a mistake by putting the remainder of his prime in the Knicks' hands.
Of course, none of this will be able to materialize if James Dolan carries his intrusive ways into Jackson's reign.
Dolan has publicly and privately stated that all basketball decisions will be left to Phil and his assembled crew, which is notable given his reputation as a notorious meddler. Dolan has said his interactions with Jackson have taught him a number of things, including the ever-quotable "that I don't know basketball":
More Dolan quotes from the exciting news conference: "I am by no means an expert in basketball. I think I'm a little out of my element when it comes to the team." He went on: "I found myself in a position where I had to be part of the decision-making for a little while."
He conveyed that it's Jackson's ship now and that he's finally taking a backseat. "Willing and gratefully, yeah," he said (all quotes via Posting and Toasting).
Dolan even opened up regarding the organization's close ties to Creative Artists Agency, or CAA, the agency that represents several Knicks execs, Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Mike Woodson:
Dolan, asked about CAA, says that Phil Jackson will oversee all basketball decisions, including ones involving agency ties.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) March 18, 2014
The Knicks owner speaking to the media at all should signal change—before this season, Dolan went seven years without saying one word on record.
Simply put, all the talk is great, but Dolan can only prove himself through acting—or in his case, not acting. Remember: The same type of autonomy was promised to Donnie Walsh upon his hiring in 2008, and for a while, Dolan kept his word. Walsh shed bloated salaries for expiring deals, and the Knicks were put in a position to spend for the summer of 2010.
Will Carmelo Anthony return to the Knicks next season?
That leash ran out of slack by January 2011, though, months after Walsh failed to lure free agent LeBron James to Dolan's Garden. Anthony was next on the owner's wish list, and he'd stop at nothing to make him a Knick. Walsh wasn't exactly sold on shipping four starters and several picks out to get a second star, but it didn't matter. It was Dolan's call.
Now the ironic cycle is almost complete. In order to retain his only star, Dolan must vow to refrain from the same type of act that brought him in. For anyone else who is "by no means an expert in basketball," funneling all basketball calls to Phil Jackson would be a no-brainer.
When it comes time for negotiations, Dolan will need to show himself a very familiar door—the same one he booted Walsh and Grunwald through once they dared to challenge his non-expert authority.