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Divorce for Carmelo, Knicks May Be Painful, but It May Also Be Smart for Both

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Divorce for Carmelo, Knicks May Be Painful, but It May Also Be Smart for Both
Chris Szagola/AP Images

What does Carmelo Anthony want? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it the warm glow of the Broadway spotlight?

What does Carmelo Anthony need to consider his career a success? Another scoring title? A trip to the NBA Finals? A championship?

Does his role matter? His shots per game? His scoring average? Must he dominate the ball to be happy?

How would Carmelo Anthony like to be remembered? As an elite scorer? A gunner? A great teammate? A winner?

Does his legacy matter?

All of these questions matter—now, more than ever—as Anthony contemplates the next, and perhaps final, significant move of his NBA career.

As expected, Anthony is opting out of his contract with the New York Knicks, making him an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He officially informed the Knicks of his decision in writing Friday, according to league sources.

This will be Anthony's first experience in free agency—and most likely his last as an elite player. He turned 30 last month. His next contract will likely cover four to five years. If ever there were a time for Anthony to reflect and reassess, to consider the totality of his career and what he wants from it, it is now.

If the money matters most, the decision is simple: The Knicks, by rule, can offer Anthony the most dollars ($129 million) over the most years (five). Rivals can offer no more than $96 million over four years. And the Knicks' chief rivals for Anthony—Chicago and Houston—probably cannot even offer that much because of salary-cap constraints.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Phil Jackson has saId he'd like to have Carmelo Anthony back in New York, if the All-Star is willing to cut his salary.

Even if the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut (and they absolutely will), he will still probably make more in New York, by virtue of the higher raises and the extra year the Knicks can include in the deal.

But if winning matters most, then Anthony is almost certain to leave. In fact, if winning is his highest priority, Anthony absolutely should leave. It's the best option for all parties, the Knicks included.

Anthony could join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in Chicago and contend for the Eastern Conference title immediately.

He could join James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston, forging the most powerful trio in the West.

Or he could stay in New York with J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani.

Yes, the Broadway lights are alluring, but in this case they're more like a bug zapper, frying any living thing that wanders in.

Putting aside the money and the New York glitz, why would Anthony want to stay? Given the results to date, why would the Knicks want him to?

The Knicks have gone nowhere with Anthony dominating the offense and the payroll for the last three-plus seasons—unless you consider two first-round exits, one second-round exit and a 37-win season a success.

Even with Anthony posting one of his finest seasons in 2013-14, the Knicks finished ninth in a horrendous Eastern Conference. And their prospects for next season are dim. The Knicks have no salary-cap room, no first-round draft pick and a roster packed with overpriced and/or unwanted players.

Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, the new team president and head coach, respectively, are savvy enough to turn this around. But it won't happen until at least July 2015, when Jackson will have the cap room to make wholesale changes. By then, of course, Anthony will be 31, another year lost to the Knicks' perpetual dysfunction.

If his legacy truly matters, how many more seasons can Anthony afford to sacrifice?

Sacrificing money, on the other hand, is something Anthony surely can afford. He's earned $136 million in his NBA career, and millions more in endorsements. Trading dollars for glory seems like a smart move at this juncture.

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images
The Knicks have won one playoff series in the three-plus years Carmelo Anthony has been with the team.

With a little cap maneuvering, the Rockets can offer Anthony a starting salary around $19 million, about $3.5 million less than his maximum. The Bulls can open up about $17 million, possibly more, depending on how many rotation players they're willing to unload.

And really, Anthony might not be sacrificing much if he leaves. Jackson has said he wants Anthony to take a pay cut to stay, so he won't be making the max in New York either. For the Knicks to gain any significant flexibility, that pay cut has to be at least a few million per year.

This is, by the way, the only sane position for Jackson to take. If the Knicks are ever going to contend, they cannot afford to devote 35 percent of the salary cap to a single-minded scorer who doesn't play defense, doesn't elevate his teammates and will soon be moving out of his prime years.

Granting Anthony the max would strangle the Knicks' payroll for five years, limiting their ability to sign a bigger, better star (or two). The investment would only get worse over time, with Anthony making nearly $30 million at age 35.

Anthony likely won't age well. He has already logged 31,417 minutes over 11 seasons, and he has never been known for stellar work habits or his conditioning. He hasn't played a full 82-game season since his rookie year. He missed 11 games in 2011-12, 15 games in 2012-13 and five games last season.

If the Knicks are faced with paying Anthony the max or losing him, the decision is clear: They should let him walk.

But if Anthony will accept a meaningful pay cut, the Knicks should keep him. For all of his flaws, Anthony is still an elite scorer, and he'd surely become a more selfless player under Jackson and Fisher's tutelage. (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant both became better team players in the triangle offense.)

It's generally easier to recruit star players if you already have one on board, so Anthony has some incidental value. He also loves New York and handles the spotlight well, and those things count for something too.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Bulls are among a handful of contenders who reportedly have an interest in making a pitch for Carmelo Anthony in free agency.

So, what does Anthony truly want? What does he value? In 2011, it was clearly the money and the fame.

Anthony forced the Denver Nuggets to trade him to New York—a deal that cost the Knicks all of their best assets—rather than wait for free agency. Why? Because Anthony wanted to lock in a $65 million extension that he worried would be reduced under a new labor deal.

The trade hamstrung the Knicks' ability to surround Anthony with decent talent, as Anthony himself admitted last December in an interview with NBA TV's Ahmad Rashad, saying, "I knew we took a step backwards as an organization for me to get here. So we had to rebuild."

The Knicks are still paying for that ill-conceived trade. Their draft pick this year, 12th overall, now belongs to the Orlando Magic, who obtained it from Denver.

The Knicks-Anthony partnership never blossomed the way they all hoped back in 2011, when Knicks owner James L. Dolan hijacked negotiations and forced his front office to make the deal. Since then, the Knicks have posted a ho-hum .547 winning percentage, with a series of forgettable postseasons.

No one should be satisfied with the results, and no one could be blamed if they decided to part ways now.

It's time for Anthony to prioritize legacy over riches. His playoff record is dismal. He has been to the conference finals just once, in 2009. If he retired now, he would be remembered as great scorer, nothing more.

He will soon have brighter options on the table—in Chicago and Houston, perhaps in Dallas and Los Angeles. He should pursue those options.

And the Knicks should let him.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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