A few years ago, prior to his celebrated arrival, the city, the team, the owner and the fans all coveted the player.
The feeling was most certainly mutual. The player openly reciprocated their affection.
They wanted to unite, and were determined to find a way to make it happen.
The love affair actually began nearly three decades earlier. The player was born in Brooklyn and spent his adolescent years there. That’s where he first fell in love with the city’s game.
The player eventually moved away, spending his formative years in West Baltimore. As the player matured, his game developed. His name gained prominence, and his native city and the fans back home took notice. It seemed destined that they would someone day reunite.
By the winter of 2011, they both were unwilling to wait any longer. The time had come.
However, more than 2,000 miles separated them. The player lived and worked on the opposite side of the county, in Denver, Colorado. But that was simply a speed bump in the way of their reunion. Nothing was going to keep them apart – not geographical distance, a salary cap, future draft picks or a pending lockout.
On February 22, 2011, a trade was consummated. The city was ecstatic. The owner was overjoyed. The fans sang and danced, and cheered his homecoming.
The honeymoon period was wonderful. The player was treated like prince. Interest in the team increased immediately, and exponentially. Jersey sales skyrocketed. During the 2012-13 campaign, the team reached heights it hadn’t experienced in decades. They captured the Atlantic Division crown and won more than 50 games for the first time in since 1997. The player emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. The team finally advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The future seemed so bright. This was how both sides had dreamt it would be all those years ago.
But then, last season, the train slowly began to tumble off the tracks, eventually derailing on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. As the relationship screeched towards its nadir, discord and drama returned to the team. Losses piled up. Frustration grew. Both the player and team said all the right things in public, but the future of the marriage was now in doubt.
It is still fairly obvious that both parties still care a great deal for each other. In an ideal world (one with salary caps and luxury taxes), they’d stay together, happily ever after. They would jointly fight for a fairy tale ending, hoping to experience more signing, celebrating and eventually maybe even a parade.
But today’s NBA, and its strict salary structure, has no room for such sentimentality. And because of that harsh reality, the player and the team/city/fans may need to break up now, if they expect to find happiness and success in the future.
As we know, Carmelo Anthony has already opted out of his current contract with the New York Knicks. Beginning July 1, Anthony can meet with other teams as he attempts to determine where he will spend the remaining prime years of his career. It will be a difficult decision for Anthony. There are plenty of ‘pros and cons’ for staying in New York. However, just as importantly, there is also a case to be made for and against the Knicks offering Anthony major money to re-sign.
Let’s start with the facts: Anthony is one of the NBA’s better players. Despite the Knicks’ terribly disappointing 2013-14 season, Anthony did all he could to lift New York out of the doldrums. The all-around, individual statistics ‘Melo posted were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became 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.
Nonetheless, one number that can’t be ignored is “37.” That’s the total number of wins the Knicks tallied last season. And “zero” is the number of postseason games they participated in. Somehow, New York managed to miss the playoffs despite playing in an embarrassingly weak Eastern Conference.
Phil Jackson has inherited the Knicks just as they are approaching a major, franchise-changing fork in the road. Within the next couple of weeks, Anthony’s future will be determined. And that decision will have an immediate and enormous impact on the short- and long-term future of the Knickerbockers organization.
If Melo re-ups with New York, Jackson and company will surely make a full effort to surround Anthony with a bevy of complementary pieces, most likely veterans, that give the Knicks the best opportunity to win right away. The plan would be to fully maximize the small window of opportunity encompassing Anthony’s prime.
Conversely, if Carmelo signs somewhere else, the Knicks would likely look to ride out a rough 2014-15 season, keeping their eyes on the prize: The summer of 2015. New York owns their first-round pick in 2015, which would likely be a lottery pick if Anthony was not on the team. More importantly, New York will have an enormous amount of cap space to spend on free agents next summer, when some prominent players will be available on the open market. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Roy Hibbert and DeAndre Jordan among others may be up for grabs as unrestricted free agents in 2015. (And Kevin Durant is due to hit free agency in 2016.)
Let’s approach this dilemma from a different angle. The goal of the Knicks should be winning an NBA championship, correct?
Although it seems counter-intuitive, if the Knicks’ ultimate ambition is to win a title, then refusing to re-sign their best player to a max contract may be the most reasonable route towards that ultimate destination.
It would surely set the team back in the short-term; there is absolutely no denying that. Keeping Carmelo would probably ensure the Knicks remaining competitive next season and for a few seasons thereafter.
However, there is an old cliché in the NBA that stipulates that in order for a team to reach heaven, they have to go through hell.
Would re-signing ‘Melo to a max deal simply prolong the Knicks’ period in purgatory? Would giving Anthony max money increase the likelihood of New York consistently finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, while simultaneously decreasing their chances of evolving into an elite, championship-level team?
Despite undeniable individual greatness throughout the entirety of his career, Anthony hasn’t found much team success in the postseason. Carmelo completed his 11th NBA season last April, and he has only won a total of three playoff series during that entire tenure. His team has won only 23 of the 66 playoff games he has competed in (a 34.8 winning percentage). That’s one the worst individual postseason records in NBA history among players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff games.
Obviously, all of those losses can’t be pinned directly on Anthony, but they are an undeniable part of the picture, and these facts have to be taken into account when determining Anthony’s ultimate worth. If we highlight the positives (scoring titles, All-NBA Team nominations, etc.) and give him credit for carrying teams into the playoffs, we have to hold his feet to the fire for failing to consistently deliver on the NBA’s biggest stage.
Anthony recently celebrated his 30th birthday. How many players perform far better in the 30s than they did in their 20s? If Anthony hasn’t been good enough to be the best player on championship team yet, does it make sense to believe he’ll start doing it now?
Anthony is talented enough to be a key contributor on a title team; however, it’s not wise for Jackson to assume a 31-year-old Anthony can be the highest-paid, best player on championship squad.
And make no mistake, if he signs for the max, he’ll be the team’s highest paid player by a wide margin. Examining exactly how much ‘Melo can be paid is a bit sobering for even the most dedicated Anthony supporters. If New York gives Carmelo the maximum allowable raises, here’s what Anthony’s annual salary would look like:
2014-15 season: $22.457 million
2015-16 season: $24.141 million
2016-17 season: $25.825 million
2017-18 season: $27.509 million
2018-19 season: $29.193 million
By the fifth and final season of a potential new max contract (after he had already celebrated his 34th birthday), Anthony would make over $29 million.
How effective and efficient will Anthony be at 33 years old? What about 34 years old?
Anthony entered the league as a teenager. He now has 11 full seasons worth of wear-and-tear on body. In addition, last year was exceedingly taxing. Former head coach Mike Woodson, desperate to save his job, rode Anthony relentlessly. Carmelo led the NBA in minutes played, averaging nearly 39 minutes a night. And it’s not solely the sheer volume of minutes that’s distressing; the Knicks leaned heavily on Anthony whenever he was on the floor. He’s always been the focal point of New York’s offensive attack, and in recent seasons he’s also been forced to guard bigger and stronger power forwards on a nightly basis.
How will Anthony’s aging body respond? This is a question Jackson has to ask himself.
Consider this: Last season Anthony became just the second player, age 29 or older, since 2010 to log over 3,000 minutes in one season. 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).
Nonetheless, let’s take an optimistic approach and a assume Anthony does not slow down and maintains his elite level of production. It’s probably safe to assume the Knicks will bounce back into the playoffs next season. Trading away Tyson Chandler cost them their best defensive player, but they got back a massive upgrade at the point guard position in Jose Calderon, which was a necessity. And based on the talent level on the Knicks’ current roster, they should certainly win more than 37 games. But what is their ultimate upside. Even if they snag a very good player with their mid-level exception (rumors of Pau Gasol taking a huge discount have been floated recently), how good could this Knicks team be? What is the best-case scenario?
With LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade opting out of their contracts this past weekend, it appears Miami is re-tooling for another few years of Eastern Conference dominance. Not to mention the bevy of stacked teams in the West. Would even the biggest Knick fan argue that the 2014-15 Knicks will be a serious contender for the crown?
When taking the fiscal reality of today’s NBA and the big picture into account, the Knicks’ best course of action is swallowing some unpleasant medicine, tanking in 2014-15 and focusing on the future.
Anthony previously declared he would be willing to take less than the max to stay with the Knicks, and Jackson has wisely alluded to Anthony’s pronouncement. But exactly how much money is ‘Melo willing to leave on the table? The only significant advantage New York has over Anthony’s other’s suitors (Chicago, Houston, etc.) is their ability to pay him $33 million more. The other teams have far better supporting casts, better players with proven playoff experience. In addition, the Knicks’ rebuilding effort would receive a major boost if both the Bulls and Rockets were dueling for Anthony’s services, and offering competing sign-and-trade packages in hopes of sealing a deal with Carmelo.
Even if Anthony gives the Knicks a moderate discount, the savings likely won’t be enough to offset the potential pitfalls.
The most prudent plan would likely be sacrificing short-term success to reap long-term rewards.
If Anthony is not taking up $22+ million, New York could be looking at upwards of $40 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree next summer. Of course, they won’t have to spend it all in one place (or on one player). Smart organizations understand the true value of cap space is that it presents opportunities to trade for high-priced players, as well as sign top free-agents outright.
And, as has been noted before in this space, this is where the presence of 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 (as opposed to owner Jim Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency are greatly decreased. 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? Furthermore, Jackson is already off to fine start, reeling in a 2013 first round pick with enticing upside (Shane Larkin) and receiving the good fortune having another player with first-round talent (Cleanthony Early) fall into his lap with the 34th overall pick in the 2014 draft.
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), the risk is minimized.
Even if Anthony signed for “only” $115 million (roughly $15 million less the max), would that be the most efficient allocation of New York’s funds? For argument’s sake, which would be the better investment: The possibility of committing to pay a player such as Kevin Love $18 million per season in his mid-20s or paying Anthony $23 million at age 32?
Or what about a spending the money earmarked for Anthony on some combination of Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and Danny Green?
Many max contracts are celebrated on signing day, but then viewed with remorseful regret a few years down the road.
These are the issues Jackson has surely been mulling over since moving to New York. It will be fascinating to watch how Anthony and the Knicks interact over the next 10 days. The final chapters have yet to be written. How will this story end? Will this be their last dance?
The player and the team/city/fans have had a fun, enjoyable run. Like any relationship, there were highs and lows, but it was ultimately satisfying and beneficial for both parties. Studies show that financial troubles, and the resulting disputes, are one of the primary causes of divorces in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s never easy to say goodbye.
Still, sometimes it’s best to realize and acknowledge that a relationship has run its course. It’s not the fairy tale ending either side was hoping for, but it’s time for the player and the team to go their separate ways.
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