NBA

Phil Jackson’s Carmelo Anthony Conundrum

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When he accepted Jim Dolan’s incredibly lucrative offer, Phil Jackson was well aware he’d have to wait roughly 16 months before he could begin re-shaping and upgrading the New York Knicks’ roster. Jackson’s hands are essentially tied until July of 2015 because, regardless of any moves he may make this offseason, New York will be well over the salary cap during the 2014-15 campaign.

The triumvirate of Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler will account for $50 million in salary next season, which means it is essentially impossible for Jackson to get under the cap prior to these contracts coming off the books. However, that doesn’t mean Jackson won’t have the opportunity to make an immediate imprint on his new franchise.

A very important decision will be made this upcoming summer. This decision, which will be Jackson’s first major move as an NBA executive, will have enormous short-term and long-term ramifications on the future of this franchise. On July 1, Carmelo Anthony will opt out of his contact and become an unrestricted free agent. What happens in the aftermath of Anthony exercising that option will determine the future trajectory of the Knicks.

Once the hiring of Jackson was officially announced, many Knicks fans were extremely excited. One of the primary reasons for elation among a certain segment of the Knicks faithful was the belief that Jackson’s appointment greatly increased the likelihood of Anthony re-signing with New York. These supporters of Knicks and Anthony surmised that the All-Star small forward would feel far more confident committing to the Knicks knowing that the uber-respected Jackson would now be making all basketball-related decisions. The supposition was that ‘Melo would have faith in Jackson’s ability to right the ship, get under the cap and surround Anthony with a strong supporting cast.

However, examining the opposite side of the coin, could the argument also be made that Jackson’s arrival in NYC actually makes it less likely that the Knicks ink Anthony to a massive five-year deal? Is it feasible that Jackson eventually determines this course of action would be best for the long-term prosperity of the franchise?

When Knicks fans discuss his impending free agency, the ‘pros’ for wanting to keep Anthony are obvious. He’s been the organization’s most dynamic player since Patrick Ewing in his prime. This season, despite the Knicks unimaginable struggles, Anthony is playing arguably the best all-around basketball of his career.

In fact, Anthony is on pace to become the first player in over 10 years to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He’s also set to become just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

However, although the mere thought seems somewhat counter-intuitive, there is certainly a sound argument to be made against keeping Carmelo. The Knicks will have to weigh these considerable ‘cons’ before handing Anthony a blank check.

First, let’s start with the particulars of what a max contract for Anthony would look like:

In year one of his new deal, his new contract would pay $22.457 million. If they give him the maximum allowable raises, his yearly salaries would be as follows:

2015-16: $24.1 million
2016-17: $25.8 million
2017-18: $27.5 million
2018-19: $29.2 million

How effective and efficient will Anthony be in 2019, at 34 years old, banking $29 million? How many NBA forwards would Anthony be able to even stay in front of at that stage of his career? Well, considering he’d be taking up such a large percentage of the Knicks’ cap, he’d better be incredible.

Back in February, Anthony intimated he would be willing to take less than the max. The question is: how much less? It’s rare to see an athlete accept significantly less than what he feels he is worth. What salary would Anthony have to agree to in order for the deal to make fiscal sense for the Knicks?

Remember, the Knicks looked liked geniuses over the first few months of the Amar’e Stoudemire deal, when STAT was playing like a legit MVP candidate (he averaged 26.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game over the first half of the 2010-11 season). However, over these last couple of years, injuries relegated Stoudemire to a shell of his former self, and his onerous contract became an albatross.

It is also important to consider the Knicks’ performance this season. Again, New York’s awful record certainly shouldn’t be pinned directly on Anthony, but the fact remains: they will finish the 2013-14 season at least eight games under .500 and on the outside of the playoff picture in a horrid Eastern Conference. This despite the fact that ‘Melo is in his prime, playing at an extremely high level and stayed relatively healthy for the majority of the season. What happens when Father Time begins to catch up with Carmelo?

It’s clear the burden of carrying the Knicks this season has weighed heavily on Anthony. Head coach Mike Woodson, desperate to save his job, has ridden Anthony relentlessly. ‘Melo currently leads the NBA in minutes played, averaging 39 minutes a night. And it’s not solely the sheer volume of minutes that’s distressing; the Knicks also lean forcefully on Anthony whenever he’s on the floor. He’s the focal point of their offense attack on nearly every trip into the offensive end, and he’s also been forced to guard bigger and stronger power forwards on a nightly basis.

How will Anthony’s aging body respond to this excessive wear-and-tear? This a question Jackson has to ask himself this summer.

Consider this: Anthony is on pace to become just the second player since 2010 to log over 3,000 minutes in one season after turning 29 years old. The only other player to have matched that feat is Kobe Bryant, who played over 3,000 minutes in 2012-13. (As we know, Bryant tore his Achilles in April of 2013 and managed to play a total of just six games in 2013-14 before a knee injury ended his season).

As noted above, the Knicks are cap-strapped, which means next year’s roster will likely look eerily similar to this season’s. Thus, Anthony, if re-signed, will again have to shoulder a significant load for another whole year, months before Jackson can bring in much-needed reinforcements.

Which brings us to another relevant point: If the Knicks are going to commit to expeditiously tearing this team down and rebuilding the right way, next year is the ideal time to bottom out because the Knicks actually own the rights to their first-round pick in the 2015 draft. For a franchise that has traded away a majority of their picks for a better part of a decade, this is not an insignificant detail.

Without Anthony, the Knicks would effectively have to sacrifice a season, but they could take solace in the fact that they would enter that summer of 2015 armed with a likely lottery pick and loads of cap space to lavish on a potentially terrific free agent crop.

Under this scenario, the Knickerbockers would enter July of 2015 as major players in the free-agent market, when such stars as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan (and possibly LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), may be up for grabs as unrestricted free agents. If Anthony is not on the hook for $20+ million, New York could be looking at upwards of $45 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree.

And this is where the presence of Phil Jackson makes things that much more interesting. Prior to Jackson’s arrival, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable. However, with Jackson calling the shots (instead of Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency are greatly decreased, as NYC is a far more desirable location for prospective players now that Jackson is the new face of the franchise.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they get.

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

If the free agent class of 2015 is star-studded, and the Knicks had more cap space than any team in the NBA, what kind of team could Jackson put together? The opportunity to play in New York City for a team run by one of the most respected minds in all of basketball would be an intriguing combination for prospective free agents.

Clearing and preserving cap space by letting Anthony walk is an inherently risky proposition, but if you have a competent front office in place (not a maverick owner masquerading as a GM), that cap space could actually be considered more valuable. In other words, if the idea of not re-signing Anthony made sense a few months ago, does it make more sense now?

Even if Anthony gave the Knicks a hometown discount and signed for “only” $110 million (roughly $20 million less the max), would that be the most efficient allocation of funds? For argument’s sake, which would be the better investment: Committing to pay a player such as Kevin Love $18 million per season in his mid-20s or paying Anthony $21 million at age 32?

Or what about a spending the money earmarked for Anthony on the combination of Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and Danny Green?

Is it possible Jackson is attracted to the idea of starting with a blank canvas? If he keeps Anthony in the fold, his options are relatively limited, as the roster would have to be constructed with Anthony as the centerpiece.

All that said, it remains unknown if this nuclear option of letting Anthony walk is even a possibility. We know Dolan (who moved heaven and earth to bring Anthony to New York) would certainly prefer keep Carmelo, as losing him would obviously hurt ticket sales and TV ratings next season. Does Jackson have the true autonomy he was promised when Dolan hired him? Dolan has said yes, even when asked specifically if Jackson had the power to let Anthony walk. But saying that and allowing it are two different things.

If Jackson did decide to part ways with Anthony, he would face immediate challenges on a few fronts. Firstly, from a public relations standpoint, Jackson would have to assuage the concerns of fans angry at the organization for failing to retain their best player, and fans depressed at the idea of watching a non-competitive product next season.

Furthermore, if ‘Melo did decide to leave, would Jackson be able to secure a sign-and-trade? If so, what kind of return could he derive?

This situation could resolve itself in any number of ways. There are far more questions than answers at this point. The only thing that seems certain is that it will be incredibly fascinating to watch it all play out.

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About Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 7 seasons

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