During an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com last week (translation h/t to Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pollakoff), Anthony was unequivocal in how he's approaching team president Phil Jackson’s rebuilding plan:
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.
Anthony, who recently came to terms on a five-year, $124 million deal to remain in New York, is certainly wise to assume a patient perspective.
There’s just one small catch: To attract the free agents Anthony’s talking about, the Knicks can’t afford to botch this season completely.
Coming off a 2012-13 campaign that saw New York capture the No. 2 seed and a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Melo and company stumbled early and often last season, finishing with 37 wins and a game behind Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot.
It’s that kind of showing—a classic case of the hare never catching the tortoise—that could spell certain doom for the Knicks’ designs in free agency.
Looking at some of the names slated to hit the market, it’s not hard to appreciate the stakes the Knicks face: Goran Dragic, Greg Monroe, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge—game-changers all, and all sure to draw suitors aplenty.
Swinging and missing in 2015 will completely derail New York’s chances at building a title contender. It will, however, make Jackson’s tightrope walk that much tighter.
Depending on how they approach certain options, the Knicks should have somewhere in the range of $25 million to spend next summer. That’s more than enough for a second max contract, of course, although Jackson will likely want to save at least some spare change for improvements on the fringes.
The following year, New York has only $32 million currently committed (for Anthony and Jose Calderon) per Hoops Hype, meaning they could be in play for a pair of max contracts. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant possibly being available, you’d better believe that possibility is squarely on Jackson’s radar screen.
But unless the Knicks prove themselves in the interim to be a viable—and more importantly, sustainable—organization, such pursuits are doomed to fall the way of best-laid plans.
That puts an enormous amount of pressure on first-year coach Derek Fisher. Steeped though he is in his president’s confidence, Fisher faces the unenviable task of imparting the triangle on a core group not exactly tailor-made for Jackson’s famed system.
Still, that didn’t stop the Zen Master, during his inaugural press conference back in March, from suggesting Anthony has the tools to succeed in any scheme (via Fred Kerber of the New York Post):
[Anthony] showed … playing a role as a bench player on a magnificent team that won a gold medal that he can play a role if he has to play a role. He’s a basketball player and that’s what players want to be able to do. They want to be able to cut, to pass, to be in different spots on the floor, to attack or to play. I think that Carmelo will be just fine. I see no problem in it.
Despite the brief contract limbo, Anthony himself has embraced anew his role as team leader. The latest example: A strict summer workout and diet regiment that has seen the star small forward shed 10 pounds.
“Amazing people have been hired over there and he wants to come in as the leader and a top-three player in the world," Anthony’s trainer, Idan Ravin, told Marc Berman of the New York Post in a recent interview. “If [he’s] being meticulous, you should not just follow [his] word, but follow [his] actions."
Between Jackson’s legacy-heavy ascendance, a revamped offensive philosophy and Anthony’s redoubled training efforts, the Knicks certainly seem like a team committed to a common path forward.
All the same, the road between words and wins can be a winding one. The corrosive culture that typified the Knicks teams of the mid-to-late 2000s might’ve died the day James Dolan deigned to hand the reins to Jackson. Weeding out the misguided moves from the actual on-court product, however, is a far different kettle of fish.
Writing at ESPN New York, Ohm Youngmisuk distilled the essentials of what the 2014-15 season means for the Knicks:
The Knicks want to remain competitive this coming season and try to make the playoffs. But they already are looking ahead to next summer, hoping to find a way to acquire another star to play with Anthony and keep the team’s salary cap in good shape. There’s always the chance the Knicks’ best intentions could be tripped up by something, such as Dolan not being on the same page with Jackson, or stars turning down the Knicks in free agency. But the good thing is, Jackson is here, he appears to have a plan, and he is not afraid to make moves.
More than any other single factor, Youngmisuk’s last sentence underscores what the Knicks—not quite despite this season’s outcome, but close—have over everyone else: One of the greatest basketball minds ever to walk the earth.
But while one terrible season might not weigh heavily on Jackson’s legacy, the message it sends to prospective free agents wouldn’t exactly be encouraging, either.
If Jackson’s as good as he and a lot of other people thinks he is, New York will at least right the ship enough to arrive, face saved, at next summer’s shore. Even if the end result is a one-year, merely marginal improvement, the team will still have a shot at the crop of 2016.
How New York would’ve responded had Anthony bolted for the Chicago Bulls, it’s impossible to say. What we do know is that, given the choice between starting from scratch and using Melo as a free-agent magnet no matter the cost, Jackson is gambling heavily on the latter.
Anthony and the Knicks can be forgiven for seeing next season as something of a painful prelude to better days, and perhaps even banners, to come.
Just so long as they realize no free-agent rescue craft, regardless of how saintly or seafaring, is coming diving for an already sunken ship.