Carmelo Anthony's Career Crossroads Should Lead Him Away from NY Knicks

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Carmelo Anthony's Career Crossroads Should Lead Him Away from NY Knicks
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There's a big difference between "should" and "will." 

Ultimately, we have no idea what's going on in Carmelo Anthony's head as he decides whether or not he wants to stick with the New York Knicks for at least another season. He can opt out of his contract by late June and hit the market as an unrestricted free agent; then the options become limitless. 

Re-signing with the Knicks on a longer deal is certainly a possibility, but so too is fleeing Madison Square Garden for a greener pasture. 

We don't know what he'll do, but we certainly know what Phil Jackson wants. The newly hired president of basketball operations recently spoke to ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley, and he didn't leave any margin for error when it comes to his desires: 

I told him it might be a good idea to hang in here and see what it's like for a year and go out the next year. But that's his option, that's what he's earned, and that's what's part of his contractual agreement. He has the right to do that. But I just offered that as, 'Look, this gives you an opportunity to see how this is going to change, see how we're going to get going, your relationship to the team and the coach and the system or whatever, the system we impose.

There's just so much up in the air when it comes to the Melodrama in New York. 

The Knicks have no idea who's going to coach them in 2014-15 after Steve Kerr spurned his former coach for the allure of the top gig with the Golden State Warriors. And without a coach, there's no guarantee that Anthony will fit in the system that's put in place, though that's likely going to be a certain geometric offense. 

This uncertainty is only part of the reason Anthony should consider other options. And remember, "should" is different than "will." 

 

The Ability to Win Now

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Plenty of teams would love to add Anthony to the fold, but there are two options that stand out above the rest.

First are the Chicago Bulls, and we already know that reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah has been pushing for Melo to join forces with him. Per Joe Cowley of The Chicago Sun-Times:

According to several sources, including a teammate, Noah’s All-Star Weekend “conversation’’ with New York Knicks standout Carmelo Anthony didn't end in New Orleans. They had discussions via text the rest of the season, including the day after the Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards.

...

Sources said Noah has been in Anthony’s ear as often as possible, and he has told other Bulls to push hard for Anthony this summer. But there is one condition: Backup big man Taj Gibson can’t be sacrificed.

The Bulls would have to get creative in order to bring Melo aboard without sacrificing any major pieces, but it would be possible. 

Anthony might have to take a bit of a pay cut, but by using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer and trading Mike Dunleavy Jr. to a team with cap room, it would certainly be possible. And just think about the strength of that team. 

So long as Derrick Rose is healthy, the Bulls would be able to challenge anyone for ultimate supremacy when it comes to the starting five. With Rose, Jimmy Butler, Melo, Taj Gibson and Noah, they would have everything they could possibly ask for. 

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An elite offense? Check, thanks to Rose and Anthony, plus the versatility of Noah and the growing games of the other two starters. 

An elite defense? Absolutely, as Melo is better than advertised on that end, while Noah, Gibson and Butler are all uber-elite point-preventing players. 

That's a deadly team, one easily capable of winning a title in its first year together, so long as the bench is handled responsibly and features a number of ring-chasing veterans. 

But the Bulls aren't the only competitive team seeking Anthony's services. The Houston Rockets are in the picture as well, as Steve Kyler makes quite clear for BasketballInsiders.com: 

Houston would trade almost anything not named Dwight Howard and James Harden to get at Anthony and they would go all in on a contract too. There has been talk that Houston has offered up Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in a “give away” trade that could include their draft pick in the first round or a roster player like Terrence Jones to get those salaries off the books.

If the Rockets can find a taker for those contracts they’d go from a best-case $56.9 million in salary commitments to $40.2 million, which means $22.7 million in cap space. That’s more than enough for Houston to get into the game in a serious way for Anthony.

If Kyler's plan works, the Rockers are looking at a mind-bogglingly good starting five of Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Anthony and Dwight Howard. 

Wow. Seriously, wow. 

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That's a ridiculous lineup, one that features plenty of talent at each and every position.

There's a legitimate Big Three in place, plus another top-50 player (Parsons) and an elite defender at the point guard spot. Try telling me that lineup isn't going to be competitive, especially since the Houston management has proven it's willing to spend on star players and would likely go well above the luxury-tax threshold to have the best bench possible. 

Either of those teams is going to be far more competitive than the best-case-scenario version of the 2014-15 Knicks. 

As I broke down here, the Knicks aren't in good financial shape this summer. Even if they let the non-guaranteed deals expire (Shannon Brown and Jeremy Tyler) and have Melo opt out, they'll still be looking at nearly $65 million in committed money once Amar'e Stoudemire and Andre Bargnani opt into their exorbitant deals. 

If they sign Melo, they won't be able to add any more key pieces, especially since they don't have any draft picks. Only veteran minimums and cap exceptions will be used to fill up the bench, meaning the roster will be largely similar to the one that was so disappointing this year. 

And frankly, they'll be looking at the exact same situation even if Anthony opts out and leaves. 

But it would be short-sighted for Anthony to think only about this upcoming season, especially since he'll inevitably be signing a multiyear deal. 

 

The Knicks Aren't Guaranteed to Turn Things Around Anytime Soon

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The Knicks won't be much better during the 2014-15 season, but they could still be appealing to Anthony if there's a guarantee that things change going forward. And that has to happen quickly, because the 30-year-old small forward isn't getting any younger. 

Houston and Chicago are already primed to be great teams throughout the foreseeable future, and they'd be even better if Anthony joined them. Could the Knicks get on that level? 

Possibly, but not definitely. 

First, let's take a look at the draft picks owned by the team and where the departed ones are going: 

New York Draft Picks
First-Round Picks Second-Round Picks
2014 Conveyed to the Orlando Magic Conveyed to the Houston Rockets
2015 Owned by NYK Conveyed to the Houston Rockets
2016 Swapped with Denver Nuggets if more favorable, then conveyed to the Toronto Raptors Conveyed to the Sacramento Kings (protected for 31-37)
2017 Owned by NYK Conveyed to the Toronto Raptors

RealGM.com

Ouch. 

The Knicks have two first-round picks in the next four NBA drafts, and there's a complete dearth of second-round selections. They're severely limiting their opportunities to add another star, though there are obviously still a pair of chances. 

In reality, New York will be relying heavily on free agency, capitalizing upon the appeal of its major market and the luster of the franchise. Playing for the Knicks is still an attractive option, even if the team has struggled mightily throughout both the recent and distant past. 

When the 2015 offseason comes around, the Knicks have almost nothing on the books. J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton have player options worth about $10.5 million, per ShamSports.com, and the team could add to the backcourt by making Pablo Prigioni's salary guaranteed while picking up Tim Hardaway Jr.'s team option. 

No one else is under contract, so the Knicks are looking at early expenditures of just over $13 million, barring any multiyear deals that will be signed this summer. 

That's when they can go after superstars. That's when they can reload rather than rebuild, channeling their inner Los Angeles Lakers as they rely on convincing sales pitches in free agency in order to remain relevant. 

But there are no guarantees. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Not even the Zen Master can assure fans that marquee players will want to play for a struggling franchise with an uncertain coaching situation and the looming presence of James Dolan in the front office. What if Melo decides to stay but no one joins him? 

Hard as it may be to believe, that's a distinct possibility.

If Kerr's decision to spurn Jackson for the Dubs did anything, it was poke holes in the new president's aura of invincibility. Even his presence isn't certain to turn things around for the beleaguered Knicks organization. 

And if there are no guarantees, then there's only one factor that could possibly push New York ahead of its stiff competition: money. 

Kyler explains the monetary situation: 

Anthony can get a maximum five-year, $129 million deal from the Knicks, or he can get a four-year $96 million deal from another team. For most players that fifth year is somewhat moot as the expectation is they’d get that money in their next deal; however in Anthony’s case that fifth year might really matter as its unlikely anyone is giving a 35-year old another $25-$28 million, although crazier things have happened.

That fifth year matters because it's a huge salary, but there's an important underlying question here. Does money itself actually matter to Anthony, or is it trumped by the ability to avoid joining Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Allen Iverson and Patrick Ewing as one of the many legends to retire with bare fingers? 

Being ringless is always a bad thing, but the method by which a player arrives there is important as well. Melo's legacy takes more of a hit if he's chasing money and fame in New York over success elsewhere. 

Fortunately, he's shown no indications of being willing to do that. 

"The star forward has said that he would take a paycut to re-sign in New York or join another team if it helped that team attract other free agents," reported Begley in early May. "He’s also said that his top priority is to put himself in position to win a title."

It's a statement that corroborates rather nicely with words that have come out of Melo's own mouth.

Here's more from ESPNNewYork.com

"I'm going to make money. I have money. I'm good if I want to retire right now," Anthony said in an interview with Sage Steele and Tim Legler on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

He expanded on that in an interview with other media in New Orleans.

"As far as the money, it don't really matter to me,'' Anthony said. "If I go somewhere else, I get paid. If I stay in New York, I get paid. As far as the money goes, it's not my concern.

In context, those quotes were meant to explain why he'd be willing to take a pay cut and stay with the Knicks, but the sentiment should apply to the larger scope of free agency as a whole. It stands to reason that if Melo is willing to take less money to play for New York, he'd be willing to take less money and play for a team with a brighter present and future. 

Who will Carmelo Anthony play for in 2014-15?

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And there's no way around the simple fact that Houston and Chicago are in better shape than New York, both now and potentially deep into the future. Hell, the Lakers may be as well, assuming they can land a star in this year's draft and then rely on their prestige during free agency. We haven't even mentioned their potential pursuit until now. 

Anthony shouldn't feel as though he's at a crossroads. Sure, there's a fork in the road, but there's also a sign clearly pointing him down a certain path. 

For a third time, though, there's a difference between what he should do and what he will do. Maybe they'll end up being one and the same, but they don't have to be. 

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