By week’s end and barring the near-impossible, the New York Knicks will have been officially eliminated from playoff contention—the formal, final whimper to a campaign from which so many expected an encore’s bang.
But it won’t be long before the focus shifts from a season lost to a superstar’s intentions. That, of course, being Carmelo Anthony, whose stated intention of testing unrestricted free agency has cast very real doubt upon his future as a Knick.
To retain Anthony’s services, the team’s newly minted president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson, must strike a delicate balance between necessarily conciliation on the one hand and stark honesty on the other.
More importantly, such an exchange—be it conducted over bread or basketball—absolutely has to be a two-way street if the Knicks have any hope of reimagining Anthony as a more financially flexible franchise cornerstone.
Owing to the chaos of New York’s ill-fated, last-ditch lunge at the postseason, this conversation—the one where all grievances are aired and all visions laid out—has yet to happen.
That doesn’t mean lines have been severed, of course. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the two most recently conversed prior to a game in L.A. against Jackson’s longtime team, the Los Angeles Lakers:
Jackson and Anthony were the two notable figures who remained in the locker room while the rest of the Knicks and coaching staff took the court in preparation for Tuesday night’s Lakers-Knicks contest. It was a short chat, but first time they had spoken beyond hellos.
Anthony later reiterated he would most certainly be sitting down at season’s end with the eminent Zen Master, who won a pair of rings as a backup on New York’s 1970 and 1973 championship teams and 11 more as a coach of the Chicago Bulls and Lakers, to get down to brass tacks.
It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that what is said in that meeting—or, Knicks fans should hope, meetings plural—will have a significant bearing on Anthony’s ultimate decision. Such is the simple nature not only of the two’s individual influence, but of their mutual respect for one another.
We have a pretty good idea what the two might want to hear, of course. For Anthony, it’s a guarantee of both a lucrative contract and a commitment to surrounding him with the best supporting cast Cablevision can buy.
Jackson, on the other hand, will want assurances Melo is able and willing to augment his singular talent to better fit within a more clearly defined offensive system—the triangle, perhaps, although this would seem fertile terra for the two sides meeting halfway.
Indeed, during his introductory press conference, Jackson was unequivocal in his belief that Anthony—secondary talents so often subsumed by our own narrative negligence—can get to “another level” and thrive regardless of the basketball framework. From ESPN New York’s Ian Begley:
[Carmelo] showed in the last Olympics that, coming off the bench and playing a role as a bench player on a magnificent team that won a gold medal, that he can play a role if he has to play a role. I think he's a basketball player, and that's what players want to be able to do. They want to be able to cut, to pass, to be in different spots on the floor. To attack or to play. I think that Carmelo will be just fine. I see no problem in it.
What Jackson and Anthony need to hear from one another, however, goes well beyond mere strategic platitudes.
What Melo Needs to Hear
1. Get Angry
From Jackson’s perspective, Anthony’s basketball shortcomings pale in comparison to the greater flaw: Melo’s decidedly non-confrontational, hands-off leadership style.
In Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Jackson was blessed with a pair of superlative talents whose visceral drive to win could be counted upon at every turn—even if it meant temporarily burning a few bridges.
That authoritarian ruthlessness simply doesn’t jive with what we’ve come to expect from Melo, whose on-court demeanor reflects to a T his four-letter nickname.
But even a little bit of well-placed rage could go a long way for the Knicks, whose lack of a clearly defined on-court motivator has been, at times, glaringly absent.
2. Forget Thyself
Jordan and Bryant never met a shot they didn't like, but Jackson was at least able to instill in them the imperative of trust—trust in the system, trust in the process and, most important of all, trust in your teammates.
Jackson's recognition of Anthony's unique scoring prowess proves the former has no intention of curbing the latter's well-honed instincts. But even if Melo can manage to sacrifice a few shots a game in lieu of better looks within the rhythm of the offense, the potential byproducts—increased confidence amongst teammates, an opposition on its heels—are more than worth it.
What Jackson Needs to Hear
1. We Need a Coach, Not a System Dictator
Melo, meanwhile, is right to want a voice in specific personnel decisions, specifically who will ultimately replace Mike Woodson—dead coach walking if ever there was one—and what offensive system will be installed.
For his part, Anthony hasn’t made any indication he’s somehow unwilling to give the triangle a try. Indeed, for as much success that came the way of Kobe and MJ—the prototypical high-usage gunners of their generation, mind you—Melo should be downright giddy at the sheer prospect of reimagining Phil’s much-beloved method.
2. Convince Dolan to Spend
If Mikhail Prokhorov's stewardship of the Brooklyn Nets has taught us anything, it's that, to keep his fanbase intact, James Dolan might not be able to rely on generational nostalgia alone.
With a purported salary of $12 million a year behind him, Jackson knows the power of Dolan's purse. So too does Melo, who's in his right to suggest the front office be willing to venture into tax territory for the sake of building a true contender.
Even if Melo opts to take a financial hit for coming back to New York, that doesn't necessarily mean the team should deny itself the possibility of bolstering the roster. Indeed, while the up-front cost might seem exorbitant, the potential windfall of seizing a third banner—and the PR coup it would mark for Dolan himself—would be more than enough to ease the pennywise pain.
An Honest Conversation, in Earnest
Neither side is likely to get all of what it wants, of course. Still, there's most certainly a middle ground to be had here, the most likely trade-off being a second max contract for Melo and more roster risks in exchange for fealty to Jackson's slowly burgeoning basketball culture.
Whenever the two should happen to meet, the New York media will most certainly be there to speculate and disseminate, to make somethings of nothings and mountains of molehills.
Guaranteeing the best of both worlds—that Anthony stays and the Knicks reload along more systemically sensible, sustainable lines—won’t be easy to guarantee, either for Phil or for Melo.
But if the two can inform their talks by the sense of respect both claim to have for one another, they stand a good chance of giving Knicks fans a glimpse of something seldom seen: an organization defined more by honesty and grace than haste and grand, ultimately hollow designs.