How New York Knicks Can Survive If Carmelo Anthony Leaves in Free Agency

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How New York Knicks Can Survive If Carmelo Anthony Leaves in Free Agency
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Brace yourselves: The New York Knicks have officially entered survival mode now that Carmelo Anthony has decided to become a free agent.

Shocked? Betrayed? Confused?

Of course you aren't. This was expected. It was a formality. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski has simply confirmed the obvious: 

Declaring for free agency doesn't mean Anthony is leaving New York.

A previous report from Wojnarowski claimed he was "leaning" toward signing with a new team, specifically with the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets. But that doesn't mean he's actually going to leave. Free agency isn't here yet. Pay cuts and stuff, right? He could stay. 

In the event that Anthony leaves, though, the Knicks don't have to be up a certain brown-tinged, thick-substance-filled creek without a paddle. They can survive.

 

Staying the Course

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Staying the course is priority numero uno. Always has been, always will be, with or without Anthony.

“If it’s in the cards, man are we fortunate,” Knicks president Phil Jackson said in April, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola. “If it’s not in the cards, man are we fortunate. We’re going forward anyway.”

Demeaning to Anthony's value? Only if Melo and his camp are super-duper, divas-for-life sensitive. 

Jackson hasn't masked his intentions at all. From the onset of his time in New York, he's made it clear that he wants to keep Anthony, but in doing so, he has also refused to place the well-being and retention of any one player over the entire team:

More than system basketball, he's been subtly referring to summer 2015, when the Knicks will be flush with cap space and in position to sign one or more superstars.

“We have an opportunity in the next couple of years to get back in the hunt for free agents that are headline players. ... But next year and the year after, we think that we're going to have that opportunity," Jackson said, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "Can we get two [players] instead of just one? Yeah, that’s a possibility."

Free agency is the course, the avenue that will allow the Knicks to improve instantaneously without developing draft picks they don't have.

Stars will be available in 2015 and 2016. It's unclear how many, or who they will be, but names like LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant will be tossed around over the next two years.

New York would be a more attractive landing spot with Anthony in the mix, but he isn't absolutely paramount. Not that he's purely convenient. But for New York's purposes, cap space and the means to sign additional superstars are more important. 

Pounding that notion home until next summer is key, a message that must be delivered and reiterated verbatim again and again and again until it's drilled into the heads of fans and those who feel abandoned and misled by Anthony's departure.

 

Controlled Destruction

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Melo's exit could actually be part of it, no matter how he leaves. 

Opting out has, in essence, guaranteed he's not getting top dollar in his next contract. No team—not the Bulls, not the Rockets, not the Los Angeles Lakers—can offer him as much as the Knicks can. And what the Knicks can offer, they're not going to. Not all of it.

“The way things have been structured now financially for teams is that it’s really hard to have one or two top stars or max players,” Jackson explained, per Isola, “and to put together a team with enough talent you’ve got to have people making sacrifices financially.”

Once more, it's all about cap space. If Anthony is looking for the max, the Knicks won't sign him, because Jackson won't want him. That's the truth. He wouldn't have tried taking Melo up on his offer to accept a pay cut or have attempted to show him the benefits of opting in if this weren't true.

There are those who will refute this, like the Daily News' Mitch Lawrence:

We’re guessing Anthony might call Noah back after he officially opts out of his contract with the Knicks, no later than Monday. Maybe he leaks it out that he was talking to Noah, too. It’s easy to see why. Anthony wants to be recruited by the Bulls on July 1 so that he can get Jim Dolan to intercede on his behalf and tell Phil Jackson he needs to bring Anthony back, at any cost.

That’s our theory and we’re sticking to it. Anthony doesn’t really want to leave New York, any more than LeBron James wants to leave the Heat.

Time to embrace a different theory.

Owner James Dolan has given Jackson this kind of power. If the Zen Master intends to move on without Anthony—by choice or by necessity—he will be given that opportunity:

Just as part of that opportunity entails not overpaying Anthony, it also dictates that the Knicks refuse to help another team do the same.

Signing and trading Anthony elsewhere does help the Knicks capitalize on Anthony's departure, but they can't facilitate his departure just for the sake of getting something or someone. They have leverage and should be prepared to use it. 

And apparently they are.

From the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson:

However, league sources continue to indicate that despite Boozer’s expiring $16.8 million deal dovetailing with the Knicks’ plan for massive salary-cap space in 2015, the Knicks have no interest in acquiring Boozer as of now.

Thus, the Bulls might have to sign Anthony, whom everyone from coach Tom Thibodeau to Rose is on board with adding, via outright salary-cap space. Using the amnesty provision on Boozer only nets them roughly $11 million of space, depending on where the cap is set July 1. The Bulls would have to sell off other pieces for nothing in return to create more cap space and would prefer obviously to keep Taj Gibson. So would Anthony should he land with the Bulls.

That's leverage. Daring Anthony to sign elsewhere for less is leverage. 

Though he has said he'll take less to join a contender, Johnson writes that Anthony "still desires a maximum or near-maximum offer."

That's leverage. Actual, exploitable leverage.

It forces teams like the Bulls or Rockets—or whomever else is interested in giving Anthony a max salary—to pony up significant assets. The Knicks would be doing them a favor, after all.

Similar restraint still applies in that the Knicks should be mindful of who they're taking back. No long-term contracts. Draft picks and young, cheap assets must be the foundation of any deal.

Anything that allows them to move forward without compromising their original plan.

 

Same Destination, Different Route

Tyler Kaufman/Getty Images

From there, it's a matter of waiting and posturing. 

Try to dump contracts that extend beyond next season. J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton hold player options after 2014-15, and Iman Shumpert will be set for restricted free agency. If they're not part of New York's future—Felton and Smith certainly aren't—it's off with their contracts.

Using any of their expiring deals as a means to acquire additional draft picks is also worth exploring. Tyson Chandler may be the only one with any value, but if the Knicks can flip him for a comparably priced expiring pact and another draft pick, they should do it.

With Anthony gone, they won't be contending. There's no point keeping players they won't re-sign if trading them will net assets the Knicks can use to rebuild or eventually assemble a blockbuster trade proposal around. 

After that, it's onward and upward to 2015, when there will be free agents to sign.

When New York will have money to spend. 

When the Knicks can move on from Anthony, doing what they planned to do with him—survive by enduring one last year of static existence before summer 2015 and the promise of possibilities is upon them.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports.


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