Is it even possible?
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant: You could make a case for any of these three transcendent contemporaries commanding max money. That two of them have already won titles only reinforces the fact.
Anthony, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether—a singularly talented basketball genius too often deceived by his own recognition thereof.
“He doesn’t make those around him better,” the tried-and-true trope will go. “Those guys don’t lead teams to championships.”
Now, with ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley reporting that Anthony is expected to make $124 million over five years, those refrains are bound to become louder by the game.
The question isn’t whether Anthony is worth that much vis-a-vis the Jameses and Durants. Even team president Phil Jackson, assuming anonymity, likely wouldn’t admit as much.
Rather, retaining Melo is just the first step in a meticulous multiyear rebuilding process for Jackson. The next action item: making the most of next summer’s deeper—though decidedly less top-heavy—free-agent class.
Sporting News’ Sean Deveney broke down the situation:
Indeed, the Knicks will be well-positioned for commerce on July 1, 2015. That’s when they will be done paying the $23.4 million they owe Stoudemire, and the $11.5 million they owe Bargnani. They will have Anthony on the payroll for $24.1 million, and Calderon at $7.4 million, as well as whatever rookie-contract players they are still carrying. New York could be in position to spend around $30 million in free agency next summer.
For now, it is a deeper class than what we had this summer. Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is one of the headliners — he does not exactly fit the Jackson mold for point guards, however — but among the backcourt candidates are Tony Parker, Wes Matthews, Monta Ellis and Goran Dragic.
For Jackson, the strategic calculus was simple: Do I have a better chance of using 2015 to build a contender with or without Melo?
True, Jackson could’ve let Anthony walk in hopes of reeling in a Rondo or Dragic next summer and subsequently taking aim at the 2016 free-agent class headlined by Kevin Durant. Doing so, though, would’ve required even more factors break the Knicks’ way.
Still, Jackson—who offered Anthony a menu of five deals of varying complexity and flexibility, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post—has to be happy with the result:
Phil Jackson tells reporters in Vegas that Carmelo "did exactly what we asked him to do" & took less than max money in early years of deal.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) July 13, 2014
By giving Melo close to the max, Jackson essentially paid for the convenience of having that one sure thing in tow—a player whose cultural clout and magnetism remain strong enough to sustain their own basketball orbit, even if the numbers don’t quite jive with the value.
The question then becomes how, exactly, Jackson intends to govern that solar system.
Our first glimpse came when Jackson managed to deal Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalmbert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and a pair of 2014 draft picks (Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo).
In Calderon, Jackson gave new head coach Derek Fisher the ideal triangle point guard: a heady, steady ball-handler and knockdown shooter who can orchestrate the offense and seldom turns the ball over.
Meanwhile, Larkin, Early and Antetokounmpo give New York something it has seldom enjoyed in recent years: young assets with upside.
Even Ellington, the 28th overall pick in 2009, boasts some triangle experience, having played two seasons under former Jackson disciple—and newly minted Knicks associate head coach—Kurt Rambis.
Not that Jackson’s first trade was anything close to a game-changer, of course. At the very least, though, the move suggests a direction where there once existed only short-sighted, increasingly myopic management—the border of a broader puzzle rather than isolated, ill-fitting pieces.
That Jackson and Fisher are fully intent on installing the triangle isn’t exactly breaking news.
How well Anthony fits into said system, however, is something Fisher is explicitly banking on. He suggested as much in an interview with The Michael Kay Show (h/t Marc Berman of the New York Post):
Yes, in my opinion Carmelo will thrive in a triangle system. He is actually the prototypical triangle player because of his versatility. We could use him at all five positions on the floor. That’s the beauty of the system, being able to move players around on different spots on the floor. I believe we can be great right away because we have that guy we can anchor that system around.
Michael Jordan or Kobe, Anthony is most certainly not. At the same time, winning 11 titles with the former two lends Jackson an instant credibility that could, under the right circumstances, attract the requisite talent for contention—perhaps even at a discount.
Melo taking less than the full max ($129 million over five years) will certainly help New York’s cause on this front, although to what degree remains to be seen.
The more immediate concern will be in making sure the Knicks take the necessarily steps to persuade forthcoming free agents that New York is making strides in ways beyond mere words.
Winning more than 37 games would certainly be a start. More important, however, is how quickly Fisher gets in front of the coaching learning curve, and how receptive Anthony will be to making sacrifices today for tomorrow’s sake.
Turning these Knicks into contenders—possible though it most certainly is—stands to be by far the toughest test Jackson has ever faced.
Then again, when you’ve raked in enough rings for toes, perhaps the only thrill left lies in doubling the degree of difficulty.