Since they won 54 games in 2012-13, every attempt at improvement by the New York Knicks has backfired. They reupped with J.R. Smith, who proceeded to have the worst season of his career. They made space for Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani, but neither finished the season in the rotation. The only time they had a winning record in 2013-14 was when they started 1-0.
But there’s finally some good news: Carmelo Anthony intends to opt out of the remaining year of his contract, and rumors abound that he’ll skip town.
Yes, losing their best player would be welcome news for the Knicks. Should Anthony leave, the Knicks would finally be free to start over with a player good enough to carry a franchise.
Just how good is Anthony? It’s hard to find consensus. Some count him among the best in the NBA and perhaps the best one-on-one scorer in the league. He has a top-10 player efficiency rating and two Olympic gold medals. There just aren’t guys with his kind of size and strength who can handle and shoot the ball like a guard. In the right scenario, he’s deadly. With his quick, accurate release and great first step, covering him on a hard closeout is pretty much impossible. He is a monster on the offensive glass and has been one of the best scorers as a pick-and-roll ball handler for the past two years. It’s a rare combination.
Others are less charitable. They see a player who dies on screens, is overeager to switch and treats defense in general like a personal inconvenience. He’s a volume scorer who traffics in volume statistics, but less so in wins, and doesn’t create a ton of opportunities for others.
What’s tough for the Knicks is that both impressions of Anthony are correct. He is not a contributor on defense, and he’s a constant mismatch for just about everyone in the league, especially when he plays on the perimeter as a power forward.
Anthony has serious game, but all the things you have to do right to maximize what he brings to a team make him tricky as a franchise centerpiece. You need multiple guys with point-guard-level passing skills to keep the ball moving. You need a lockdown defender on the perimeter to take on the toughest wings, because he’s just not very interested in those assignments. You also need a great defensive big man behind him, because to max out Anthony’s offensive capabilities, you need to play him at the power forward, which means you need extra-stout basket protection from your other frontcourt player.
Anthony is a good player to build with but not around.
Although there’s room to argue about just how good Anthony is, almost no one would claim that a player with his faults is the second-best player in the NBA. But if he reups at the max in New York, only Kobe Bryant would be more handsomely compensated.
Consider Anthony’s market value. How does $23 million sound? What about $25 million or $27 million? Because that could be his price tag at the tail end of another max deal.
Consider that Anthony just turned 30, about the age most NBA players begin to decline. He would make most when he’s worth least.
Consider whether Anthony is truly a franchise cornerstone. At the price he can command by staying in New York and reupping for a medium-term deal, the Knicks had better be sure, because these contracts cripple payrolls. He just had his best season ever, with career highs in a bunch of key scoring and rebounding metrics ... but his team won 37 games. It’s possible that his teammates were just that bad, but at his salary, one would hope for a player who guarantees a winning season in a weak Eastern Conference.
Then consider where the Knicks are as a franchise.
The Knicks' foundation is rotted; even if Anthony stays at a discounted price, they likely will want to dispose of their three other most highly paid players. If the Knicks can’t make major moves next season, there is no chance they will contend for anything other than a playoff spot.
No matter what happens next with Anthony, the Knicks will be rebuilding. There are variously expedient ways to do so, but whether you’re piling up assets or luring name free agents, it’s still called rebuilding. Phil Jackson does not have to slowly, meticulously build through the draft, but he does have to be careful about where he spends James Dolan’s money. The Knicks have almost no money on the books after the 2014-15 season. They are resetting the roster one way or another. The only question is how prudently they will do so.
Anthony’s departure would release the Knicks from the cycle of adding overpriced veterans and pretending to contend. This is the league’s richest franchise in the media capital of the world, and this is an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. But there is less margin for error, which means that signing anyone to a huge max contract is a high-risk proposition.
It’s especially risky with Anthony because he limits the kinds of other players you should sign. Championships are won by two-way stars.
It must be acknowledged that Anthony is a star attraction, even if he’s not always a superstar player. There will be plenty of pressure to sign Anthony and retain at least one star player on the roster to drive fan interest. But the Knicks are an organization with coffers to make Scrooge McDuck blush; they aren’t going bankrupt off a down season or two.
There’s also a chance Anthony will go somewhere else and excel as a complementary piece. But that’s what he is. A wise team doesn’t make him the second-highest-paid player in the league, and a wise team doesn’t make a secondary piece its franchise cornerstone.