Accepting five years and $124 million opens Anthony up to impulsive criticism:. He didn't take much less than the max. He's 30. The Knicks aren't built to win a championship next season.
But the focus shouldn't be on Anthony now. He made his decision. If he wanted to chase titles immediately, he'd be with the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets. Or maybe he would have found a way to team up with LeBron James, be it with the Cleveland Cavaliers or another team.
Remaining in New York, bringing home as much cash as possible or building something special with the Knicks—or some combination thereof—took precedent over everything else. The context in which Anthony is remembered will be impacted by the outcome of this renewed marriage, but once he put pen to paper on his new deal, this became about the Knicks and their future more than anything.
Is he worth $124 million to this franchise? Honestly and truthfully, the Knicks don't know. They can't.
There wasn't anywhere else for them to turn on the one hand, but tethering the next half-decade of their well-being—no-trade clause and all–to an aging superstar who hasn't piloted this team to postseason glory since his arrival isn't an irrefutably sound investment.
Decision-defining conclusions can only be drawn once the Knicks know for sure if Anthony was worth all the cash and hassle.
How and when they'll know is the $124 million question they're left asking ahead of next season.
Not Just About Winning
That's how they'll know.
Anthony must end the Knicks' four-decades-long championship drought. Otherwise, his time in New York, along with the team's vested interests in him, can be deemed failures.
Only it doesn't work like that.
Executives might not readily admit it, but not all transactions are measured against winning titles, even if that's the ultimate goal. We're not just talking about teams who willingly shackle themselves to cyclic mediocrity, either.
Flagship franchises like the Knicks aren't above the rule solely because they're expected to remain relevant longer and fare better than most.
Championships aren't the standard for fortunes-forming contracts like Anthony's. Especially Anthony's. If his deal were being pitted against wins and losses and nothing else, the message emanating from Melo himself wouldn't be a blend of judicious optimism and wholesale caution.
"I don't think we're that far away," he told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman in late July. "People use 'rebuilding' too loosely.”
“I don’t expect to win a championship this year,” he would then go on to say less than three weeks later, according to a PrimeraHora.com article that was translated by ESPN Deportes' Marly Rivera (via ESPN New York's Ian Begley).
Mixed signals, much?
Titles would be nice. Instant championships would be even better. But the Knicks' faith in Anthony isn't exclusively affixed to his title-procuring abilities. It's rooted in him creating hope, charting direction and quite possibly hand-delivering the Knicks someone who can do for them what he himself may be unable to.
"He did exactly what we kind of asked him to do," Phil Jackson said of Anthony's deal, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. “Give us a break in the early part of the contract when we have some wiggle room—hopefully big enough wiggle room—next year when we can exploit it."
Exploit it as in go superstar-surfing next summer.
That, to an extent, is what Anthony's deal is about. It has to be.
It takes superstars to get superstars. The Miami Heat don't get LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 without Dwyane Wade. The Cavaliers (likely) don't get James back this summer without Kyrie Irving or the means to acquire Kevin Love. And Love doesn't agree to settle in with Cleveland without James.
Retaining Anthony was a necessity when put that way. If the Knicks were so sure they could land the Marc Gasols and Kevin Durants over the next two summers without an incumbent superstar, maybe they aren't as willing to throw $120-plus million Anthony's way. But the "It Takes One to Get One" theory is real, so that no doubt helped them make this decision.
The Knicks need Anthony to maintain his superstar standards and ties, to that end. Thriving within Jackson's famed triangle offense is a must. Matching, perhaps exceeding, last season's performance—when he ranked in the top 15 of win shares, accounting for nearly 29 percent of New York's 37 victories (10.7)—is paramount.
If his statistical and stature upkeep fall short of expectations, it garbles outside perception, pinning the Knicks, even if only in theory, to the middling fate Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com says Anthony's contract dooms them to:
In poker, good players put their opponents in positions where all of their options are equally bad—and bad poker players put themselves in those positions. The Knicks are suffering for past sins: the assets they gave up for Anthony in 2011 when they could have signed him as a free agent; the horrible deal given out to Amar’e Stoudemire; the inexplicable trade for Andrea Bargnani. Jimmy Dolan played a bad hand, and he’s paying the price.
True? Silver's numbers say yes. For the Knicks, it's not about proving him or anyone else wrong—rather, it's about giving the appearance that what they're doing is working or has hope of working. That comes down to Melo for now.
Not so surprisingly, his offseason routine is changing. According to Berman, he's intentionally lost weight and changed his diet and exercise programs with the intent of becoming more mobile and, most notably, more of a distributor.
Nothing appeals to fellow stars more than being able to say, "Hey, I'll pass to you, defer to you," and actually meaning it.
Tailoring his skill set and mindset to the Knicks' new system is a win, even without an actual win. It's part of New York's image overhaul, a key step in this intricate process.
Actually winning anything next season isn't necessary. The Knicks need to compete, sure, but they need to be relevant above all else. Whether that's shocking some people by snatching an Eastern Conference playoff spot or simply flirting with a postseason appearance isn't the point.
Moving forward, advancing hope—that's the point.
Simple though it sometimes seems to evaluate a player, his tenure and an entire era of basketball, the task is often far more difficult than imagined.
The Knicks' fate is tied to Anthony, yes. But it's also bound to Jackson and his front-office savvy, to owner James Dolan and his willingness to distance himself from basketball operations, to Derek Fisher and his ability to imbue culture and camaraderie.
If there's one man most responsible for the line New York is walking, it is Jackson, like Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan writes:
Which is why, despite the bevy of challenges the team now faces, the next Knicks title would bring about a city celebration that never sleeps.
Appropriate, then, that the titanic task should befall the shoulders of a man who got his first taste of basketball glory bedecked in blue and orange: Phil Jackson, he of the 13 rings, now entrusted with taking his beloved, long-wayward Bockers back to the promised land.
Winning it all being the end goal makes everything that comes after Jackson's arrival a single stroke within a larger work of art; each event and decision is part of a bigger, more profound process.
Anthony's contract, and the on- and off-court value it will come to hold, is part and parcel of this vision. He is not the be-all and end-all of the Knicks' future. He is supposed to represent hope that things are changing, that more help and better days are on the way.
Melo, first and foremost, is being paid to do his job—an undertaking found worthy of success not by obtaining hardware the Knicks don't have but in promising that he and his contract are part of a bigger, better solution.