No pressure, though, Melo.
Free agency, in all its ambivalence-promoting glory, wasn't the main course. It was the appetizer. Next season is the main course, after which the Knicks will be treating themselves to dessert, selecting from a menu consisting of only two options: Another Superstar a la mode or Oh No, Not Again souffle.
Their server is a familiar face, one whom the Knicks haven entrusted with making their decision. Anthony's power over New York has grown exponentially in recent weeks, and with the Knicks' future structured as it is—rooted and roofed in unpredictability—his 2014-15 campaign, robust or infirm, is all they will have to build upon.
Such pressure is the direct result of New York's "rebuilding" plan remaining unchanged. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported the Knicks would go superstar-surfing back in December, and team president Phil Jackson has only parroted said concept since taking the franchise's reins, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola.
We have an opportunity in the next couple of years to get back in the hunt for free agents that are headline players. This year, not so. But we’re going to make improvements on this team regardless. But next year and the year after we think that we’re going to have that opportunity. Can we get two instead of just one? Yeah, that’s a possibility.
Melo himself has only echoed these prevailing sentiments since re-signing at the "discounted" rate of five years and $124 million, telling ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, "I don't think we're that far away. People use 'rebuilding' too loosely."
Indeed, the term "rebuilding" is thrown around haphazardly, much like "superstar." And while it's easy to sermonize outsiders about the misconceptions surrounding New York's status when you're $124 million richer, Anthony's claim has its merits.
The Knicks aren't rebuilding in the literal sense. Rebuilding takes years. It takes patience.
It takes draft picks.
New York has neither the time nor the requisite assets to rebuild conventionally. This team is looking to overhaul its roster and retool around Anthony, a plan made in haste that is theoretically possible.
Cap space will make a rare cameo in New York next season. With cap space, the Knicks can give chase to any one—or, with some serious roster manipulation, two—of the available superstars.
Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic (player option) and Paul Millsap can all hit the open market next summer. The Knicks' interest in landing that superstar sidekick for Anthony is no secret. Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal even has them trying to skip the waiting period by entering the Love sweepstakes.
What the Knicks dangled in front of the Minnesota Timberwolves—Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.—is laughable, but it offers further insight. Another star is still the standard.
In order to land that second (and third) star, the Knicks need more than cap space; they need a reason outside of money.
They need a tangible selling point, and they're betting nine figures Anthony is a superstar to whom other superstars will gladly tether their futures.
Anthony's Future Value
Last season's showing suggests they will.
Anthony had a career year, averaging 27.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting and registering career bests in rebounds (8.1) and three-point percentage (40.2). That he also ranked 13th in win shares (10.7)—accounting for nearly 30 percent of New York's victories—on a lottery-dwelling team like the Knicks only enhances his superstar credibility.
Emerging as more of an offensive chameleon helped, too.
Though still an advocate of isolation sets and a frequent hero-baller, Anthony's off-ball mechanics are now impeccable. He ranked in the top 80 of spot-up efficiency, drilling 44.2 percent of his standalone three-pointers, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Non-ball-dominant success is one of the primary reasons Anthony is expected to thrive within Jackson's famed triangle offense under Derek Fisher. And, like Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan asserts, he needs to thrive:
To have any shot of attracting anyone from that crop, near devoid as it is of championship wares, will demand the Knicks recapture some modicum of credibility.
Making the playoffs would be a start. But even that shouldn’t be the egg-burdened basket. Rather, Jackson—along with first-year head coach Derek Fisher—must prove the triangle can thrive with Anthony as its focus and fulcrum.
Matching or exceeding last season's output wouldn't be enough outside this system. Anthony's production has to mean something. A playoff berth would be ideal, but so, too, would proof that he can dominate on the outskirts of career comfort zones.
“I talked to Carmelo about that during the process," Jackson said, via the New York Post's Marc Berman. "One of the things about the [triangle] offensive system, you can’t try to score every time you touch the ball. You have to participate and have all guys be involved."
In lieu of the massive, always impractical pay cut Anthony did not take, he needs to have a monstrous season—playoffs or not—within an offense unlike any other he's ever been asked to anchor. There is no substitute.
Free agents won't be sold on taking substantially less to play alongside someone who accepted marginally less. They won't see a young superstar primed to headline a dynasty for the next six, eight or 10 years.
Instead, they'll see a 31-year-old scorer, who is either in the thick of his prime, capable of dominating within a team-first dynamic and complementing fellow championship hopes, or a star on the wrong side of 30, who is struggling to make good on the promise his latest pact represents.
All-In on Anthony
There is no in between. The status quo is unacceptable.
Just as the Knicks cannot settle for things as they are or restore title aspirations through traditional rebuilding methods, Anthony cannot simply be Anthony.
He has to be someone different, someone who is continuing his upward trend in versatility. Otherwise, the Knicks' foray into free agency next summer risks regressing into a reenactment of 2010-11, when first-choice players signed elsewhere and they covered up fantastic failures with high-priced talent—like Anthony—who left them stranded in the middle.
Anthony, for his part, needs to shine next season for reasons beyond 2015 recruiting pitches. Some remain miffed by his decision, as Evans Clinchy of Hardwood Paroxysm perfectly encapsulates:
The thing is, I’m hating on Melo because I love Melo. I want to see him succeed. He has such a wonderfully unique combination of size and strength and speed and coordination with a basketball in his hands. He’s one of the most gifted scorers we’ve ever seen. How great would it be to see that guy fighting for a championship every spring? Put him with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, and it’s such compelling theater year in and year out. Put him with Sam Dalembert and Jose Calderon? Ugh. Let’s just fast-forward to 2025 when Carmelo’s in the TNT studio.
Other pundits are chastising Anthony for talking about significant pay cuts, then signing for hardly any less, only to reiterate how irrelevant money is to him.
"I want to win," he told Goodman. "I don't care about the money."
For that to mean anything, and for free agents in both 2015 and 2016 (that Kevin Durant guy) to see more than a payday-following superstar whose championship cravings are secondary to economic excellence, Anthony has to make this work.
And he has to make it work beautifully.
And he has to make it work beautifully now.
The Knicks' future depends on it.
"It's a matter of me believing in the organization, believing in Phil," Anthony told Goodman.
Somewhat ironically, his faith in New York won't be validated unless grand plans become reality—reality made possible only by Anthony immediately rewarding the Knicks for their faith in him.