Less than two months ago, Anthony was barreling toward free agency with the Knicks on his back, fighting against hope and odds, trying to stave off the first lottery finish of his 11-year NBA career. He failed. Or rather, the Knicks failed.
From opening day on, the Knicks asked too much of Anthony. They placed too much responsibility on his shoulders, too heavy a burden on his back.
And now they're asking him to sacrifice even more.
Team president Phil Jackson is apparently trying to harness every last bit of patience Anthony has, according to Newsday's Al Iannazzone and the New York Daily News' Frank Isola:
Forgoing free agency would represent a stark shift in thinking on Anthony's behalf. Eight months ago, he sat there, pining for the opportunity to reach the open market for the first time of his career, telling the New York Observer's Rafi Kohan, "I want to be a free agent."
Is he prepared to change course now, weeks before his chance to be wined and dined by prospective suitors trying to show him how sweet life outside New York can be?
The answer lies within another question: What's in it for Melo?
The Wait-and-See Approach
Feel free to lie and pretend like you understand this Knicks team. No one with two eyes and a working knowledge of how to use a doorknob will believe you.
There wasn't a more enigmatic club in the NBA last season. There was the Knicks, and every other riddle.
Some wanted to write their obituary early. Others—apparent idiots who predicted they would finish third or fourth in the Eastern Conference (me)—tried to believe they were something more.
Truthfully, the Knicks were both. They were bad and good.
Despite going 21-40 through the season's first 61 games, the Knicks finished 16-5 to close out the season, making one final convincing push for that eighth playoff spot. Only the San Antonio Spurs had a higher winning percentage than them from March 5 on, and the Knicks ranked first in offensive efficiency during that time, according to NBA.com.
Looking at the Knicks and how they finished the year, there's reason for Anthony to return. The Eastern Conference is weak, and New York played better as the season wore on. Next year's ceiling is bound to be higher.
Instead of betting five years on a hunch, Anthony can opt into the next year of his deal and use 2014-15 as an evaluation period. It's then he can see how he meshes with the new coach—Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says Derek Fisher is the favorite right now—and what magic Jackson can work on the roster.
Barren of assets and cap space, the Knicks don't figure to make any offseason splashes, but the Zen Master hasn't ruled out making a move if the opportunity comes along.
"I don't think it's any secret that everybody that we have on our roster is up for discussion, if we have other teams call us up,” he said, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley.
Leaving New York will take a leap of faith on Anthony's part anyway. There's no guarantee the Chicago Bulls—with an injury-prone Derrick Rose—and the Houston Rockets—devoid of a point guard who can tie James Harden, Dwight Howard and Anthony together—become instant contenders with Melo in the fold.
Allowing one more year for both the Knicks' and free-agency picture to clear up increases the likelihood that Anthony makes the right decision in 2015.
Regardless of what Anthony ultimately decides, summer 2015 is alive with possibilities for the Knicks.
But even more possibilities are placed at their disposal if Melo declines his early termination option.
The Knicks have no guaranteed contracts on their books for 2015-16 as of now. Pablo Prigioni's deal is non-guaranteed, they own a team option on Tim Hardaway Jr., J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton have player options they can exercise or decline and Iman Shumpert is due a qualifying offer.
If Jackson can find a way to dump Felton and Smith, the Knicks could conceivably have under $7 million committed to 2015-16's ledger—assuming they retain Shumpert, Hardaway and Priggy Smalls—before cap holds and signing their first-round pick (they actually have one next year!). From there, they're free to chase whomever they please.
LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge could all be available. Moreover, with Jackson in control, they could all be interested in playing for the Knicks. It was Isola who reported that with P-Jax running the show, King James would consider relocating to New York.
Opting in allows Anthony to see how this plays out, to see which free agents the Knicks can realistically sign, without devoting the next half-decade to a team he isn't sold on. And if he opts in, the question of "How many star free agents can they sign?" comes into play as well.
Re-signing Anthony doesn't change a thing about summer 2015 from the Knicks' point of view. They will still have enough cap space to chase a star if he's under contract. But if he's a free agent, both Anthony and the Knicks have added flexibility.
Many—including Jackson—have long hoped he would accept a pay cut. Waiting until 2015 to explore free agency provides clarity on that front. The Knicks will know how much less they need Melo to take, and the seven-time All-Star will have a better understanding of who and what he's diminishing his salary for.
Maybe the Knicks can nab two stars willing to accept a decrease in pay with Anthony. Perhaps they build their own Big Three overnight, mimicking the domineering stylings of one Pat Riley.
"Can we get two instead of just one?" Jackson posed, via Isola. "Yeah, that’s a possibility."
"Possibility" as in "continued long shot," but an ambitious fantasy that becomes easier to actualize after Anthony eschews free agency for now.
Age Is a Jerk
Turning 30 changes people (so I've heard).
This side of his 30th birthday, things are put in perspective for Anthony. His title window is closing. If he sees an opportunity to join a winner now—like Houston or Chicago—he may feel compelled to seize it, for fear of missing out.
The Knicks should be able to avoid a massive letdown next season, but as currently constructed, they aren't winning any championships. Declining to use his early termination option would be an indirect admittance that he's prepared to trawl through one more mediocre season.
Money comes into play too.
You might say, "What's the difference? Receive a contract now or in 2015. Who cares?"
Anthony should, as BasketballInsiders.com's Steve Kyler explains:
To run the numbers, 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.
If Anthony signs a four-year deal this summer, he'll be 34 upon its completion. If he inks a five-year pact, he'll be 35. Neither one of those are ideal ages for a bruising scorer who attacks the rim with reckless abandon and frequently withstands shots to the head.
Yet, at 33 or 34—depending whether he has an opt-out clause after his third year with a new team or fourth year with the Knicks—Anthony still has one last opportunity to cash in. Change those numbers to 34 or 35—or worse, 36, should he decide to play out the length of a five-year agreement he signs next summer—and Melo is suddenly staring at the last significant payday of his career.
Putting his earning potential in jeopardy isn't something that's going to sit well with him, no matter how much he's already made.
Another Year of Uncertainty
While Anthony wanted to become a free agent, did he really enjoy all the baggage impending free agency came with?
Not at all.
"It's starting to get tough to handle," Anthony said in February, via USA Today's Ray Giler.
Next season should be easier no matter what.
Nothing about the Knicks' future is certain. Remaining in New York without signing a new contract only delays the ambiguity enveloping Melo's future.
Will he stay or will he go? The question will be asked over and over and over again like it was this past season.
Slogging through another year's worth of hearsay becomes easier if the Knicks are winning, but not even Jackson can promise a complete revival. The team is still a question mark, a collective mystery.
Willingly compounding their brain-twisting future—along with his own—is something Melo's unlikely to relish in.
A Test of Intentions
Having Melo play out his current contract is the best-case scenario for the Knicks. It gives them more options, more time. Jackson is given some breathing room and an opportunity to enter summer 2015 with access to many different directions.
But this isn't about the Knicks, so much as it is Anthony. After this season, he owes them nothing. Whatever debt he created by prematurely forcing his way to the Big Apple in 2011 has been repaid. Guilt should not be a factor.
Loyalty will be.
If Anthony wishes to remain with the Knicks, opting in is the smart play. It gives him the best chance to end New York's four-decades-long championship drought, complete with a possible escape route one year from now.
"There should be ample opportunity for this team to come back into competition next year,” Jackson said, via Isola.
Provided Anthony stays, that is. Should he leave, the Knicks fall further away from winning a title while being left to wonder if Melo ever planned on staying at all.
Salary information via ShamSports.