In less than 36 hours, the New York Knicks went from employing perhaps the worst starting point guard in the NBA and being out of the draft altogether to having Jose Calderon, a handful of young assets and two new, value-laden picks.
If ever there was a moment to prove the Phil Jackson Era was officially afoot, this was it—a series of moves imbued with creativity and grounded in good old-fashioned financial foresight.
Aglow as he is in a honeymoon shine, Jackson can afford to be patient in putting his wayward franchise on a more sustainable path.
There’s just one problem: Carmelo Anthony can’t.
Anthony recently opted out of the final year of his five-year contract with New York, positioning the All-Star forward as one of the most sought-after names in this summer’s sterling free-agent class—a group that also includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But while Big Three speculations remain mostly focused on how they’ll restructure their next deals, Melo’s foray into free agency has seen him linked to everyone from the Houston Rockets to the Chicago Bulls, via ESPN.com's Chris Broussard, to—no surprise here—the Miami Heat.
With so many options open to Anthony, it would appear Jackson’s chances of wooing New York's cornerstone back to the Big Apple are thin indeed.
That’s not stopping the Zen Master from mustering his psychological best, however.
The day after the draft, Jackson spoke with reporters at the Knicks’ practice facility in Greenburgh, New York. Naturally, Anthony was one of the hot-button issues. Via ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk:
...We have every confidence that Carmelo is good for what his word is, that he wants to be in New York, he likes playing in New York, he wants to compete, he wants to be part of a playoff team that is competitive toward a championship.
When asked whether Anthony might consider taking a pay cut, thereby foregoing the nearly $30 million in surplus salary only New York can offer him, Jackson quite cleverly volleyed the ball back into the former’s court:
“When I take his word, he's the one who opened that up, that it wasn't about the money," Jackson said, via Youngmisuk. "So I challenged him on that, because I wanted our fans to see he's a team player, that he was going to do what's best to get our team ahead farther and faster.”
Off the court, Jackson and the rest of the Knickerbocker brass have redoubled their efforts in rebuilding the Knicks on the fly—no small task, given New York’s precarious salary commitments.
The first major move on this front came on Wednesday, when the Knicks sent Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and a pair of 2014 second-round picks, per USA Today’s Sam Amick.
The trade not only ridded New York of Felton, whose recent off-the-court issues (from the New York Times' James C. McKinley Jr.) only exacerbated what had already been the worst statistical season of his career, it also gave Jackson a crucial bit of breathing room beneath the league’s proposed $63 million salary cap.
And while the loss of Chandler’s defensive prowess is sure to prove a short-term setback, it was a necessary gambit in Jackson’s efforts to recalibrate the team’s long-term finances.
Patience, prudence, perspective: three words no one beyond the most ardent (and delusional) James Dolan loyalist would ever use to describe the Knicks leveraged into the lexicon in one simple, yet sweeping, deal.
More importantly, the trade serves as the opening salvo to a sincere effort on the part of Jackson to repair New York’s caustic on-court chemistry.
"Watching them play I saw guys that looked at each other like, 'You didn't back me up, you weren't here when I needed help,'" Jackson told ESPN New York’s Ian Begley. "There just wasn't the right combination or feel (where) it felt like everybody was in synch all the time."
In the wake of their recent coups, the Knicks are expressing a renewed (albeit cautious) optimism they'll be able to retain Anthony's services, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.
Whether all this is enough to lure Anthony back to the blue and orange, however, remains an open question.
At 30 years old and with nearly 32,000 NBA minutes on his odometer, Anthony’s championship window is slowly inching down the frame. To truly seal his legacy as a generational giant, bringing back a banner is—and will most definitely remain—the righteous aim.
Only, it’s not so simple. As Hoops Habit’s Shane Young recently underscored, Anthony’s already complicated legacy is only made murkier by the daunting decision in front of him:
Anthony can make the most money this summer by re-signing with New York, and that’s where society will give him criticism. He’s debating whether to take less money to join a contender (which is something we praise most of the time) or to take maximum money and possibly lose. It really becomes a fight between legacy and capital.
Leave New York just to win, and there will always be those that believe your career is tarnished. Take the money and stay in the Big Apple, and you will turn out to be a 'greedy' superstar, and one that is only playing for the money.
It’s a crippling conundrum, to be sure. In any other year, given a more milquetoast free-agent class, Melo might be more open to choose roots over ring count. But Miami’s core three positioning themselves to cleave open over $15 million in cap space (a strategy first reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst), Anthony could have a chance to take his championship chase—and his talents—to South Beach.
Even the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, with their own readymade cores and conference contender pedigrees, would make for more immediately promising prospects.
With free agency slated to start on Tuesday, Anthony’s summer is sure to be a circus—three full rings of hype, hearsay and hellish speculation the likes of which only LeBron boasts a modern equivalent.
You’ll find Phil Jackson in the fray, of course, all signature cocksureness and confidence, convinced the Knicks’ brightest days are ahead of them—a banner hung just feet from where No. 7’s will someday stride.
Jackson may be proving his the proper path forward for New York. Sadly, Anthony simply can't afford risking his legacy for the sake of a scenic route. Not with so many shortcuts before him.
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