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Phil Jackson on the Hook for Carmelo’s Massive Contract

Why didn’t Phil Jackson play hardball with Carmelo Anthony? The Knicks didn’t have to give Anthony seemingly everything he asked for in negotiations.

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“As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me… My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level. […] Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, I’d do it. I told people all the time, always say, if it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying, ‘Take my money and let’s build something strong over here.’” – Carmelo Anthony, February 13, 2014

“Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams it’s really hard to have one or two top stars or max players, and to put together a team with enough talent, you’ve got to have people making sacrifices financially. So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word and we understand what it’s going to take, and we will present that to him at that time.” – Phil Jackson, April 23, 2014

 

Earlier this week, when it was officially announced that the Knicks had re-signed star forward Carmelo Anthony, the responses were wide-ranging and varied.

It seemed the majority of Knicks fans were both exceptionally excited and relieved when they learned the franchise’s best player since Patrick Ewing would spend the remaining prime years of his career in New York City.

However, some pundits, after factoring in the long-term impact of the massive contract and recognizing that salary cap space is such a precious commodity, panned Melo for his unwillingness to give the Knicks a more significant discount.

Over the last few months, I have used this space to express my opinion. As detailed in numerous columns, my belief was that New York would be best served to sign Anthony only if he was amenable to a contract that paid far less than the maximum; and ideally move Melo in a sign-and-trade to kick start a rebuilding process if he demanded anything close to the max.

Now, we know the full details of the Carmelo contract. Per ESPN’s Marc Stein, Anthony’s annual salary is as follows:
2014-15 season: $22,458,401 million
2015-16: $22,875,000 million
2016-17: $24,559,380 million
2017-18: $26,243,760 million
2018-19: $27,928,140 million

This sums to a grand total of $124,064,681 million.

While not the full max of $129 million, the ‘hometown discount’ Anthony accepted from the Knicks was far, far less of a pay cut than most expected, especially after Anthony went on record at the All-Star Break, loudly proclaiming his willingness to take less in order to build a championship-level team in New York.

Nonetheless, I find it difficult to be overly critical of Carmelo. Should he really be blamed for accepting an offer presented to him?

He did what so many of us would do (Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade among the notable exceptions); he accepted an extraordinary offer from his employer to continue working in a location he loves.

Would it have been a noble gesture to leave money on the table in order to facilitate the building of a more balanced roster? Sure. If Anthony took less, would the Knicks be in a much better position to snag a stud free agent in 2015 or 2016? Absolutely. Yet, one of the reasons for his greatness is that Anthony, like many illustrious athletes, possesses an unbending belief in himself and his abilities. He likely wholeheartedly believes he can put even a decent team on his back and carry that team to a title. Anthony even alluded to this concept during his discourse at the All-Star Break: “I always look at what’s going on and always feel naively I could change it and turn it around, put it on my shoulders.”

So Melo figures, ‘I’ll take the money and Phil will somehow figure out a way to get players who are good enough to keep us competitive and I’ll take us over the top.’ Although that thinking may be misguided, based on what we know of the NBA’s salary structure demanding a team’s best player’s sacrifice salary, it is commonplace among elite athletes. Thus, it’s a rational and understandable reaction to take the massive payday and assume everything else will get worked out at a later date.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe he would have received over-the-top appreciation from the fan base. Many fans don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the minutia of the salary cap and project the implications a 7.5 percent increase versus a 7.5 percent decrease. In actuality, a few extra million that could be offered to prospective free agents is a huge sum. For instance, it’s the difference between signing a player that’s worth a starting salary of $6 million, versus a player worth $9 million. Or $16 million vs. $19 million. For instance, what if the Bulls had an extra $3.5 million under the cap this summer? Would Anthony be a Bull right now?

But future hypothetical scenarios and salary scarifies are often lost on the average fan. Look at what happened with LeBron James. When he signed with the Miami HEAT back in 2010, he took far, far less money than he could have and signed a deal that paid him a starting annual salary of just $14.5 million (or roughly $8 million less than Melo’s starting salary). LeBron was still intensely vilified. Granted, the nonsense of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. But, even after the uproar of ‘The Decision’ died down, it was rarely even mentioned that The King made significant financial sacrifices in hopes of capturing the crown. Despite making winning a priority over a pay day, LeBron was lampooned as a loser who joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh because he needed help to win a ring

Thus, at the end of the day, I have a tough time heaping blame on Anthony.

However, on the flip side of the coin, I have been genuinely surprised at how little flack Phil Jackson has received. Even in those published pieces knocking Melo for making a cash grab, Jackson has escaped unscathed. As the newly installed President of Basketball of Operations, Jackson’s first big decision was incredibly important. He held the reins as the Knicks approached a franchise-altering fork in the road.

Personally, I find more far more fault in Jackson’s decision-making process than Anthony’s. Carmelo simply accepted an offer that was presented to him.

But why did Jackson feel he needed to present Anthony a $124-million offer?

And not only did Anthony get north of $124 million, he also got a no-trade clause in the contract, a player option for the fifth and final season and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Anthony got nearly everything he could have hoped for. Did Jackson and Dolan draw a line in the sand anywhere?

In the months, weeks and days leading up to this franchise-defining moment, Jackson said all the right things.

“When I take his word, he’s the one who opened that up, that it wasn’t about the money… So I challenged him on that, because I wanted our fans to see he’s a team player, that he was going to do what’s best to get our team ahead farther and faster,” Jackson proclaimed to reporters back in June.

“I’m all about moving forward,” Jackson said of the Anthony situation shortly after the season ended. “Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ If it’s not in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ We’re going forward anyway.”

He referenced the consistent success of Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and cited the recent example of James, Wade and Bosh taking less to play together in Miami.

Moreover, it seemed he was cognizant of both the ‘pros’ of retaining the team’s best player, and the ‘cons’ of agreeing to a contract that could very well become an albatross a few years down the line.

According to Jackson’s own stated logic, there was no need to give in to Anthony if he wasn’t willing to make substantial sacrifices and meet the Knicks halfway.

Thus, when the details of the contract were announced, it was somewhat shocking.

In the end, it seems Jackson, owner Jim Dolan and the Knicks’ front office completely caved and gave in at nearly every turn. When reports surfaced last week that New York had presented multiple offers to Melo, one of which was an offer at the full max, it seemed implausible. However, that report certainly looks accurate now.

The question I keep coming back to is this: What prevented Jackson from playing hardball with Anthony?

A crucial component to this whole conversation is acknowledging the fact that the Knicks had no serious competition for Carmelo, as no team could offer anything close in terms of financial compensation. Because they possessed his ‘Bird Rights,’ the Knicks were in the driver’s seat all along.

The Lakers supposedly piqued Melo’s interest, but the most they could offer was $95.9 million over four seasons.

The Bulls were considered prohibitive favorites at one point, as adding Anthony would likely have vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, due to cap constraints, the maximum amount of money they could have presented to Anthony would have been approximately $73 million.

Just because the Knicks were able to pay him $33 million dollars more than any other team in the NBA, doesn’t mean they were required to offer him $28 million more than any other team.

Clearly, New York had the upper hand in negations, but they never seemed to play that hand.

Why not offer Anthony a four-year, $98 million contract?

In an open letter to Knicks fans on his website shortly after announcing he returned to the Knicks, Anthony explained he intended to return to NYC along, that his “heart never wavered” and that he is a “New York Knick at heart.”

Why not challenge Anthony to have his actions match his words?

If Jackson offered $98 million over four years, that would still be over $2 million more than any other team in the NBA could submit, and $15 million more than the Bulls could bid.

Thus, if Melo was truly dead set on returning to New York, he would have the option of doing so and still receiving a very fair wage (nearly $100 million over four years would ensure he remained one of the NBA’s highest paid players). Additionally, this would allow New York to maintain flexibility and cap space, which would have enabled Jackson to continue building a balanced roster around his superstar.

If Anthony insisted on securing a five-year deal, then Jackson could have offered $110 million over five seasons. Again, it’s far more guaranteed money than Melo could have received anywhere else.

You’d think that, at the very least, Jackson could have said: “Okay Melo, we are willing to pay you nearly $30 million more than anyone else can, but we need you give us some concessions in regards to a trade kicker and a no-trade clause.”

Who were the Knicks bidding against? Why give in to Anthony’s demands? Carmelo claims to love New York; make him prove it. (Ironically, signing at a substantial discount would also likely be beneficial to his legacy, as the team would be able to build a better supporting cast around him. And creating a lasting legacy by constructing a winner in NYC would produce incredible ancillary and financial benefits…)

Again, the ‘worst case scenario’ wasn’t actually all that bad. If Anthony left, all was NOT lost. In fact, it could be argued that while the Knicks would have had to take a gigantic step back in the short-term if Anthony signed elsewhere, it might actually put New York on a path that ultimately proved more successful over time. In other words, losing Melo for nothing might be favorable to signing a deal that would guarantee nearly $28 million to a 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony in 2018-19. The Knicks would have had to suffer through next season, but would then enter the summer of 2015 armed with a lottery pick and oodles of cap space to spend on a free agent crop flush with stars.

For those that argue the Knicks wouldn’t be able to attract free agents without a stud like Anthony already in the fold, in a counter-argument I’d present the Lakers’ inability to land any notable free agents this summer as ‘Exhibit A.’ The Lakers are one of the most well-respected organizations in all of sports, with a nearly unparalleled track record of success. In addition, they have one of the greatest guards in NBA history, Kobe Bryant, under contract for the next two seasons. Kobe is obviously a question mark as he works his way back from a major injury, but no one would be all that surprised if Bryant is among the league’s leading scorers next season. Still, every big name free agent steered clear of L.A., despite the fact they had plenty of cap space and could offer max contracts. Instead, the Lakers ended up settling and spending nearly $40 million to re-sign Nick Young and Jordan Hill.

I’d contend that although fellow great players undoubtedly respect Kobe as an all-time great, the fact that Kobe is making $48.5 million over the next two seasons deterred other stars from joining him in Hollywood. Players today are well aware of the ramifications of limited cap space. If Kobe had re-signed for a more reasonable amount, other players would be more eager to accept a max deal from the Lakers. It’s not just great players that attract free agents; it’s great talent and cap-friendly contracts.

Circling back to New York, based on his comments last month, it appeared Jackson had come to a similar, logical conclusion: If we get Carmelo to sign for a fair contract, then it benefits us to keep him as our franchise cornerstone going forward. However, if Anthony demands more than we are comfortable offering, then we can let him walk and we’ll still be in fine shape going forward.

Even from a public relations standpoint, I’d argue it’s safe to assume most Knicks fans wouldn’t be furious at Jackson and the Knicks if Anthony did leave under such conditions. Even if most fans wanted New York to keep Carmelo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to appreciate the fact Jackson had operated with the best intentions of the organization in mind. Jackson has been open and honest with the public his entire career and he could plainly explain his rationale through forthright conversation with the media. The myth that New York fans wouldn’t embrace rebuilding is patently false. The Knicks were terrible for most of the 2000s and Madison Square Garden was still sold out on a regular basis. The Knicks were terrible last season (with Melo) and MSG still played to over 95 percent capacity. In my opinion, Knicks fans would embrace a rebuilding effort if they saw that a concrete and sensible plan was in place.

As I have posited previously, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable prior to Jackson arrival. However, with Phil calling the shots (instead of Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency would likely be decreased.

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 got. 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.

When Phil was brought to New York, Knicks fans looked forward to future decisions being made based strictly on what’s best for the long-term success of the franchise, as opposed to bringing in big names to sell tickets and jerseys. Knicks fans were hoping that Jackson would sanitize away the stink of previous regimes. In year’s past, there were rumors around the league that the Creative Artists Agency was running the Knicks. Ironically, the way the Anthony contract negations (or lack thereof) played out, it ends up looking like a sweetheart deal for one of CAA’s biggest clients.

Just as Anthony demanding $124 million and all the added incentives makes sense, so does Dolan wanting to keep Melo regardless of his ultimate price tag. Dolan desperately wanted Anthony back in 2011, and pulled the trigger on the trade that brought him here. As long as Anthony is in a New York uniform, the Knicks will likely remain competitive every year he is on the roster. He’s that good. A healthy Melo means consistently solid TV ratings on the MSG network, along with tickets and jersey sales spiking.

Keeping Carmelo is definitely the safer play, but does it cap the Knicks’ ultimate upside. That is the tough question Jackson had to answer.

It’s possible, given his advanced age and relative inexperience, that Jackson had no interest in undertaking a challenging and precarious rebuilding project.

Either way, what his motivations were, the die has been cast. Eventually we will find out if Jackson made the correct call.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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