He’d never leave $30 million on the table.
For all fearful fans festooned to their Twitter feeds in the days leading up to Carmelo Anthony’s announcement, this was the line on which you hung your hat.
Turns out all the mental anguish was for naught.
Anthony agreed to re-sign with the New York Knicks for five years and an estimated $122-123 million, per the New York Post's Marc Berman, ending a week-long courtship that saw the All-Star forward entertain offers from the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and—most threatening of all to Phil Jackson’s plans—the Chicago Bulls.
That Anthony chose short money over championship legacy is bound to be the go-to trope.
But it’s his decision to follow Phil—all 13 rings and rote-recited koans—that’s the real story.
Whether Melo was motivated by one more than the other is, at this point, irrelevant; he’ll never say it was the money, and, anyway, he wouldn’t be the first player to loot first and ask questions later.
The Zen Master worked his magic—that’s what matters. In a statement released via his website, Anthony described Jackson as "a champion who builds championship teams."
And nowhere were Jackson’s psychological chops more effectively mobilized than in his offering Anthony five different contracts, each custom-structured to allow for varying amounts of much-needed cap space.
Phil Jackson said five different contract offers are on table. Thinks he will hear today but thought he'd hear day before too.— Marc Berman (@NYPost_Berman) July 10, 2014
By putting the onus on Anthony to choose between a maximum payday and a chance to more effectively round out the roster, something Melo himself stated he’d be willing to do as recently as February (via ESPN New York), Jackson was affording himself the ultimate litmus test.
Based on where Anthony landed—whether on the side of financial flexibility, personal security or by bolting altogether—Jackson would have a much better feel for what kind of person he’d be dealing with.
The act of giving him that choice could be seen, in a sense, as a way of challenging Melo to think long and hard about what his goals really are. Even if Jackson had this to say during a Thursday media session at New York’s practice facility:
Phil says that if Melo were to sign a max deal with the #Knicks, it wouldn't hurt what they are trying to do.— charlie widdoes (@charliewiddoes) July 10, 2014
Might that have been a way to reassure Anthony in the event he was torn between New York’s max and Chicago’s more attractive on-court product? Perhaps.
Conventional wisdom suggests Jackson’s path to building a contender would be made easier by Melo’s magnanimity. But what if it were actually the other way around: players electing to leave change on the table for the privilege of helping finish what Jackson and Anthony started?
MSG Network’s Alan Hahn, for one, believes that’s the more logical—and fair—perspective:
What Melo wants is to never have a season like the last one -- the first time in his career that he has ever experienced a losing record and failed to make the playoffs -- and also to do what all stars in their prime should do in this league: get their maximum salary according to the CBA.
That, to me, has been the most underreported part of this year's free agency: the idea that the high-end players should take less and "sacrifice" for their team to add other players. Shouldn't it be that other players sacrifice to play with the star player? Shouldn't it also be that teams are willing to pay the higher tax amounts in order to build a winner around that star?
A lot has been, and will be, made of the Knicks offering the max to Melo. Jackson said the media ‘made a much bigger thing about this, about what would happen, it's not really a big thing.’
Whatever Melo’s underlying motivations, he clearly sees something in Jackson’s plan that’s worth whatever risks lay ahead, to legacy or otherwise.
Based on the latter’s early track record, it’s hard to deny there’s a method to the madness.
In one two-day stretch, Jackson managed to turn an expiring Tyson Chandler and ineffective Raymond Felton into Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin and a pair of draft picks (Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo).
In other words: two down-swinging veterans for one ideal triangle point guard, a serviceable center and a quartet of young prospects.
These were his first moves.
Granted, the idea this was a deal-maker for Anthony is highly unlikely. All the same, there’s power in the effortlessness with which Jackson orchestrated the trade, the unmistakable purpose behind it—a power Melo undoubtedly recognized, even appreciated.
While stopping short of citing the trade specifically, Jackson acknowledged he and Anthony had fostered something of a philosophical rapport when the two met just prior to Melo’s cross-country courting trip (via Ian Begley and Fred Katz of ESPN New York):
I felt really good about my conversation with Melo. We really struck a chord. The two of us, I think, feel really passionately about what we're trying to get accomplished. It's his ability to stay, be patient, lead and watch us develop a winner. There's no instantaneous winner that we think is going to happen to the Knicks right now, but we're going to be a lot better.
No instantaneous winner.
It’s tempting to read into this seemingly benign three-word line that Anthony’s priorities truly do lie in banknotes over banners.
Knicks fans, on the other hand, would just as soon sign up for the alternative: Even at 30 years old, New York’s cornerstone is willing to see through the managerial musings of one of the league’s most celebrated minds.
With Anthony in the fold and Jackson at the helm, the Knicks stand an infinitely better chance of reeling in free agents in 2015 and beyond. That, in the end, may have been why Jackson never deigned to put his foot down on his cornerstone’s salary.
As it is with any NBA team in the age of plutocratic paydays, New York’s near-future prospects will inevitably be judged by how Melo’s most lucrative largesse either helps or hinders its cause. And rightly so—Anthony’s got his a la carte choice in contracts, not in how the public perceives him.
For fans to see past the choice Melo made, nothing short of genuine contention will do. In the meantime, though, perhaps it's wise to try to grant Anthony this one doubt's benefit: Even if he's cashing country GDPs, don’t discount the clout that 13 rings can tout.