- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- The photo was so grainy and out of focus.
There was no visible sign that Phil Jackson threw his 11 championship rings on the table as he and Carmelo Anthony were having what turned out to be a not-so-secret dinner powwow Wednesday night at a Manhattan steakhouse to discuss the state of the Knicks. But even if Jackson did try that kind of stunt it would've been even more reason for Anthony to steer the conversation away from Jackson's public attempts last week to guilt him into taking a pay cut to stay with the Knicks.
Then Anthony -- who can become a free agent July 1 -- should've used his own superior leverage to call out Jackson instead.
Anthony should've shoved all the chips in his pending negotiations across the table at Jackson and said:
"I'd consider giving the Knicks the sort of hometown discount you want -- if you agree to coach the team the next three years."
Of the two of them, Anthony is on far better footing to make demands than Jackson. So don't be distracted by that what-me-worry? act Jackson affected with reporters last week in a news conference in which he was asked how vital it is to keep Anthony with the Knicks.
Jackson answered by floating the idea that Anthony should stick to a promise made months ago, saying he would consider taking less money to stay in New York.
Jackson was then asked if he felt the Knicks needed to retain Anthony at all costs, and he smirked and said his reaction would be the same whether the Knicks kept their star forward or lost him: "Man, are we fortunate." Then he added the Knicks would adjust whether Anthony stays or goes.
Anthony couldn't have been thrilled to hear that. But it's doubtful it made him livid, either.
Anthony turns 30 next season, and he's smart enough to know how these sticky situations and posturing work. He showed as much in handling his exit from Denver with barely a misstep, deftly forcing the blockbuster trade that brought him here while peers like LeBron James and Dwight Howard thrashed around, got emotional and couldn't make up their minds.
And so, as stunts go, Jackson's attempt last week to remind Anthony of his pay-cut remarks rather than act like a team executive who's desperate to keep his only star wasn't a bad move. The challenge subjected Anthony to the usual questions about whether Anthony puts winning a ring or money first.
Nor was it a bad idea to have a sit-down with Anthony on Wednesday night to talk about the possible arrival of Steve Kerr as the Knicks' head coach.
Anthony would sacrifice about $29.5 million to spurn a five-year, $128 million max contract with the Knicks to take a four-year, $98.5 million maximum deal to play elsewhere.
As Jackson could have or should have pointed out to Anthony that night, if you're going to agree to take less somewhere else, why not work for the same rate here? Why not stay in a city that you say you love? Why not plow that salary savings of about $5.8 million a year back into the Knicks' payroll over the five-year life of your next contract so we can get you more help right away, and in subsequent years when we'll really have some big money to spend?
The list of players the Knicks can go shopping for this summer with the extra money Anthony could provide doesn't include any superstars like the summer of 2016 class. But there are some intriguing pieces that could shake loose as free agents, such as Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry ($6.2 million this year, though he's in for a big raise), Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha ($3.9 million), Washington's Trevor Ariza ($7.7 million), Chicago's Kirk Hinrich ($4.05 million), San Antonio's Boris Diaw ($4.7 million), Eric Bledsoe ($2.62 million) and (oh, please god, in the name of Eddy Curry, just say no) Jackson's old Lakers pal Andrew Bynum.
But here's the counter challenge Anthony could've shot back to Jackson's pay-cut suggestion: Anthony already has a pretty good idea what the Knicks will be like next season if Jackson isn't on the bench.
Next season will look pretty much like this past dismal season did.
So why bother to stay for the rerun?
Anthony missed the playoffs for the first time in his NBA career this season, despite playing well. And he admitted it was hard on him. He has said he's not interested in a rebuilding situation anymore -- even as the Knicks are selling their 2016 strategy, noting Amar'e Stoudemire's and Andrea Bargnani's contracts expire in the summer of 2015. He's been reminded a lot how his friends and contemporaries like LeBron and Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Chris Paul, have already won titles or pulled closer than he has.
If Anthony really does place a title first on his wish list at this point of his career, he'd be silly to waste even one more year with the Knicks rather than go elsewhere.
The news Thursday that Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni quit and the Lakers would like permission to interview Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will slow, but probably not end, the long-running rumor that Anthony could land in Chicago. Chicago would be crazy to let Thibodeau go, for starters. But if the Bulls did, Anthony could always follow Thibodeau to the Lakers. Houston is another possibility.
What is sure at this point is Jackson is the only superstar the Knicks will be adding this season.
So rather than let Jackson tell him to put his money where his mouth is, Anthony should tell Jackson to sit his butt next to his on the Knicks' bench this coming season and revive the triangle. Or else.
Anthony may be the only person who could convince Jackson to coach. And getting Jackson to coach may be the only move available to the Knicks right now that could get Anthony to stay.
Either way, the hammer is in Anthony's hand. Not Jackson's, no matter how much Jackson grandstands. And Anthony should use it.
If the two of them ever did bring an NBA title back to the Knicks, they would be bigger in New York lore than Mark Messier.