In Return to Knicks, Carmelo Chooses Best Money Over Best Chance at NBA Title

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 15, 2014

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Carmelo Anthony recommitted to New York over the weekend, with his own neatly crafted statement and his own warm-and-fuzzy narrative—though without any explicit insight into his thought process. No words were needed to explain his motives.   

Quite simply, Anthony went for the money.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

Every pro athlete has the right to maximize his earnings. The contract Anthony will sign with the Knicks, paying him more than $120 million over five years, according to sources, is close to the maximum permitted. It's doubtful Anthony is worth that much, but the Knicks offered it and Anthony signed. No one can begrudge him that decision.

But that decision has consequences, for Anthony and the Knicks. And those consequences are worth discussing, no matter how loudly the "Get Paid" chorus applauds.

Let's be clear: Anthony had the chance to contend for titles, immediately, with the Chicago Bulls. He had the chance to join two superstars with the Houston Rockets. He had the chance, after 11 fruitless seasons, to make something more of his career where it matters most: in the playoffs.

Anthony's postseason legacy consists of one trip to the Western Conference finals, in 2009. He's been out of the first round twice. His playoff record is a ghastly 23-43, including a 7-14 mark with the Knicks.

In 2012, The Wall Street Journal determined that Anthony had the worst postseason winning percentage, .320, of anyone to play in at least 50 games since 1991-92. His percentage has since improved slightly, to .348.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 16:  The Eastern Conference's Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat warm up before the game against the Western Conference during 2014 NBA All-Star game at the Smoothie King Center on Fe
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This summer, Anthony had the rare opportunity to change all of that, to seize control of his career narrative as his friend LeBron James has. He would have been wise to follow that example.

The Cleveland Cavaliers never provided James with worthy co-stars, so he found his own in Miami—and promptly made four straight NBA Finals, winning two championships along the way. When the Heat buckled this spring, James found his way back to Cleveland, to a younger, more promising team.

Whatever else may be said of James, of the Decision and of the Decision 2.0, we can say this much definitively: LeBron wants to win, badly. Badly enough to alienate his hometown in 2010, and badly enough to, four years later, abandon the franchise that helped him become a champion.

Does Anthony want to win just as badly? It's fair to wonder, after watching him pass up golden opportunities in Chicago and Houston to take the bigger payday in New York.

Anthony, in a 173-word statement released over the weekend, framed his decision in deeply sentimental terms, referring to New York as "the place of my birth" and declaring that, despite entertaining offers from Chicago, Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers, "my heart never wavered."

It should have, if winning means anything.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Bulls, with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, offered the chance to contend for titles immediately. The East is suddenly wide open, and an Anthony-enriched Bulls team would have been instant favorites (and a lot of fun to watch).

In Houston, Anthony could have formed a truly fearsome Big Three with James Harden and Dwight Howard. Even in a stacked Western Conference, that lineup would have had 60-win potential.

Anthony instead chose the security, the comfort and, yes, the money in New York. Financially, Anthony made a perfectly sound and rational decision. Competitively, he blew it. And it's not even an arguable point.

The Knicks won 37 games last season and, despite the addition of Jose Calderon, have not substantially improved. They are a bottom-tier playoff team, at best, next season.

The Knicks' best hope for improvement will come next summer, when they could have about $20 million in salary-cap room. But cap room is not a panacea, and—as the Lakers will attest—even the most glamorous franchises can strike out in free agency.

And while Anthony made some minor concessions in his new contract—including a modest pay cut in year two, per sourceshis salary will still be occupying a huge percentage of the Knicks' cap, making it tougher to acquire another star.

Some will loudly insist, "Hey, that's Phil Jackson's job," but this is a willfully naive position. The NBA is a salary-cap league, and every million spent on one player is a million that isn't available to sign another.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press

To be sure, there were no guarantees in Chicago or Houston either—Rose's knees could fail, the Rockets' chemistry could implode—but those teams are objectively, definitively more talented than the Knicks and much closer to title contention.

But playing in Houston or Chicago would have cost Anthony more than $30 million in guaranteed money. Under NBA rules, the most those teams could offer was $96 million over four years. (The Bulls had other cap issues, but a team source insists they could have created enough room to pay Anthony a starting salary of at least $20 million, close to his max.)

The pay cut is misleading, because we're comparing a four-year deal (with other teams) to a five-year deal (with the Knicks). Anthony could have made up some of the money in his next contract. But Anthony has always opted for the most money over the most years available.

He could have followed the example of Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, who have repeatedly taken pay cuts to help their teams build better rosters. He could have sacrificed some guaranteed money and gone to Chicago. He could have given up a bit more with the Knicks to give Jackson more flexibility.

Clearly, Anthony is under no obligation to do any of that. There was nothing immoral or unseemly about his choice. But he has to live with the consequences on the court.

So it's fair to ask once more: Does Anthony care about championships? Or is he satisfied simply acquiring the most dollars and the most points?

What about us, the fans and media? Have we so completely internalized the "It's a business" mantra that we no longer care if a great athlete wins or loses? Do we simply applaud his ability to get paid, even if it hurts his chances to win? Are professional sports simply about financial enrichment? Or does the competition still matter?

If you love Carmelo Anthony's game, you want to see him playing at the highest level, for the greatest stakes, with worthy teammates. That could have happened in Chicago. Imagine a conference finals showdown between the Anthony-Rose-Noah Bulls and the James-led Cavaliers. Who wouldn't want to see that?

Anthony is at a critical juncture in his career arc. He just turned 30. He is already regarded as one of the greatest scorers in history. But that distinction feels hollow.

Sometime in the next three years, assuming good health, Anthony will score his 25,000th point, placing him in truly elite company. That club has just 18 NBA members—soon to be 20, with Tim Duncan and Ray Allen on pace to make it next season.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets blocks a shot against Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks during a game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 14, 2013.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
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When Anthony joins them, he will rightfully be praised as one of the all-time greats. And he will be evaluated on a completely different scale.

Of those 20 players, 16 won championships. Two others (Karl Malone and Reggie Miller) made at least one Finals appearance. Two never got close: Alex English and Dominique Wilkins.

That's Anthony's career trajectory right now: to be known as the next 'Nique, a scoring maestro who never did anything of note in the playoffs. A name. A highlight reel. A record setter. An entertainer. But not a winner.

It could all change with a single transaction, one big signing next summer, one masterful trade. As Jackson likes to say, these things can turn on a trifle. But the Knicks' future is hazy, and Anthony's legacy hangs in the balance.

Carmelo Anthony is an incredible talent. He deserves elite teammates who can elevate his game and his stature. Those teammates were there, waiting for him in Chicago. The opportunity was there. Carmelo had the chance to make something more of his career. He turned it down.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck, and in Team Stream