When NBA players talk about free agency, it’s typically in laudatory terms: freedom of movement, the thrill of fielding offers and—perhaps most of all—having one’s talents validated.
For the first time in his career, Carmelo Anthony is about to experience all of it.
But like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Anthony must come to grips with that other, uglier side of the coming summer frenzy: No matter what his decision, he’s doomed to be hated and doubted.
So what, exactly, is Anthony looking for?
That depends on whom you ask.
It began with comments he made during an All-Star weekend press conference, wherein the high-scoring small forward stated in no uncertain terms he’d be more than willing to take a pay cut if it meant helping New York take the next step:
Without a doubt. Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, I'd do it. I told people all the time, always say, 'If it takes me taking a pay cut, I'll be the first one on [Knicks owner] Mr. [James] Dolan's steps saying take my money and let's build something strong over here.
Ever since, newly-minted team president Phil Jackson has made it a point to hold those words—fairly or unfairly—over Anthony’s head, something he did most recently during a pre-draft press conference (from ESPN’s Marc Stein):
The perception is we want Carmelo to be as interested in winning. When saying he's competitive and wants to be on a competitive team to also being able to demonstrate that, if push comes to shove, in a situation where he may have to take a little bit less and we're more competitive to bring in another player to help us bring this concept along.
The problem for Jackson is that while Anthony may indeed be willing to scale back on his financial windfall, doing so stands to take a back seat to another, equally crucial concern: winning his first NBA championship.
Herein lies the precarious push-and-pull: If Anthony wants to put himself in the best possible position to win, even if it means a smaller paycheck, the Knicks most certainly won't cut it.
On June 12, ESPN’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst first broke word that the Miami Heat were considering recalibrating the contracts of James, Wade and Bosh in an attempt to lure Anthony to South Beach—the logic being that the four might be willing to sign new deals beginning somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million each.
Given that the Knicks are in a position to offer him a maximum five-year deal worth $129 million (per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News), Anthony signing with Miami could mean leaving tens of millions on the table.
With a core four of James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony, Miami would undoubtedly enter the 2014-15 season as the clear-cut favorites to notch the franchise’s fourth banner in 10 years.
There’s just one small catch: Anthony—having chosen glory over loyalty—would forever be the bane of Knicks fans everywhere.
Re-up with New York for more than Miami might offer, on the other hand, and he’ll be labeled as money-grubbing, the perfect poster child for all that’s wrong with modern athletes.
At this point, it seems the only decisions at Anthony’s disposal that don’t guarantee a public persecution are to take an enormous pay cut to stay in New York—multiples less than his worth, no doubt—or retiring outright, either for religious reasons of fabricated health concerns.
Remind us again why free agency is fun?
Indeed, even Anthony, expressed in an interview with Vice Sports, is beginning to bristle at the notion that this offseason foray comes down to a simple calculus of costs and benefits:
The average person sees the opportunity to say, 'Melo should go here; Melo should go there; he should do this; I think he should do that. They don't take in consideration the family aspect of it. Where are you going to be living at? Do you want your kids to grow up in that place or that city? Do I want to stay the rest of my career in that situation and city? All that stuff comes into play.
Jackson understands all this, of course. Which is why, for the sake of both his and the franchise’s future, the smartest thing would be to take the money option off the table entirely, something Bleacher Report’s own Howard Beck hammered home in a recent column:
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.
If Jackson has any chance of both bringing Anthony back and keeping the Knicks on the strategic straight and narrow, he has to take the money factor off the table entirely. Instead, any negotiation—either face-to-face or through the press—ought to be couched within one thing and one thing only: legacy.
Winning a title in Miami would certainly elevate Anthony’s place in the NBA pantheon. Jackson’s job, then, is to convince Anthony that the costs of rolling the dice on another Knicks rebuild pale in comparison to the beatific benefits of bringing a banner back to New York—to show that he won is less important than where he did it.
As such, maybe Jackson—who didn’t earn the nickname Zen Master for nothing—has a better chance than we think. Because the art of negotiation is less about figuring out what someone wants and more about convincing them you both want the same thing.