Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher Era Must Start with Retaining Carmelo Anthony

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Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher Era Must Start with Retaining Carmelo Anthony
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

No matter the question, Carmelo Anthony is the answer for the New York Knicks.

Best player on the team, most recognizable face away from the court, biggest recruiting chip, he's filled those plus a number of other roles since forcing his way to the Big Apple in 2011.

Anthony is the Knicks, even the rebranded ones with new coach Derek Fisher at the wheel and team president Phil Jackson navigating from the passenger seat. Anthony is the sole reason to hope that a 37-win team with no draft picks or financial flexibility can somehow right the ship with no external assistance.

That is, unless he goes searching for greener pastures over the offseason.

The 30-year-old has until June 23 to tell the Knicks whether he'll exercise his $23.3 million player option for 2014-15, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. He might not need that long for a decision he appeared to make months ago.

"I want to be a free agent," Anthony told the New York Observer's Rafi Kohan back in October. "I think everybody in the NBA dreams to be a free agent at least one time in their career. ... I want that experience."

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

That experience, when NBA players morph back into blue-chip prospects and league executives do their best John Calipari impressions, could be sweeter for Anthony this summer than next.

Assuming the Miami Heat's Big Three don't slip out of South Beach, the former scoring champ could find himself in a class of his own on the open market. With names like Kyle Lowry, Luol Deng and Eric Bledsoe (a restricted free agent) serving as the potential consolation prizes after Anthony, no expenses would be spared in the over-the-top courtships of the current Knicks superstar.

If Anthony wants to be wooed, he should get that itched scratched and then some this summer.

Barring a catastrophic injury, his market wouldn't dim by delaying his decision for another year. A career 25.3 points-per-game scorer, fourth among all active players, his is a stock that will always be met with a bearish market.

The difference between this summer and next, though, is that Anthony would have to share the spotlight in 2015. Miami's talented trio could all join Anthony on the open market, along with other stars like Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol.

Anthony would be wanted in either market, but he'd be the wanted man if he tested the waters this July.

Fisher and Jackson have to ensure Anthony never makes it further than the Hudson River.

Strange things can happen in the unknown world of free agency. Things like the heavily armed Miami Heat planning a heist of New York's biggest star, a process that's already reached the planning stages according to Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

Discussions have begun within the organization about trying to grow their so-called Big Three into a Big Four, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that Heat officials and the team's leading players have already started to explore their options for creating sufficient financial flexibility to make an ambitious run at adding New York Knicks scoring machine Carmelo Anthony this summer in free agency.

Melo to Miami is far from a sure thing.

There are massive financial hurdles that would need to be cleared, piles of money that would need to be left on the table by all parties involved. There's enough smoke to give this a look, but it's hard to tell how much, if any, fire is there:

Still, a narrative like this shows that when it comes to free agency, it's hard to rule out any possible outcomes.

So the first-time coach and first-time executive must not let their lack of experience show. Anthony's preferred path has always seemed to be staying—and winning—in New York.

Those are not independent items on his wish list. He needs the Knicks to show him that he can have both, a message he delivered during his exit interview, relayed by ESPN New York's Ian Begley:

Fisher finds himself in a peculiar position with Anthony's decision.

The 39-year-old was suiting up for the Oklahoma City Thunder at the end of May. Fisher is also a former president of the player's union. He understands there are more than basketball factors that are weighed in these types of decisions, and he can't push Anthony too hard, knowing that he's made these calls for himself and his family before.

"As far as Carmelo is concerned, we obviously believe Carmelo is one of the top players in the NBA and world," Fisher said at his introductory press conference. "We want him to be here, but ultimately he has the choice."

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There's another reason Fisher and Jackson have to publicly tread lightly on the matter.

Without any assurance that Anthony will return, the Knicks can't sell him as their championship savior. Losing a seven-time All-Star would be bad enough, but it would be a public relations disaster to lose the player identified by the coach and the front office as the most pivotal piece of the puzzle.

Even if both can obviously see him as such.

"In my opinion Carmelo will thrive in a triangle system," Fisher said during an appearance on The Michael Kay Show (h/t The New York Post). "He is actually the prototypical triangle player because of his versatility. We could use him at all five positions on the floor."

In other words, Anthony is the perfect player for what Fisher and Jackson see as the perfect offensive system to implement in New York.

They cannot let him walk in free agency. They have to sell Anthony on the idea of being the real King of New York, with a championship crown and all.

Anthony is equal parts cornerstone and bridge.

He's the building block of the foundation Fisher and Jackson inherited.

Anthony led the Knicks in scoring (27.4) and ranked second in rebounding (8.1) in 2013-14. The Knicks were competitive when he was on the floor (plus-0.9 net rating, would have tied for 15th) and disastrous when he sat (minus-6.9 net rating, would have ranked 27th), per NBA.com.

Whatever hope exists for the present exists because of Anthony. That doesn't change as the focus shifts to the future.

Anthony is the type of premier player capable of luring in another game-changer. Whether that's warming Kevin Love on the idea of forcing his way to the Knicks via trade this offseason or netting a big fish in free agency next summer, Anthony's status gives him a certain pull with other stars.

USA TODAY Sports

Not to mention what he does for the current roster and this legion of fans.

"You want to be respectable? You keep Melo. You want a gate attraction? You keep Melo," ESPN New York's Stephen A. Smith wrote. "You want, at least, a shot at LeBron James? You definitely keep Melo."

The Knicks are a year away from having substantial cap space. Their Big Three of Anthony, Jackson and Fisher could form quite the recruiting monster.

But that monster has no bite without Melo. If he's not there, there is no on-court pitch worth buying.

What can help Jackson and Fisher get their tenures started off on the right foot? The answer is Carmelo Anthony.

It always is for the Knicks.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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