When the sun strode over Manhattan Monday morning, fans of the New York Knicks received what was hardly surprising news: Carmelo Anthony had opted out of the final year of his contract, officially making him a free agent.
And while watching the face of their franchise scale the fence for greener pastures is bound to sting, the Knicks and their fans will eventually come to realize what seems right now like a fanciful fact:
This is the best thing that could’ve happened to them.
This was all a mere formality, of course—Anthony suggested he’d pursue this path as far back as March.
The suitors have been in pursuit ever since, with the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers being mentioned, with varying degrees of probability, as potential landing spots (per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski).
As for the Knicks, the focus should remain on the real prize: the free-agent class of 2015.
Upon his coronation as the team’s new president of basketball operations on March 18, Phil Jackson was unequivocal in his desire to retain the gifted scorer’s services.
“There's no doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league, maybe the best individual isolation player in the game,” Jackson said, according to ESPN New York’s Ian Begley. “I have no problems with committing to saying Carmelo is in the future plans.”
Whether this was a genuine admission, a ploy to appease James Dolan or something else entirely, it’s impossible to say. But if we’re to glean anything from Jackson’s subsequent stances on the subject—hinting he’d like to see Anthony take less money to return (per Begley), for example—it’s that the Zen Master may have had different designs all along.
It’s not exactly a state secret that Jackson’s goal is to install the triangle offense. Not only did he suggest as much in his inaugural presser (per Pro Basketball Talk’s Kurt Helin), he hired a first-time coach in Derek Fisher whose most notable career accomplishments were all mined by way of Jackson’s triangle tutelage.
But Jackson’s plan isn’t just about encouraging more offensive consistency; it’s about sparking a complete cultural coup within the organization, mired as it’s been in caustic cupidity and tabloid toxicity.
It’s hard to believe that Jackson wasn’t telling the truth when he suggested Anthony would make a quick triangle understudy. But nor could he ignore what happened to New York’s two most recent coaches, Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson.
Indeed, it quickly became apparent in both cases that Anthony wasn’t about to relinquish his role as the offensive focal point. With Woodson the concern was one of complicity and complacency, of instinctively catering to Melo’s demands.
D’Antoni’s tenure, meanwhile, was more of a mutiny—it’s hard to run Seven Seconds or less with your best player taking up 10, after all.
So while Jackson may well have been willing to keep Anthony, there would be a laundry list for the latter to heed: taking a pay cut and buying into the triangle being the two principal pillars.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck noted, giving Melo the max was the least in a bad lot of options:
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.
Besides, Jackson didn’t take these reins just to let the Mustang steer. His goal is to hang a banner in the rafters, and that means clearing the decks and focusing on the free-agent free-for-alls of 2015 and 2016.
According to a source cited by Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, Jackson may already have his catch in the crosshairs.
“Phil’s telling people he’s going to get Durant,” a former NBA player told the longtime reporter.
That pipe dream’s still two years down the pike, of course. If that indeed stands as Phil’s grand design, however, better to cut ties and tank than remain a middling mess.
Writing at ESPN's TrueHoop section, Beckley Mason underscores how letting Melo walk is as much about cultural change as it is economic stability:
The Knicks' foundation is rotted; even if Anthony stays at a discounted price, they likely will want to dispose of their three other most highly paid players. If the Knicks can’t make major moves next season, there is no chance they will contend for anything other than a playoff spot.
No matter what happens next with Anthony, the Knicks will be rebuilding. There are variously expedient ways to do so, but whether you’re piling up assets or luring name free agents, it’s still called rebuilding.
When the Knicks last tried this tactic, back in the years leading up to the equally landscape-altering summer of 2010, theirs was a singular goal: bring LeBron James to 34th and 7th.
New York eventually settled for Amar’e Stoudemire, setting off a chain of events that ultimate led to the flawed financials of a Big Three—Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler—doomed from the start to flounder and fall short.
For the Knicks, the same risk exists: of pushing all their chips to the middle only to walk away with the shirt on their back and pennies in their pockets.
This time around, however, the guy bellying up to table isn’t some bending bachelor 10 Jim Beams deep, but a ring-clad counter who’s burned the house before.
Phil Jackson doesn’t just have a plan; he has a vision. Carmelo Anthony had his chance to be a part of it, to sacrifice a season for the sake of learning a system and reeling in reinforcements.
Instead, Anthony opted to test the market. Basketball is, after all, a business; no blame need be given.
If anything, Jackson should feel relieved. Rather than let the bled-through bandage worsen the wound below, the Knicks have a chance to rip it quickly off.
The pain may be strong and quick, but so too, with any luck, will the healing.