Rarely at any point this past season did the chance to wax hope over the New York Knicks' future present itself.
Carmelo Anthony has succeeded in changing that for the moment—even if only slightly, and even if only temporarily—making a subtle gesture toward prospective free agents that is every bit as huge and uncharacteristic of the player delivering it.
"I don't have a problem with that. If I had a chance to be the second option, I will definitely be the second option," Anthony said just days after the Knicks' season ended, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "That just takes the load off of me."
Once more, this is big.
Sixty-five losses is difficult to spin positively, as are the talent-liquidating, salary-shedding trades that helped drive the Knicks down the standings, past their preconceived floor, into an unforeseen and untrodden dungeon. The only potential upsides to setting a franchise record in futility: cap space and an unrivaled chance at winning the NBA's draft lottery.
Thanks to a pair of late-season victories over the Orlando Magic (April 11) and Atlanta Hawks (April 13), though, New York will not lay claim to the latter. The Minnesota Timberwolves own the league's best lottery odds (25 percent), with the Knicks checking in at second (19.9).
Those are still high-end odds worthy of the brutal season New York endured, some of it by design, much of it a reaction to mislaid motives. But the absence of a top lottery spot, even if irrelevant once the ping-pong balls bounce, is yet another reminder that free agency is the more crucial aspect of New York's rebuild.
For that, Anthony is giving the franchise hope.
At first glance, this reads like a different rendition of free-agency pipe dreams that have been discussed and debated and dissected ad nauseam. Assuming the Knicks keep Langston Galloway (duh), they have just five players under guaranteed contract for next season, according to Basketball Insiders. We know this.
Even after signing their first-round draft pick and accounting for cap holds, they have the ability to fall more than $25 million under the league's projected salary cap for 2015-16—$67.1 million, per Draft Express' Jonathan Givony—without much maneuvering. We know this as well.
That puts all the big names in play financially. From Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, to Kevin Love and Goran Dragic, to DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap, there isn't an impending free agent they cannot afford. We know this, too.
Most importantly, we also know the Knicks are long shots to land any marquee star. They're reportedly in play for second-tier free agents like Greg Monroe, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, but the biggest names are expected to stay put or sign outside New York.
By entertaining and embracing the idea of playing second fiddle to a different superstar, Anthony is not turning the Knicks into free-agency monarchs. They are still working off a deplorable regular season, still seeking to put a concrete foundation of talent in place and still less attractive compared to other offseason players.
But Anthony's premature acceptance of this role is a selling point, and the Knicks need all the selling points they can get.
If they're to enter the conversation for this summer's—as well as next summer's—grand prizes, his ability to paint a picture that depicts him as the willing sidekick is huge. Though Anthony is viewed as an asset in individual status, the chances of fellow superstars lining up to play the part of subordinate sidekick on a rebuilding team are slim in theory.
Joining up as the No. 1 option or part of a 1A-1B attack is exponentially easier. It assures players of Aldridge's and Gasol's ilk that they will, at the very least, be welcomed in as an equal—a notion further reinforced by Anthony's enthusiastic approach to the entire free-agency process.
Said the 30-year-old, per Begley: "My office would probably look like a GM's office right now with all the names that's on the board and the different scenarios, so I pay attention to that."
Talking about on-court sacrifice is indeed different from actually making concessions, and Anthony has never once been the quintessential model for surrendering control.
To the contrary, he has spent the majority of his career being criticized for his play style, even as he attempted to function within the Knicks' passing-oriented offense this season before injuring his left knee. His decision to eschew interested contenders and remain in New York as a free agent last summer only warped perception of him even further.
Past clashes with teammates and coaches (Mike D'Antoni) are also part of his legend, as is his failed partnership with Amar'e Stoudemire, a union undone by overlapping offensive priorities and injuries.
Taking a step back and sharing the offensive load is not something Anthony is wholly incapable or completely unwilling to do, though. As Steve Popper of The Record reminds us, this premise is neither new in concept nor practice:
While it is simple to say in theory and his reputation is as a scorer — one of the best in the game — Anthony has done it before. He was coming off the bench while winning gold medals with Team USA in the Olympics, serving as a sidekick to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, alongside Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. That’s worth noting since Durant and Davis will be free agents next summer and James, while unlikely to leave Cleveland again, has the ability to opt out of his contract.
Olympics basketball is not regular-season basketball. But the same methodology applies: Anthony will cede touches and status to the right players. It's just a matter of putting him beside the right players.
Targeting those players is easier when he's involved in the selection process, as he appears to be now. Team president Phil Jackson will have a pulse of whom Anthony prefers and respects, and he can act accordingly.
Free agents contacted by the Knicks then know where Anthony stands, regardless of whether he's in the room trying to sell them on New York. Jackson isn't known for catering to one player, but he and the Knicks are married to their lone superstar for the next four seasons and would be remiss not to genuinely weigh his input.
None of which makes the Knicks something they're not. They're still at a disadvantage, be it because free agents stand to make more money by re-signing with incumbent teams, or because New York's income taxes are steep and unforgiving, or because they're nowhere near title contention as of now.
But the Knicks have placed a lot of stock in Anthony evolving as a player and person, implying there's a stark contrast between the superstar they have and the one they seem to need. In lieu of totally reinventing his play style, Anthony's pursuit of better teammates, even if they're perceived to be more important than him, is the next-best thing.
It deepens the pool of talent the Knicks will chase. It makes for easier pitches to superstars wary of Anthony's hold on the franchise. It adds a new dynamic to the unrefined product they're selling.
It's the biggest of small victories for a team that, 65 losses later, needs every win it can get.