If the New York Knicks re-sign Carmelo Anthony for the maximum five years, their title window with him as their best player likely won't be open quite that long, but the deal will still be well worth it.
Melo is still at his peak as a player, but he also just completed his age-29 season, the 11th of his NBA career. By the time he would complete a new deal, he would be 34; any reasonable prediction would peg Anthony to be on the decline at that point.
That makes the prospect of handing him a $129 million max contract over five years fraught for Phil Jackson. Per Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, the Knicks president believes that Anthony accepting less would be "the beginning of team play."
Anthony has said in recent months that he would be willing to take less than a maximum contract of five years and up to $129 million if the organization could sell him on a wise plan going forward, something Jackson said he hopes turns out to be the case.
"We hope that Carmelo is true to his word, and we understand what it's going to take when we present [our plan] to him at that time," he said. "I'd like to appeal to his better nature of winning. That's what we want to do."
Jackson's stance has sound logic: If Anthony really places a priority on winning a championship, he would divert some of his dollars to potentially signing another star and building a true contender in New York.
But Melo also made his team-first, money-second comments when the Knicks' 2013-14 season was merely disappointing, not depressing. After enduring the turmoil of this past campaign and being asked to trust in a transitional period under Jackson and a new head coach, what if max money is all that's luring him back now? And what if max money is too much for Jackson to offer?
There are certainly arguments against giving $25-plus million a year to any player, but when you're talking about someone as talented as Melo, the pros are hard to discount.
Pro: The Cautionary Tale of Amar'e Stoudemire
The case for re-signing Anthony is pretty cut and dry: He's a legitimate offensive superstar, and if New York lost him in exchange for a massive chunk of cap space, the Knicks would have an extremely difficult time landing another player of his caliber with that freed-up money.
New York and Jackson are significant draws for free agents, but you need look back only as far as the fateful summer of 2010 to see the dangers of banking on the open market.
A pursuit of LeBron James resulted in the Knicks bringing in Stoudemire as a consolation prize. Though STAT was a superb scorer when he came to New York, he also came with a well-documented injury history that rendered his own max deal notoriously uninsurable.
Amar'e gave Knicks fans his share of good moments, but further ravages to his knees dashed any chance of constructing a winner around him, even with Anthony around. Stoudemire more frequently showed flashes of his former self as the last season wore on, but he's still playing limited minutes as a reduced version of the dynamic big who New York originally acquired.
Of course, his fall from stardom is a severe example, but it is instructive.
If the Knicks did attempt to sign two non-Anthony stars in 2015, there's real risk that the team would wind up with another financial albatross a la Stoudemire. Maybe he won't succumb to a decaying body in the same way STAT has, but he definitely won't be as good as Anthony, and his flaws could be even more detrimental to the team's success.
Carmelo isn't LeBron (no one else is), and he's not Kevin Durant, who could become a Knicks target in 2016 offseason. That said, no team can afford to hold itself to a standard of Durant-or-bust in the lead-up to the KD sweepstakes. Anthony is great, good enough to be the centerpiece of a championship-quality offense, and that's too valuable to pass up.
Con: Difficulty Paying Other Stars
The question then becomes whether paying Melo so much would keep the Knicks from landing more stars to play alongside him.
Actually, the damage wouldn't be as bad as previously anticipated.
According to Larry Coon's CBA FAQ, the 2015-16 cap projection is now up to $66.0 million, compared to $58.7 million in 2013-14. That increase in space makes it more palatable to shoulder a $24.1 million 2015-16 salary Anthony would draw on a max contract, but it's still not ideal.
New York has $13.4 million already committed in 2015-16 salary on its cap sheet. That figure rises even higher when you factor in a salary spot for the Knicks' 2015 first-round pick, the salaries of whoever the Knicks pick up this summer and holds for the remaining empty roster spots, not to mention Anthony.
That means in the summer of 2015, the Knicks could add someone paid around $15 million a year without difficulty. On top of him, they could pick up another useful piece using the mid-level exception. Add those guys to Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr., and New York can get a nice core in place.
What wouldn't be possible is a Big Three. The raised cap will allow many cash-rich teams to pursue a trio of great players, but Melo's exorbitant price tag takes up money that could go to a third great player. Depending on how the league landscape shifts in terms of where stars play and how rosters are built, that could be a significant loss.
Pro: Familiarity Eases Change
Whoever mans the sideline for Jackson's Knicks, Herring reports that New York will be home to the triangle offense next season.
Between Anthony's excellence in bullying his way to inside baskets and in raining long-range jumpers, he has the offensive arsenal to be the triangle centerpiece for the Knicks what Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were for Jackson in years past.
The triangle would put the ball in Melo's hands, maximizing his strengths as well as his proficiency passing away from defensive pressure and generating open looks.
As unlikely as it would be to sign someone of equal value to Anthony if the Knicks don't retain him, it would be even less probable to find a better available fit for the triangle in today's NBA.
And on top of that, the Knicks can start building the triangle around Anthony immediately; if he walks, 2014-15 becomes a lost season from a strategic standpoint. When New York does get around to landing another star, it would have to reorient the game plan around him anyway, so the progress the new coach gains from an X's and O's standpoint next season would be hollow.
Melo only has a few years to make the most of this system, but if the Knicks commit to him as their foundational player right away, he and they can make that championship window count more before it does close.
Con: Defensive Catastrophe
Anthony has never been a solid defender, nor has he shown any consistent interest in being one. With age, he's poised to become a disaster on that end.
He's too lax with his rotations to be good on the perimeter, and when he gets a step slower, he won't be able to stay with wings at all. That's not the end of the world; even with some slippage in his offensive game as he pushes into his 30s, he'll still be able to play a solid small-ball power forward, allowing the Knicks to play him inside on D.
One-on-one post defense is the one thing Melo can actually do decently on a regular basis, using his 235 pounds and leverage to push back against larger opponents and make it difficult to get to the rim. But when his energy level begins to decline, it's safe to say he'll relax more on defense, so his effort to rebuff opposing bigs should drop as well.
That leaves him unable to defend inside or out, providing no rim protection or turnover-forcing ability and lacking the focus to execute team strategy perfectly. That's very much a recipe for failure.
He can be hidden on the weaker post scorer, though, if the Knicks can find another center in the mold of Tyson Chandler to defend the rim and take the tougher assignment. As long as the defensive task isn't too hard, a 34-year-old Anthony will still be more than able to make up for it on offense.
An aging Melo will eventually have greater flaws than he does now, and he will become overpaid because of that development. But he'll still provide a solid foundation for the team Jackson wants to put together, and he's the Knicks' best option, at any price, to build a winner.