Carmelo Anthony's Free Agency Is Phil Jackson's First Big Test

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IApril 23, 2014

Getty Images

Spring-cleaning is officially underway in Madison Square Garden, where Phil Jackson christened his tenure as the New York Knicks’ president of basketball operations by dismissing Mike Woodson’s entire coaching staff Monday morning.

Like any post-winter purge, clearing out the dusty, outdated debris always comes easy.

The hard part is filling in what space remains. For Jackson and the Knicks, that means finding some way—any way—to keep Carmelo Anthony mounted on the living room mantle.

New York’s dilemma is, by now, crystal clear: Either extend Melo another max contract, thereby tethering your near-future fortunes to Anthony’s flawed star, or risk another lost year ahead of next summer’s free-agent class.

That assumes, of course, Jackson can even convince Anthony to buy in—to the triangle, a new coach, additional roster tweaks, all of it.

As Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix recently detailed, such a sacrifice might not seem so noble given another, more immediately gratifying option:

Which brings us to Anthony. No one knows what he is thinking. But the consensus is this: If Anthony wants to win, he goes to Chicago. He takes a little less money and one fewer year on his contract to play for a team that doesn't accept losing. He becomes option 1A alongside Derrick Rose, he buys into Tom Thibodeau's defense-first philosophy and he puts himself in a position to pick up a championship -- maybe two -- before he calls it a career.

Indeed, the Chicago Bulls have emerged as Jackson’s immediate threat on the Melo front, for reasons that are all too obvious, at this point: a prolonged championship pedigree, one of the game’s most respected coaches and—most important of all—a near-perfect supporting cast.

Contrastingly, Jackson’s appeal is certain to be of a more spiritual, sentimental bent: The chance for Melo to not only be part of the Knicks’ grand renaissance; but maybe—just maybe—to cement his status as a New York icon with one, badly needed banner.

Given Anthony’s polarizing presence, watching him walk wouldn’t necessarily harm Jackson’s unique cultural cachet. Such is the gain of being labeled a savior.

Surely fans would be willing to defer one more season for the sake of a truly clean slate—a pristine canvass on which Jackson can make his masterpiece.

At the same time, Jackson sounded wholly sincere when, during his introductory press conference on March 18, the triangle guru had this to say about Anthony’s basketball potential (via ESPN’s Ian Begley).

I think there are a number of things I see Carmelo doing as he moves forward. And I think I was on record saying a year ago that I think Carmelo, as great a player as he is, still has another level he can go to. And I hope together, with the team we create, he can get there.

“Another level” meaning, presumably, within the framework of whatever offensive system the Knicks choose to adopt.

Given New York’s growing interest in Steve Kerr as the team’s next head coach, it doesn’t take a room full of Red Auerbachs to deduce what Jackson has in mind.

That Anthony paints a picture of a perfect triangle cog isn’t hard to appreciate: His wing-bound skill set harkening to a deadlier, more refined—if less athletic—Scottie Pippen.

But while some see in Jackson’s stubborn insistence on a bygone system as a potential nonstarter for Melo’s iso-designs, such cynicism ignores a simple fact: Anthony would be just as hamstrung playing second fiddle to Derrick Rose.


What this will all come down to, then, is a kind of calculus of desperation.

On the one hand you have Melo: Desperate to win, yes, but also desperately aware of how he’s perceived beyond mere questions of statistical legacy.

As the only ring-less member of the 2003 draft-day elite—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all having teamed up for titles—Melo missing this year's playoffs rang particularly painful, as he relayed to Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

You know, I’ve never once said I wanted to leave. I always said that I wanted to explore my options, I wanted to see what’s out there. At this very moment, today and then next week, it’s really going to be hard for me to even think about anything else besides just kind of recapping this season...For me, it’s embarrassing. I can’t even put that into words. I can’t even describe the feeling —the last couple of nights just staying up all night trying to figure out what happened, what went wrong.

The musings of a man more concerned with stats than how he's remembered, those are not.

On the other hand, Phil Jackson: someone who’d feign having never heard the word desperation, let alone put it into practice. His legacy likely brokered its own book deal. Jackson’s challenge is less about simply keeping Melo on New York’s chessboard than it is convincing him the forthcoming tactics are sound enough to snag a title—that he’ll be the one to corner the queen.

In the end, the win-win is Jackson’s and Jackson’s alone. Whether Melo swears fealty or flees, it’s around the mind and musings of the Zen Master that Knicks fans will rally.

Anthony, meanwhile, must weigh legacy and loyalty, roots and rings, banners and boos—an unenviable position, to be sure, and a confusing one at that.

Which is why the Knicks can rest a little easier knowing that when all’s said and done they have an all-time teacher there to guide the seeker.