Knicks Rumors: Future Still Murky Despite Carmelo Anthony's Likely Return

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Knicks Rumors: Future Still Murky Despite Carmelo Anthony's Likely Return
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

It appears the allure of staying home has won out over competing for rings at a discount in Chicago and playing with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles in the Carmelo Anthony Sweepstakes of 2014.

Marc Berman of the New York Post reported Wednesday that the Knicks expect to hear Anthony affirm his commitment to the franchise sometime this week. Berman's initial source said Thursday, the first day after the NBA's moratorium closed, was the target date. Anthony's camp has since denied the report, and the lack of announcement gives a glimmer of hope to the Lakers and Bulls

The reality, though, is that Anthony re-signing with the Knicks has held an air of inevitability for a while now. The Bulls could not realistically get anywhere close to offering Anthony max money without help from the Knicks that they were understandably unwilling to give. The Lakers offered what amounted to a Knicks Lite package—$30 million less guaranteed in exchange for perpetual mediocrity.

The Knicks, with Phil Jackson now at the helm, offered the key to every free agent's heart: money and the allure of future contention. Jackson sold Anthony on New York's cap space—which will approach or be right at maximum money next summer—and gave him a detailed plan on how he plans on spending it.  

"The two of us, I think, feel really passionately about what we're trying to get accomplished," Jackson said Thursday, per ESPN's Ian Begley. "...I felt really good about my conversation with Melo."

Should Berman's report pan out, the first part of Jackson's shared vision will have worked out. Answering the myriad concerns that come the moment after Anthony signs may be what defines Jackson's move into the Pat Riley phase of his career.

First is the issue of Carmelo's contract. It's been widely assumed that Anthony would take the five-year, $129 maximum to say in New York, but Jackson's press conference opened an entirely different possibility.

The Hall of Famer said he laid out five—five!—different contract offers that Anthony could take. One, of course, being the max deal. Jackson did not indicate what the other four would entail, but it's safe to assume at least a couple of them involved Anthony taking a pay cut. Perhaps Anthony, who has grabbed the money any chance he's gotten in his career so far, is considering taking a haircut to help Jackson's long-term plan. 

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

A more likely scenario sees Anthony weighing the merits of a shorter-term contract at or near the max. With the NBA's new television rights deal coming in 2016-17, the salary cap is expected to explode over the next few years. Maximum contracts are tied to a player's percentage of the salary cap. Maybe Anthony could return on a three-year deal with a player option and cash in one last time right at the end of his prime. LeBron James has been said to be considering a similar possibility.

Regardless of the contract stipulations, Anthony is going to get paid. A ton. He will be the NBA's highest-paid player once Kobe's ridiculous contract extension in Los Angeles comes off the books, and that's a good chunk of money for a player with an already tenuous reputation.

Anthony gets a deserved bad rap as a defender but just turned in the best offensive season of his career, and his game has elements that will age well. He's never relied on athleticism to get buckets, and his development of a killer three-pointer came at the perfect time. Even when his defense dips from below-average to abhorrent—and it will if he signs a five-year deal—Carmelo should be an effective offensive weapon for almost the entirety of his next contract.

With whom Jackson surrounds Anthony remains to be seen.

The Knicks are basically stuck for 2014-15. Contracts for Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and others cap them out before accounting for Anthony's hold for next season. The Knicks were going to be a dumpster fire if Anthony left.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Names have been floating around in the ether as guys Jackson could land with the taxpayer mid-level exception, but whoever signs at that level is window dressing. The Knicks will probably be better than their 37 wins of last season and make the playoffs—thanks mostly to a regression to the mean. The Eastern Conference is a mess, and Derek Fisher should help bring some structure to the madness that is the Knicks offense.

The inevitable mediocrity is why Jackson is trying to get creative through trades. The Tyson Chandler deal added long-term salary in Calderon, yet it also brought back two second-round picks and a 2013 first-rounder in Shane Larkin. The Knicks have also tried to unload the Stoudemire and Bargnani contracts. Begley reported that they've engaged the Philadelphia 76ers in talks for Stoudemire, though those discussions seem to have gone nowhere.

Which may be a good thing. Jackson was said to be angling for cap space this summer, dangling Iman Shumpert and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. as potential sweeteners. Given the realistic options available on the open market, Jackson may have been setting himself up for a catastrophic mistake. A guy like Pau Gasol, a Jackson favorite, is not moving the contention needle at this point. With LeBron choosing between Cleveland and Miami, Chris Bosh between Houston and Miami and Dwyane Wade between Miami and, well, Miami, the Knicks might have wound up tying up long-term money on mediocre talent.

Sound familiar?

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

It's OK to be a fringe playoff team next season. The Knicks might be better off for it. Allowing Stoudemire, Bargnani and others to come off the books will leave them enough cap space next summer to chase after Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge and a number of other players who will be available. 

It also allows the Knicks to keep their assets. Shumpert will be a restricted free agent next summer. Even if he bolts, a sign-and-trade might net the Knicks a draft pick or another young player on a cheap contract. Hardaway had a promising rookie season and may develop into J.R. Smith's sixth-man role over the long term. Or he could be added as a chip to dump Smith's contract and open up more room next summer.

The Knicks have been bereft of assets since adding Anthony in 2011. Dumping the few they have now to get rid of contracts that are expiring anyway would be a misallocation of resources.

Of course, here is where the greatest uncertainty comes in. Playing free-agency roulette is a dangerous game. The Mavericks have lost three straight summers and went full WWE heel on the Rockets by signing Chandler Parsons to a massive offer sheet in response, per USA Today's Sam Amick. The Lakers' entire future is built around the idea of adding stars in July, and they're going to miss out on their first target. There are only so many superstars. And, contrary to current trends, some of them actually like playing where they're at.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

The Celtics have been strangely loyal to Rondo amid a rebuild and his ACL injury. Love's trade market is going to heat back up the moment LeBron, Carmelo and Bosh decide where they're headed. Aldridge, barring a massive team regression, will stay in Portland. Dragic's slashing tendencies seem like an awkward fit in the triangle.

How comfortable is anyone signing a 30-year-old Marc Gasol to a four-year contract? Or a 30-year-old Al Jefferson, who will undoubtedly opt out of his contract in Charlotte if he repeats his 2013-14 campaign? Paul Millsap? Rudy Gay? Arron Afflalo?

These aren't names that swing a championship picture.

Pragmatically, re-signing Anthony is a necessary evil. There is a contingent who says Jackson should have pushed a sign-and-trade, completely blown up the roster and started from scratch. But this is New York. This is Phil Jackson, a 68-year-old man whose entire legacy is built on perpetual contention. At a certain point, pride and pressure kick in. At a certain point, you're willing to risk Anthony's defensive regression against the fact he remains arguably the NBA's second-most natural scorer. Superstars, even flawed ones, are not a plentiful wellspring; they're incredibly rare.

Barring any major surprises, Jackson did his first job. He convinced his superstar to stick around. Now the real work starts.

 

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