The upcoming offseason will be fraught with franchise-altering peril. Anthony is set to hit free agency, Phil Jackson will get his first chance to influence the team and the uncertainty surrounding the ugliest parts of the roster will complicate every inch of the Knicks' plans.
New York has to play it smart. If it can't, it'll risk making the last few seasons of work look downright dumb.
Decision No. 1
The Knicks have already made the hardest decision of their difficult offseason: tabbing Anthony as a player worth keeping around.
There should have been a few questions about pinning a franchise's hopes to 'Melo. He's heading toward the decline phase of his career, and barring a nearly unprecedented pay cut, keeping Anthony will require a max deal.
An intelligent organization—or, one less concerned with saving face—should have held a formal debate about the wisdom of that course of action.
But the Knicks are committed. Jackson wants Anthony as his centerpiece and used some of his patented backhanded praise to subtly challenge and motivate 'Melo during his introductory press conference in March:
Phil endorses Carmelo Anthony as part of the plan. "There's another level he can get to."— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) March 18, 2014
That makes the stakes of this offseason—one starting earlier than usual with the Knicks already officially eliminated from playoff contention—very, very high.
So, the Knicks want 'Melo. To make sure the feeling is mutual, they have to stabilize the organization in a way that'll assure him future seasons won't be like the one that just effectively ended.
That'll mean shoring up the supporting cast with more reliable scoring options than J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire. Nobody questions the raw talent of either player, but Smith does more harm than good, and Stoudemire can't be counted on for significant minutes (or defense).
The Knicks must also figure out how to get a respectable measure of defensive commitment—a task that, ideally, would include changes to both the roster and coaching staff.
A new point guard who could function as a distributor wouldn't hurt, nor would a power forward who could stretch the floor on offense without taking too much off the table on the other end.
Come to think of it, the Knicks could stand to improve the current roster in a dozen different ways. The problem, of course, is they don't have the assets to make any significant moves.
Anthony, Stoudemire and (gulp!) Andrea Bargnani are on the books for roughly a combined $58 million next season, assuming Anthony returns and the other two opt in. That figure could change slightly if 'Melo comes back on a new deal, but not in a way that affords New York added flexibility. Toss in the rest of the Knicks' contract commitments and the payroll in 2014-15 is likely to approach $90 million, which is miles north of the cap.
If upgrading the roster is necessary to keep Anthony happy, it sure won't be easy.
But maybe that's where Jackson's influence comes in. If the Knicks can't physically alter the roster, perhaps the Zen Master can work enough magic internally to get more out of what's already there. That's always been his greatest strength.
He'll be under immense pressure to flex his Zen muscles this summer.
The Knicks have royally botched almost all of their recent transactions.
Letting Jeremy Lin go proved to be a mistake. Trading for Bargnani was a catastrophe before the forward went down for the season, despite what head coach Mike Woodson believes:
Woodson suggests things could've been different this yr had Bargnani stayed healthy. Used the oft-referenced "big piece of the puzzle" line— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 11, 2014
(An aside: This is grounds for firing Woodson on its own. You cannot employ a coach who believes Andrea Bargnani improves a team. Period. Every scrap of evidence proves Woodson is wrong in his belief, and even a cursory viewing of a Knicks game this year revealed as much. The Knicks posted a net rating of plus-0.7 points with Bargs on the bench this year. With him on the floor, that figure plummeted to minus-6.2, per NBA.com. Aside complete.)
The list of Knicks personnel blunders goes on, but that record of stupidity isn't the point here. The point is: New York stands to look even worse if 'Melo walks away for nothing.
Knicks' elimination from playoff chase means Denver gets a lottery pick from NY as final payment in Carmelo trade.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 13, 2014
So, if Carmelo walks this summer, Knicks' payoff for Carmelo trade would be one playoff series win, two 1st-rd outs and 1 losing season.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 13, 2014
The danger of Anthony leaving is real, if reports like this one from Frank Isola of the New York Daily News saying 'Melo asked a former Chicago Bulls player what it's like to play for Tom Thibodeau are true.
There are teams out there with far rosier immediate futures than the Knicks—the Bulls are just one of them. And with Anthony missing the playoffs for the first time in his career, you can bet he'll want to play for an organization with the talent and leadership to ensure that postseason absence is only a one-year hiatus.
From the sound of it, Anthony is intrigued by coaches who get the job done with limited talent—as opposed to those who blame failure on outside sources, per Isola:
When asked on Friday why the Bulls have survived losing key players while the Knicks haven’t, Anthony said: “I have no clue. Thibs is a great coach, his system kind of reminds me of Gregg Popovich’s system.
“You put anybody in that system and it’s going to work. That’s what they’ve been doing. They’ve had guys sitting out all season long, guys that’s been in and out of the lineups and they seem to get it done.”
Let's hope Woodson hunkers down this summer. 'Melo's comments are just the first salvos of the all-out shelling on the way.
The Knicks survived dysfunction last year by winning 54 games. This season, the wins disappeared and the top-down ineptitude took center stage. And with Anthony certain to exercise his early termination option, the pressure to keep things from spinning out of control is higher than ever.
New York faces immense risk, no matter what it does.
If it keeps Anthony, it'll face the prospect of spending max money on a guy who probably isn't a top-10 player now and might not be among the top 50 when his contract ends. If it lets him walk away, the original trade that brought Anthony to New York will become an unqualified failure.
And no matter what happens, the Knicks won't have the draft picks or roster flexibility to do anything significant for another full year.
In other words, the pressure's on.
Salary-cap info courtesy of Sham Sports.