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The Most Important Free Agent for New York Knicks to Land This Offseason

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The Most Important Free Agent for New York Knicks to Land This Offseason
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Can the Knicks get Melo to return to this dysfunctional team?

Carmelo Anthony isn't just the best free agent the New York Knicks could sign this offseason; he's also significantly better than the guys New York could ink if he walks.

The Knicks have known for awhile now that Melo would opt out of the final year of his contract. Ian Begley of ESPN New York confirmed everyone's suspicions back in October, reporting that the star forward plans to become a free agent this summer.

At the same time, Melo said then that he didn't want to leave the Knicks. That was before a hellish 2013-14, following up a 54-win campaign with a 33-45 record through 78 games; it will likely be the first season of Anthony's career in which he fails to reach the playoffs.

At the All-Star break, things were already plenty bleak in New York. So when Melo spoke about his future to media members, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, the message came laden with contingency.

"At the end of the season it will be the time where everything will have to be laid out and be on the table from both parts," Anthony said during Eastern Conference All-Star media availability on Friday afternoon. "If it's something that we grow with, we can build on, we can compete with at the highest level, we're rolling. If that's not the plan that we have, then we have to talk about something else."

He'll be having that discussion with Phil Jackson, who has since been introduced as Knicks team president. The shift in front-office personnel seems to foreshadow roster changes to come, but at least when it comes to short-term plans, it doesn't seem as though Anthony and Jackson will have a whole lot to talk about.

According to ShamSports, New York is in line to have $90.7 million in salary on its books for the 2014-15 season. That figure assumes that Melo, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani pick up their player options; the Knicks give Toure' Murry a qualifying offer; and they honor Jeremy Tyler's and Shannon Brown's unguaranteed contracts.

That figure drops by $23.3 million as soon as Melo turns down his option, but the Knicks can go above the cap to sign him anyway; he would likely make about as much in the first year of a new deal with the Knicks, give or take a couple million.

Even in a best-case scenario in which he takes a discount to help the team add talent, the extra savings won't pay off until next summer.

Say he re-signs for just $14.5 million in 2014-15, an arbitrary figure that just so happens to be what LeBron James got paid in his first year with the Miami Heat, per Spotrac. New York would still be shelling out more than $80 million next year, keeping the Knicks over the luxury-tax apron and without access to the full mid-level exception.

That's the difference between $5.3 million available in free agency and just under $3.3 million, per Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ.

Last summer, the Knicks used their mini mid-level exception to re-sign Pablo Prigioni and bring in Metta World Peace. This season's struggles call for major rotation changes, not second-unit tinkering, but New York would only have funds available for the latter if it keeps Melo.

Even so, the need to overhaul the lineup isn't nearly so imperative that Jackson should actually let Anthony go.

After all, what kind of lineup is there without Melo and his 27.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game?

Tyson Chandler, when motivated and at full strength, is still a defensive anchor in the middle, but his pick-and-roll prowess requires a point guard better than Raymond Felton is now. Amar'e could break down again at any moment, while Bargs, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are all so severely inconsistent that they're all-around minuses at their worst.

None of those guys is very useful to New York if Anthony isn't at the center of the offense. For 2014-15, the Knicks could not possibly find anyone who could replace him.

And besides, think about their financial situation with Melo removed from the ledger. They would still have $67.4 million in salaries to pay; for context, again per Coon, the 2013-14 cap is $58.7 million, up from just over $58 million in the two seasons prior.

So eliminating Anthony's salary hit only earns the Knicks about $2 million in the 2014 offseason spending money. That's effectively trading Melo for about 10 cents on the dollar, and that estimate is generous.

Actually dealing Melo to another team through a sign-and-trade isn't a worthwhile option, either; the Knicks would only be inclined to do it if they didn't feel he would stay in New York, in which case no suitor would be inclined to part with many, if any, significant players or draft picks.

And that's just the argument for why New York gets screwed in the short term by losing Melo. The long-term case actually follows a much simpler logic.

Since the Knicks are looking to build around multiple stars via the stacked free-agent class of 2015, it makes no sense to part with the one star they already have. They would have a bit more future flexibility without Melo, but they would still be looking to dole out multiple max contracts, so there's not a ton of difference.

All of this begs the question: What does Phil have to tell Anthony to convince him to stay?

The cleaner cap situation after this summer helps. Stoudemire, Chandler and Bargnani will finish off their respective eight-digit deals next season; even with Melo on a max deal, the Knicks would still have less than $40 million committed, all else equal. They could make a credible pursuit of a second star from that financial position.

Moving forward with the right coach will be vital, too. Jackson can talk Anthony through another season with this roster if he can persuade him the guy at the helm will be establishing a winning formula for the revamped 2015-16 team. Whether that coach is Mike Woodson or (much more likely) someone else, Anthony needs to be on board with him.

Essentially, Jackson needs to ensure Anthony has a little faith in the new president's ability to oversee a new era. If he can't and Melo leaves, then there won't be anything about the Knicks' personnel—player, coach or management—in which to have faith.

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