It wasn't very difficult to understand the New York Knicks' thinking when they added Phil Jackson to spearhead the front office in March: The team was a mess. Months later, Jackson has already infused his brand of NBA thinking into the franchise, after a collection of sound moves in short order.
Still, Phil's goal is to return the Knicks to championship relevancy. And though Carmelo Anthony's upcoming decision isn't the only factor New York must focus on to improve long-term, it's certainly the one NBA fans will turn to when evaluating Jackson's regime early on.
It's not as black-and-white as simply ensuring Anthony remains a Knick, though.. Solidifying the future isn't reliant solely on 'Melo returning, but upon bringing him back on wise terms while finding suitable pieces to build a championship contender around him.
Much of this has to do with the contract Anthony would be returning on and how restrictive it would be to New York's roster building.
Jackson has reportedly given Anthony verbal assurance that he can have the maximum possibly payout if he were to return: five years and $129 million, even after Jackson has been on record for months explaining the cons of maxing out stars, according to Chris Herring in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).
Remember, too, that Anthony himself gave the not-so-subtle hint that he'd willingly take less than the maximum if it meant title contention, particularly with New York. Per ESPN New York's Ian Begley, Anthony said last February during All-Star Weekend:
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."
Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal elaborated a bit this past week in regards to New York extending that max:
It is the Knicks' collectively bargained right to trump all offers with that mega-max, and it is Melo's collectively bargained right to take it. Still, an accepted five-year, $129 million offer (or something very close to it) would constitute an outcome both parties suggested they might avoid-- a mutual willingness to cement one foundational element at the expense of others. I reckon it's possible to build a great team around a maxed-out Melo, but it is inarguably easier to build around a sub-maxed-out Melo. It might even be easier to build without Melo.
That final point is one that has been mentioned several times, and one that Jackson has surely pondered. In order to compete long-term, which would be more beneficial: a maxed-out 'Melo making nearly $30 million per season, or simply accepting the 2015 cap space that losing Anthony would bring—or any assets acquired in a sign-and-trade?
If you're of the belief that the Knicks would be foolish to guarantee Anthony nearly $130 million at age 30—the school of thought Jackson seemed to stand behind for months—it's a very thin line.
Losing Anthony wouldn't be the end of the world for the Knicks, as they'll be in a position to re-up via free agency in 2015. But if Jackson does let him walk, he'll have lost a generational talent in just the first few months of presidency.
Though they'll still probably be able to build a winner, Phil could soon be staring at the stigma of being the guy who couldn't nail down the only in-house star he had.
Of course, there's the possibility of Jackson using the resulting cap space to form a greatly improved team next summer, but that's largely depending on free agents' opinions and personal lives to shape Phil's future—and Jackson has never been one to entertain uncertainties and, effectively, secede power to parties other than himself.
There's also the scenario that Jackson emerges victorious after failing to return the team's star. It's all speculation this early on, but without Anthony on the books next summer, the Knicks could have nearly $40 million to divvy out in free agency.
With Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and others set to hit the market that summer, it'll be hard for Jackson to miss on at least one of the premiere names of the free-agency class.
There's also the possibility that Jackson avoids shelling out max deals and uses his colossal cap room to ink a number of pieces in the, say, $8-12 million-per-year range. Either way, with a 2015 first-round pick also in the cards—to go along with Cleanthony Early, Tim Hardaway Jr. and possibly Iman Shumpert—the Knicks of the future seem to be heading in the right direction.
Of course, having 'Melo remain on board through the franchise's transition would help the process get off to a much smoother start. Without him, though, Phil will have the chance to build his own Knicks from a blank slate.
While many have considered 'Melo's free agency is what will make or break the Knicks moving forward, it's not; the team's future makeup is much more complex than a single star re-signing or walking. Jackson has publicly downplayed the situation almost from the jump, and without devaluing Anthony, it's easy to see why.
A year from now, Anthony's decision will be what Phil's legacy is defined by. He'll still be a front-office novice after just one year, and we won't have much to go by outside of the gargantuan 'Melo dilemma, however it's eventually handled. But as his new career carries forward, Phil's Knicks legacy will revolve around his next moves: how he recovers if Anthony leaves, or how he does what no NBA front office has ever done by building a champion around Carmelo.