Anthony's free agency has always been a big deal, something to dread and resent as its significance loomed over an entire team and city like a thick fog, too dense to see through to where answers and—hopefully—peace of mind awaited.
But while a pervasive burden, that same smog was also a safeguard. It was a warning, a calm before the storm. There was still time for the status quo to change, for the Knicks to make the playoffs, for Anthony to provide some certainty, any certainty, that free agency was the formality it was initially supposed to be.
Assurances never came. Nothing ironclad enough to imply Anthony's return was a given. Still, the offseason remained a ways off.
Now it's here.
More than half the NBA's teams are gearing up for postseason battles. The Knicks are not one of those teams. Their summer vacation started much earlier than last year, sooner than anyone could have anticipated.
With their season done, the focus is on the lone player who will shift New York's offseason plans and long-term future in one direction or another.
The feeling is bittersweet. Team futures should be tethered to franchise players. That's how it works. Only this is different.
These Knicks won't win or lose, rise or fall, because of how poorly Anthony played. His is a basketball decision that will no longer be decided by actually playing basketball, the outcome of which could end up guaranteeing he's played his last game and scored his last points for these Knicks.
Anyone hoping Anthony's exit interview would shed light on his eventual decision was left disappointed.
A visibly rattled 'Melo addressed reporters, emotional and uncertain, meticulously crafting his responses to reflect his thoughts, none of which were particularly upbeat or decisive.
One of the only tidbits of confirmation he gave was his desire to return, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola. But he was also adamant that he couldn't lose like this again:
Those hoping he would accept a sales pitch hatched around an accelerated rebuild were left disappointed too, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
Then there was the matter of missing the playoffs, a topic that still stings nearly a week removed from the Knicks' mathematic elimination. He was upset. He is upset. He, according to Newsday's Al Iannazzone, is ashamed:
Of the few optimistic takeaways, there was Anthony's assessment of himself—self-reflection that indicated he hasn't peaked, via Knicks.com's Jonah Ballow:
Taken literally, Anthony's confidence is cause for excitement. Picked apart, it's a double-edged sword; a portrayal of the player New York will be lucky enough to keep or doomed to lose.
Ample room for speculation and chilling assumptions was left once Anthony grew sentimental, per Isola:
Was this a sign he was so attached to the franchise he couldn't leave? Demonstrative and subconscious or deliberate goodbye? Residual anger and despair from missing the playoffs? Was it nothing?
Answers weren't provided, spawning more questions, creating more doubt, fueling more speculation, reminding us that 'Melo is conflicted and unsure, and incapable of making any meaningful promises.
Whatever unease isn't attributed to Anthony's ticking career clock—he will turn 30 in May—and the Knicks hedging somewhere between rebuilding and reloading can be linked to outside interest.
Plenty of teams will make a play for Anthony, who is coming off one of his best individual seasons ever, when he hits free agency. His well-known taste for big markets limits legitimate threats slightly, but nowhere near enough for the Knicks to guarantee those teams cannot pry him from their grasp.
Among those interested are expected to be the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls, according to Isola. Begley says the Los Angeles Clippers could enter the fray as well, though they could only acquire Anthony as part of a sign-and-trade since they're over the cap for next season.
Each of those teams is closer to winning a championship than the Knicks if we're to take this season at face value. Yet firm counterarguments can still be made against each one.
Like the Clippers, the Rockets do not have enough money to sign Anthony outright this summer. Creating the necessary cap space demands they dump Jeremy Lin's and Omer Asik's expiring contracts.
Assuming that's possible, they're still left with nearly $43 million in guaranteed salaries on the books, plus whatever options they have to exercise, which means Anthony would have to take a serious pay cut to sign.
Chandler Parsons also couldn't be given a new contract. The Rockets would have to simply pick up his team option and chance losing him in unrestricted free agency next summer.
Dumping both Lin and Asik would be the real challenge since they count for a combined $16.8 million against the cap, not to mention are on the last year of poison-pill deals that pay them roughly $15 million apiece, despite their actual cap hit being lower.
Landing Anthony would likely dictate Houston complete a sign-and-trade with New York that's predicated on the Knicks being interested in the players and draft picks the Rockets are dangling. And once a deal is struck, there's no telling how Anthony would fare alongside the equally ball-dominant James Harden.
Acquiring Anthony is easiest for the Lakers, who can (most likely) sign him outright. But once they sign him, they would be left with Anthony, a 40-year-old Steve Nash and 35-going-on-36-year-old Kobe Bryant eating up more than $55 million in combined salary.
Assembling a supporting cast worthy of contention would have to be done on a beggar's dime, no easy task considering how much quality role players can command these days. Anthony would be better off taking his chances elsewhere, on a team that isn't as shallow.
Bringing in Anthony is most difficult for the Clippers. Unless team president Phil Jackson is enamored with any players not named Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, constructing a deal is impossible.
Chief among outside threats are the Bulls. Per Isola, Anthony picked the brain of an active Bulls player, asking him what it's like to play for head coach Tom Thibodeau. He touted Chicago's system and collective perseverance as well.
"You put anybody in that system and it’s going to work," he said, via Isola. "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."
Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal also explains why the Bulls have been making an inadvertent run at Anthony's services since he arrived in New York:
The Knicks have given the Bulls, their longtime Eastern Conference rivals, all the ammunition they need to convince Anthony that he'd be better off playing in Chicago. And they've done it by consistently losing to the Bulls.
If Anthony takes a true "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality this summer, he'd take a close look at the Bulls, who have beaten him 10 out of 13 times since he joined the Knicks in 2011—the best record any Eastern Conference team has posted against the Knicks in that time.
Yet not even the Bulls are exempt from jumping through hoops in order to sign 'Melo. Carlos Boozer must be amnestied, Mike Dunleavy dumped and Kirk Hinrich's free-agency rights renounced. And if Nikola Mirotic finally journeys stateside, it's possible Taj Gibson must be moved too—unless Anthony is prepared to accept well below his market value.
Derrick Rose is also a potential deterrent. He will have played in just 50 games—playoffs and regular season—since 2011-12 when next season rolls around. Most of Anthony's tenure in New York has been spent watching the injury-addled Amar'e Stoudemire struggle to stay healthy. While Rose is younger, history repeating itself is a legitimate concern.
Outside interest will be there, that's for sure. A lack of ability for teams to offer Anthony enough money and more certainty than he has in New York, though, favors the Knicks.
The One Who Got Away, Or The One Who Stayed?
Predicting what Anthony will do is difficult.
Little insight into his thinking has been gleaned. Comments are either taken at face value or dissected and turned into something with profound meaning that may or may not be accurate.
At the same time, Anthony's loyalty is no mystery.
"If we can put ourselves in position to at least compete at a high level ... then I’m willing to stay," he said, via Begley.
Slinging hope of a free-agency coup in 2015 won't appeal to Anthony. He wants to win now, while he's still a superstar playing at a high level. But while that sales pitch isn't ideal, it's all the Knicks can do.
Devoid of cap space, a first-round pick and highly coveted trade assets, this is a Knicks team not barreling toward imminent and drastic change. Miracle blockbuster deals notwithstanding, the Knicks we saw this season are a preview of what we're going to see next season.
Is that good enough for Anthony?
It has to be.
Leaving isn't as glamorous an option as it sounds. Financial sacrifices for the sake of winning sound good in theory, but they're difficult to actually accept. We know Anthony cares about money. He forced his way to New York in such a way that guaranteed he would maximize his earning potential.
On the off chance Anthony is willing to go the Dwight Howard route and leave one year and $30-plus million worth of extra security for another team, he's actually committing to something else entirely. Howard had a team in the Rockets that had enough money to sign him outright; Anthony doesn't.
Only the Lakers can sign him outright. Every other team has to stage significant salary and talent dumps, or Anthony could take a contract that pays him $40, 45, 50 or more million less over its life than what he can have with the Knicks.
Money is going to matter. Fit will invariably matter. Plans for 2015 will have to matter.
Loyalty will matter.
Right now, Anthony is only showing signs of a player desperate to win and heartbroken that he was stripped of said opportunity this season. But his loyalty, even now, has not once wavered. So while he's disappointed and confused, he's still a Knick. They are still his team. They will stay his team.
There are still more games for Anthony to play as a member of these Knicks. More points for him to score, more expectations for him to meet, more championships for him to chase.
*Salary information via ShamSports.