The ink has all but dried on Carmelo Anthony’s fresh five-year, $124 million contract with the New York Knicks (per ESPN’s Ian Begley), the culmination of a weeks-long back-and-forth that saw the high-scoring forward put one foot out the door—aimed westward towards the Chicago Bulls—before his heart thought better of it.
Now comes the hard part: building around a flawed superstar on the wrong side of 30.
Phil Jackson’s persistence finally paid off. But it’s the patience of Anthony—for whom time is money—that could prove the bigger boon, both next summer and beyond.
"He did exactly what we kind of asked him to do," Jackson told Begley. "Give us a break in the early part of his contract so that when we have some wiggle room next year, which is hopefully big enough wiggle room, we can exploit it."
In the Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets—all of whom enjoyed an audience—Anthony had the pick of the contender litter. That’s nine combined titles since 1991. He’d have been welcomed as a brother and cheered as a hero.
Ultimately, none had what Melo truly wanted—max money, sure, but something bigger and better than that: a chance to exorcise demons decades in the making and bring a banner back to New York City.
Such calculus comes at a price, of course, namely having to forfeit the entire 2014-15 season. With Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani commanding a combined $35 million, the cap space is simply too slight for Jackson to make anything other than marginal, short-term upgrades.
Still, there is reason for optimism, owing to a pre-draft trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin and a pair of second-round draft picks—Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
Without Chandler, New York’s defense is bound to suffer in the short term. But considering what they got in return—a perfect triangle point guard, a serviceable center and four potential-laden prospects—the Knicks are bound to make out better on the overall ledger.
Toss in returning troops Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cole Aldrich, and Jackson has constructed a year-one roster that is both contiguous enough to give Anthony some semblance of comfort and flexible enough to give New York some genuine flexibility over the course of Melo’s contract.
With Stoudemire and Bargnani’s salaries both coming off the books next summer, New York will have more than enough to sign a second player to a max contract. Here’s Grantland’z Zach Lowe to explain:
The Knicks will still have some flexibility even with Anthony’s mammoth deal. They could have as much as $23 million or so in cap room next summer, though that would require renouncing Bird rights on Shumpert, waiving Pablo Prigioni, and holding off on signing any multiyear contracts in the current free-agency period.
That would be plenty for one max star to pair with Anthony, and all the available evidence suggests that Anthony alone is not enough to power a team into a title chase — even with a capable supporting group. But two max guys would be impossible without some pay-cut magic, and that should be the case as long as Anthony remains a Knick under this contract. And that’s fine. Having three max-level stars on actual max contracts is a historical rarity.
So whom, exactly, should the Knicks be targeting? We delved into the deeper details a few days ago, but the list of names Jackson is sure to have his eye on next summer include Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Wesley Matthews and, of course, Kevin Love (assuming the Timberwolves don’t preemptively trade him).
Even if the Knicks author little more than a respectable showing this season—making the postseason or even winning a first-round series—Jackson and Anthony’s goal would be all but accomplished: proving to the rest of the league New York is no longer an organizational laughingstock.
Should the Knicks swing and miss on next year’s crop, 2016 could be even more enticing, with Kevin Durant and LeBron James currently slated to hit the open market (barring any unforeseen extensions, that is).
Whether Anthony is willing to wait a full two years to land his Robin or Batman—that’s the real question. Indeed, with Melo now in possession of a no-trade clause, the onus is on the Knicks to rebuild as quickly and effectively as possible, lest their single star sabotage his way out of New York.
Good thing, then, that the Knicks now employ one of the game’s legendary managers of men. Between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Jackson has navigated enough ego to fill a Sigmund Freud compendium. Compared to them—a pair of characters so competitive that “killer” became a term of endearment—Anthony could prove a collaborative cakewalk.
That Melo didn’t make quite the financial sacrifice Jackson had hoped for pales when compared to the latter’s greater victory: getting Anthony to buy into his redemptive roadmap, no matter the bumps and detours that lay ahead.
Too often we view sacrifice in sports in purely financial terms, of cash and clauses, options and opt-outs. Aside from the $5-or-so million he left on the table—enough to sweeten a deal, not nearly enough to make one—Melo didn’t exactly break from convention.
But if there’s one currency in professional sports that rivals the real thing, it’s this: time.
Time is what separates the Kobe Bryants from the Brandon Roys, the Greg Odens from the Roy Hibberts. Time can cripple and kill a career, or it can fill a coffer for a life’s worth of years. Unlike money, time is seldom—if ever—guaranteed.
Time is what the Rockets, Bulls and Mavericks could've given Anthony. One more year to try his hand at outfitting a finger, another chance at a championship summer.
Melo might not have left much money on New York’s table. He did, however, give up his precious temporal tender so that both the Knicks and their fans—stolen as their hearts have so often been—might finally be made whole.