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Thursday, July 10, 2014
Updated: July 13, 6:30 PM ET
And now, Melo, for the hard part ...

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

Even with LeBron James turning the Eastern Conference upside down by returning to Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony made the right choice in free agency, and not merely because his financial adviser told him so. As much as the New York Knicks were allowed by rule to throw a lot more cash at their own guy than any competitor could, Anthony might have left on a discount if he found a sure thing.

Nobody offered him a sure thing -- not by a mile. The Chicago Bulls? Derrick Rose's recovering legs might not hold up. The Los Angeles Lakers? Ditto for Kobe Bryant. The Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks? There might not be a state income tax in Texas, but there is likely a legacy price to pay for any 30-year-old star trying to navigate the brutal Western Conference in pursuit of his long-lost ring.

Yes, James' stunning decision to leave Miami in shambles made Chicago a more appealing option in a wide-open East. And yes, by almost steering his buddy Anthony to the Lakers, Bryant nearly paid back Phil Jackson with interest for once shredding him in a book.

But the Bulls and Lakers depend too much on fragile stars, and Anthony didn't want to get stuck with a more accomplished version of Amar'e Stoudemire. In the end, if he was going to gamble on an iffy proposition, Anthony figured he might as well make the most money, keep the Madison Square Garden stage, keep his wife and 7-year-old son in New York and hope that Jackson can use next summer's cap space and first-round pick to build a team as spectacularly as he used to coach one.

Picking the Knicks was the right play for Anthony, just as picking Melo was the right play for Jackson. Before caving and offering his man a huge contract (according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, at least $122 million but less than the maximum of $129 million), the new team president seemed to be running Anthony out of Dodge, repeatedly challenging the forward to honor his word and accept less to help the Knicks fill some supporting roles.

Jackson upset Anthony and his camp with this public pestering and with this line on a Melodrama he was treating as an unnecessary evil: "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."

Jackson annoyed his free agent again by reluctantly making his offer in their final meeting while still preaching the virtues of taking one for the team. Jackson said the media made something big out of something small when it came to the dollar debate, that Anthony would pick his contract from a buffet of five options and that he was "amenable" to the cap games the Knicks wanted to play.

But then again, Melo didn't bother to return Jackson's texts in recent days either.

It's all behind them now -- after a few good pump fakes from Anthony -- and that's a really good thing for the Knicks president.

Who says that Jackson would have used Melo's vacated wages to definitely land two major stars next July or that the 2015 class of available candidates would even produce worthy signees? What message would have been sent to the rest of the league if Jackson swung and missed on Melo -- despite all the built-in advantages the labor agreement provides the home team -- after swinging and missing on Steve Kerr in the wake of accepting $60 million from Jim Dolan to serve as his ace recruiter?

Truth is, had Anthony left the Knicks, high-end free agents would have had a hard time considering New York in 2015, and Kevin Durant would have become an even bigger long shot in 2016. Even if Knicks officials were privately talking him up as a future target and LeBron James alternative before Jackson was hired, Durant might ultimately decide he can be just as happy in small-market Oklahoma City as Tim Duncan has been in small-market San Antonio.

But this much is already certain: Some of the league's best players are bigger Melo fans than the adoring Dolan himself.

For right now, anyway, Anthony and Jackson have each other and not much else. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Maybe Anthony, widely criticized as a prolific scorer who doesn't elevate the lesser talents around him, was supposed to represent the final challenge of Jackson's epic career.

Olympic Games aside, Anthony is trying to win his first championship since his one-and-done season at Syracuse. Jackson, who won a record 11 titles as coach of Michael Jordan's Bulls and Bryant's Lakers, is trying to win his first title as an executive and, more importantly, his first that would start with the kind of roster rebuild the late, great Red Auerbach said Jackson would never take on.

So player and president are in this together, committed to making this work through 2019. This should be one fun relationship to watch, even if Derek Fisher, Jackson's Mini-Me, proves to be a headstrong middleman. Over his 11 years in Denver and New York, Anthony has never dealt with a coach or management figure half as imposing as Jackson, who has as much at stake as the player does.

Not that the 2014-15 Knicks will satisfy either man's objectives. The subtractions of Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler and additions of Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Cleanthony Early, among others, might return the Knicks to the playoffs after last season's debacle, but they won't make New York a legitimate championship contender.

Only a home run next summer in free agency, coupled with a smart pick in the first round of the draft, could elevate the Knicks above LeBron's Cavaliers, Chicago and Indiana on the softer side of the postseason bracket and past the surplus of heavyweights out West.

But Jackson had to win this fight first. He couldn't afford to lose his best player for nothing, or next to nothing in a sign-and-trade, and so he didn't.

Jackson can go ahead and showcase Anthony as an inducement to attract a superior player in the future. Melo can shed his gun-for-hire rep for good and attempt in the coming seasons to do what Patrick Ewing could not: deliver New York's first title since Jackson was a gangly, team-first presence on Red Holzman's bench.

So Anthony made the right call in staying, and his boss made the right call in ensuring that he did. But with the Knicks a long way from a parade, now comes the hard part.

It's Phil and Melo against the odds. Phil and Melo against the world in LeBron James' new East.