Leaving the Knicks in free agency, while a legitimately tempting option, wouldn't be what's best for the seven-time All-Star.
Not right now.
Yet right now, it appears Anthony is prepared to make an impulsive, title-driven decision that goes against the very privilege he's acquired.
League sources told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that Anthony prefers to map out his escape from New York as soon as possible, and that he already has two other teams in his sights—the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls.
Free agency doesn't begin until July 1, and Anthony cannot officially sign a contract until July 10, so there's a lot that can happen between now and then. It was also Melo himself who told The New York Observer's Rafi Kohan in October to disregard reports like these.
"I wanted to come here and take on the pressures of playing in New York," he said. "So one thing I would tell my fans: If you haven’t heard it from me, then it ain’t true.”
Unless Anthony himself comes out and acknowledges his desire to leave, we can only read so much into intel culled from the grapevine. But he is approaching a deadline of sorts. Marc Stein of ESPN.com was previously told that the superstar forward has until June 23 to inform the Knicks of his decision to explore free agency or opt into the last year of his contract.
Once he renders his decision on that matter, his imminent future will begin taking gradual shape. And despite the constant uncertainty plaguing the choice at hand, the smart play is staring Anthony right in the face.
Bolting the Knicks now would be a mistake. Whether or not Anthony himself will realize this is up to him.
This isn't something we're looking at through orange and blue goggles, to be sure.
Knicks president Phil Jackson has been nonchalant about Anthony's impending free agency, publicly admitting they want him to stay, but refusing to deem his best player paramount to the team's rebuild.
Talk of Melo taking a pay cut or delaying his free agency doesn't change the blatantly obvious. The Knicks' attempt to accelerate their rebuilding process makes more sense with Anthony than without. He's a star they can assemble a team around and someone who can eventually help recruit marquee free agents.
But this isn't about what's best for the Knicks. This is about Anthony and what's best for him. And while remaining in New York is convenient for the Knicks, it's actually what's best for him.
There aren't a whole lot of options Anthony will have this summer, a distinct reality mirrored in the purported front-runners expected to chase No. 7.
Neither the Rockets nor the Bulls are ideal landing spots. Forced to choose, the Rockets make more sense, though finishing first in a race of two is inconsequential.
Ignore the financial intricacies for a minute. Both Houston and Chicago must dump a few salaries and open up cap space to make a play for Anthony. Even after doing so, there's a strong possibility he'll have to accept less than the roughly $22.4 million he can earn in the first year of his new contract.
If Anthony is willing to take a pay cut, more power to him. Financial sacrifices have become almost synonymous with winning.
Tell me, though: Where can Anthony go that guarantees him a better outlook than what he has in New York at the moment? Houston? Chicago?
Smack dab in the middle of Wojnarowski's report, there's a description of what Melo is looking for in a new team:
Anthony's meeting with Knicks officials on Friday night had little impact on his state of mind, league sources said, because there remain too many uncertainties about how quickly president Phil Jackson can reshape the team into a championship contender.
Anthony isn't as concerned over a novice head coach in Derek Fisher as he is a roster barren of assets and talent to move toward contention.
Going off these assumptions, it's clear Anthony pines for a better fit and fewer question marks. The Bulls certainly don't offer them.
Derrick Rose has appeared in 50 games—playoffs and regular season—since 2011-12. That's 91 fewer appearances than the injury-prone Amar'e Stoudemire has made through the last three regular seasons alone (141).
Teaming up with Rose cannot be a selling point now. Not when Anthony has to commit the next four years of his career to part of the point guard's future.
Making the argument that the Bulls are still a talented team without Rose means little too. Wojnarowski notes that Anthony has long admired head coach Tom Thibodeau, but the Bulls ranked 28th in offensive efficiency last season. Too much of the offensive burden would fall on him if Rose isn't Rose, just like it has in New York.
Lateral moves aren't the goal here. With Anthony this past season, the Bulls don't make it out of the Eastern Conference. Maybe they challenge the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but they don't beat both. It doesn't happen.
Tying their offense together with Melo will be the real issue. Call it a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.
Jeremy Lin will be one of the players the Rockets must dump to acquire Anthony. Harden and Melo aren't natural-born point men. Though the bearded shooting guard can distribute the ball nicely, the team still needs a primary playmaker to balance touches and, more importantly, egos.
Both the Rockets and Bulls needs to clean house before bringing in Anthony as well, an imperative process Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver starts to outline:
Major pieces would have to move in either Chicago or Houston to accommodate Anthony’s arrival. For example, the Bulls would need to shed Carlos Boozer’s $16.8 million contract by using the amnesty clause, among other moves, while the Rockets would likely need to trade the expiring contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin.
Dealing Omer Asik and Lin from the Rockets, and amnestying Carlos Boozer from the Bulls is just the beginning.
For the Bulls to offer Melo something close to the maximum allowed, Taj Gibson has to go. Yes, Gibson. He only stays in the picture if Anthony is willing to take a massive pay cut.
After dumping Asik and Lin, and accounting for Chandler Parsons' restricted free agency cap hold, the Rockets are in identical territory. To offer Melo more than $15 or 16 million in the first year of his new deal, other players—like Parsons, Francisco Garcia and/or Terrence Jones—would have to go.
And if Anthony is going to take such a substantial pay cut, why not just join the Heat? Stein, along with colleague Brian Windhorst, revealed team president Pat Riley was planning to court Anthony this summer.
Best-case scenarios have the Heat being able to offer him slightly under $15 million to start. Forging a Big Four means more for Anthony if he's going to take less to join a shallow roster.
Moving to Chicago or Houston puts the roster depth and certainty he's apparently seeking at risk.
More Flexibility in New York
Nothing about the imperfections of available options proves the Knicks are a better fit long term. They're precluded from making substantial additions this offseason thanks to a lack of cap space, and their best trade assets are gargantuan-priced expiring contracts.
All sales pitches to Anthony are built around summer 2015, when the Knicks will have cap space and the ability to chase another star or two, which forces him to schlepp through another difficult, ringless season before he has the opportunity to sniff contention.
Delaying his ability to win a championship isn't ideal after turning 30 and having failed to reach the NBA Finals through the first 11 seasons of his career. But it's the smartest play available because of the out New York can give him.
Melo doesn't have to become a free agent now. He can opt into the last year of his contract and become a free agent next summer, something Jackson has repeatedly implored him to do, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola:
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.’
More options will be at Anthony's disposal in 2015. They won't necessarily be much better, but there will be more of them. Not to mention Anthony will have time to make a more informed decision.
Next year Anthony will have a better idea of who Rose is and whether he can stay healthy. The Rockets' financial picture will be easier to understand. The Los Angeles Lakers could enter the fray once again with a near-empty ledger.
Chris Bosh and LeBron James may enter the offseason frenzy then, too. Those two are unlikely to leave Miami regardless of how the Heat's season ends. It's their decision to ink a long-term contract or merely opt into the next year of their deals that remains a mystery.
If we're to believe that Anthony and James eventually want to play together, as USA Today's Sam Amick reiterated, spending at least one more season in New York makes the most sense for the former.
Staying in Haste
Telling Anthony to wait is easy. It's not our money or our future. He says he wants to win, but he's also at the point of his career where the end, while still relatively far off, is in sight.
Inking a new pact promises him at least four or five more years of financial security. Winning is most definitely a priority, but so is stability. And it's this that could compel Melo to sign a new deal this summer rather than wait until 2015.
Under those circumstances, it would appear leaving New York is his best course of action. The best combinations of money and talent await him outside New York.
Not so fast.
Limited options make his immediate decision more difficult. At most, Anthony is looking at three aggressive, personally approved suitors (aside from New York), putting him in position to play a game of "What's More Likely?"
Of these four scenarios, what's more likely?
- Howard, Harden and Melo coexist in Houston without a star floor general and are then able to win in the mercilessly competitive Western Conference.
- Miami's Big Three agrees to incredibly significant individual pay cuts to bring in Melo.
- Rose returns to form fully healthy and is able to adjust his ball-dominant style to complement Anthony.
- New York brings in the superstar sidekick(s) Anthony desires in 2015.
You don't have to answer now. You shouldn't be able to provide a definitive answer now, in fact. The free-agency landscape isn't that cut and dry this summer.
Whatever Anthony decides is predicated on an overwhelming number of "ifs" and "hopefullys." Staying with the Knicks isn't an exception, but they, at least, can give him the option of re-evaluating his future next summer. The Rockets, Bulls and—assuming Dwyane Wade, Bosh, James and Anthony are willing to take unprecedented pay cuts—Heat cannot.
In the event Anthony is unwilling to wait—Isola says he still plants to opt out—abandoning the Knicks still isn't the smartest play. That's not going to change if he shackles himself to this narrowly constructed field of suitors.
Switching teams should be about finding the right fit, about not just winning now, but four or five years down the line. Teams that can offer such ironclad assurances—the Heat, perhaps—are beyond unrealistic. Clubs that are possibly in better shape next season—the Rockets and Bulls—cannot vow better futures.
Deserting the Knicks isn't worth that risk. Lateral shifts can ruin legacies, especially if the player in question forced his way to where he is now like Anthony did. If he wants more of the same—more of the same being unduly conditional ceilings—he doesn't have to leave New York.
He shouldn't leave New York.
Brighter futures can await him there. Jackson has a plan, a blueprint. The Knicks are looked down upon because they demand Melo wait another year, another season to win, when, really, some form of waiting is a price he should be more than willing to pay in light of his alternatives failing to paint vastly different pictures.
*Salary information via ShamSports.