Well before Carmelo Anthony officially inked a new five-year, $124 deal to return to his native city, the New York Knicks were on nobody’s short list to compete for an NBA championship next season, regardless of whatever secondary moves were there to be made.
Three years and change after first bringing Anthony to Manhattan in a trade that gutted the team of its youth and upside, the Knicks remain—in both makeup and outlook—beholden to promises of future flexibility and, so the hope goes, franchise redemption.
On that front, Anthony and his team appear to be on the same page. How long the star forward's patience stands to last, however, is a tougher nut to crack.
In a recent interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com (translation h/t to Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pollakoff), Melo echoed what many, including Phil Jackson and the Knicks front-office leadership, have been saying for months: Wait until next year.
I do not expect to win a championship this year. That’s something that takes time and everything has to be in sync, from management to players. We have much work to do, but something that drives me. I know we can start creating the foundation of what we do. It’s the start of a good process. Next year we will have enough money to spend within the salary cap. But this year it is important to take the necessary steps towards those who will in the next year. I want to concentrate on building what we want from this year.
For Anthony, who turned 30 this past May, striking a balance between basketball fit and financial security—relative though the latter may be—wasn’t an easy process. Both the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, with their star-studded teams and championship ambitions, offered Anthony rosier short-term prospects.
New York, meanwhile, gave Melo a slightly more nuanced path to legacy-defining success: sacrificing now for the sake of building something in your own name.
Now it’s up to Phil Jackson, the legendary former coach and New York’s newly minted president of basketball operations, to see that dream through.
Jackson’s first big test: mining the team’s next big piece from one of the forthcoming free-agent classes. Here, the calculus gets even more complex: Does Jackson strike quickly on next year’s somewhat weaker crop or wait until 2016, when Anthony will be another year older and—presumably—another year shorter on patience?
Jackson and Anthony have likely had conversations on precisely this point. But in an NBA world where power dynamics and opportunities can shift by a single signing as much as a summer, the Knicks can’t get too comfortable with one particular plan.
Case in point: the completed-in-all-but-ink deal that will send Kevin Love to a Cleveland Cavaliers team that already touts LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Writing at ESPN New York, Ian Begley explains how this summer’s blockbuster could pose some real impediments to Jackson’s rebuilding plan:
In order to compete with Cleveland, Jackson will have to spend the Knicks’ cap space wisely in free agency in 2015 and/or 2016. The challenge for Jackson will be to build a team centered around Carmelo Anthony that can compete with the LeBron-Love-Irving trio. And to do so while taking advantage of Anthony’s prime years.
The Knicks could have $18 million to spend in free agency in the summer of 2015. That may be enough to land a max player, such as Marc Gasol. But Jackson said last month that the Knicks may instead look to sign multiple players with their cap space.
Again, it’s imperative to spend wisely here. The Knicks need to build a roster around Anthony that can compete with Cleveland.
Jackson might’ve arrived in New York at a time when the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences was at an all-time high, but as the impending Love trade goes to show, there’s simply far too much talent for a gap to persist in perpetuity.
Making matters more complicated, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, Anthony’s contract includes a no-trade clause. Here, the implications are all too obvious: In the event New York’s next rebuild goes off the rails, Jackson might have little choice but to capitulate to Anthony’s wishes and deal him to the team of his choosing.
Those seeking a modern parallel needn't look far. Back in 2011, Anthony was part of a similar ploy when he helped orchestrate a sign-and-trade between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets.
For Jackson, the silver lining to a similar scenario unfolding would lie in a haul of picks and prospects similar to that which Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri was able to retrieve three years ago. However, even this would be tantamount to once again hitting reset on New York’s plans.
After more than four decades without a championship, Knicks fans would just as soon not hear that song again.
How soon might the New York faithful expect their superstar to strong-arm his way out of town? If Jackson strikes out in each of these next two summers, don’t be surprised if the disgruntled rumblings begin in earnest.
But if Jackson’s first few months on the job have been any kind of harbinger, hope remains foremost on the Bockers' docket.
The two trades orchestrated by New York’s front office in the last two months didn’t transform the Knicks from pretenders to contenders, of course. What they did do, however, is prove Jackson is focused enough on the fringes to suggest he’s not about to put all his rebuilding eggs into next summer’s basket.
By all accounts, the Knicks are still at least two years away from realistically contending in the East. Judging by his recent remarks, Anthony—ticking though his career clock might be—understands this.
After that, though, Jackson has to be careful that rebuilding doesn’t turn into spending on borrowed time.