- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Anthony said he wasn't going anywhere, sort of, after the Indiana Pacers took him out in six in the second round, and you could see why. He forced his way from Denver to Madison Square Garden in the winter of 2011, forced his hometown Knicks to send everyone but Clyde Frazier back to the Nuggets, and he understands how any suggestion he might flee as a free agent next summer might make him look like the me-centric diva many thought him to be.
With George Karl and Mike D'Antoni as roadkill in his rearview mirror, Melo did too much this past season to repair his image -- playing relatively selflessly, defending the ball, even emerging as a leader -- to throw it all away with a threat about opting out of his contract a year from now.
"I know I'm going to be here for a long time," Anthony said on exit-interview day, otherwise known as baggie day.
The quote played better than the one about what might be the most scrutinized New York opt-out clause since your favorite Charleston RiverDog, Alex Rodriguez, all but jumped onto the field during Game 4 of the 2007 World Series between Boston and Colorado and shouted for someone to show him the money.
"When that time comes," Melo said of his own contractual escape hatch, "I'll deal with it."
But how will he deal with it if next season shows what many already suspect, that the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, and Chicago Bulls will demote the Knicks from a 2- to a 5-seed in the East and leave them a likely first- or second-round knockout victim all over again?
As much as the Brooklyn-born Anthony loves Broadway, loves being the big star in the big city, he knows he'll be judged on whether he ends the kind of championship drought for the Knicks that Mark Messier ended for the Rangers.
Messier, Eli Manning, and Derek Jeter are franchise players forever remembered for the parades they delivered and the champagne bottles they popped. Patrick Ewing? Though he's remembered as a great Knick, people never let him forget that he didn't win the big one, even if he never had the requisite help to win the big one.
Anthony should be afraid of meeting that same fate in New York. In fact, he should be very, very afraid.
Miami has a Big Three going for a Big Three-peat, and the Bulls and Pacers return Derrick Rose and Danny Granger. Brooklyn added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to a starting five that features at least four players better than the Knicks' likely No. 2 option, J.R. Smith or Andrea Bargnani.
Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald appears to be grab-bagging it now, overspending a combined $28.2 million over seven years on Steve Novak and Marcus Camby one summer, then shipping them off for a failing prospect on a losing team the next.
Bargnani can score from the outside, and he's better than Novak and Camby, no question about that. But he's a former No. 1 overall pick who isn't anything close to what he was supposed to be in Toronto. In other words, even at the cost of a first-round pick in 2016, Bargnani doesn't move Melo any closer to that parade.
Ewing is surely feeling Anthony's pain. Back in the day, he tried to escape New York by taking an arbitration case to the Knicks, arguing the team had violated a clause in his deal ensuring that he own one of the league's top four salaries. His bid for free agency denied by the arbitrator, Ewing spent the rest of his prime waiting for Pat Riley, Dave Checketts, and Ernie Grunfeld to find him a Scottie Pippen to call his own.
Knicks management could never do better than Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason, Derek Harper, Ro Blackman, Doc Rivers, and Charles Smith. Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and Latrell Sprewell were brought in for Ewing's twilight years.
"I would've loved to have played with a bona fide superstar," Ewing told ESPNNewYork.com in March before rattling off the names of the teammates who were good-but-not-great sidekicks.
"I had very good players on my team. ... But they still weren't Carmelo Anthony."
Ewing and Anthony would've won one together, maybe when Michael Jordan was off playing the kind of minor league baseball A-Rod was playing Tuesday night in Charleston. Ewing got to a Game 7 of the Finals without a Melo; Melo has yet to reach the championship round without a Ewing.
Just as Ewing's GM, Grunfeld, tried (and failed) to work the problem, Melo's GM, Grunwald, has scrambled in vain to find the difference-making deal. He gambled away the money once meant for a Chris Paul bid, put it on Tyson Chandler, and watched Chandler turn up sick and injured and ineffective for two postseasons running.
And yes, it was hard to knock the Chandler deal at the time. The guy was a pro's pro who helped Dirk Nowitzki win it all and who played with relentless intensity on both sides of the floor. But the move has to be judged on the results, and Chandler has proven you can be the Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA without being a legitimate star.
You also don't have to be Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, vocal critic of the lesser lights assembled around his guy, Anthony, to understand why Grunwald's attempt to mirror the 2011 Dallas model (one franchise player, not two, surrounded by an opportunistic supporting cast) did not work. The Knicks didn't have enough skilled size in the post, and they relied too heavily on the unreliable J.R. Smith.
Grunwald has to realize now that you simply can't win a championship when Smith is your second-best offensive player.
But the capped-out, taxed-out Knicks have little choice but to try to sign back Smith, and hope Iman Shumpert develops into next season's Paul George (minus a few inches). They need to hope that Amar'e Stoudemire finally remains healthy on limited minutes, and that Bargnani somehow re-emerges as a force worthy of being the top pick in the draft.
It's an awful lot to ask for, especially now that the Knicks are reduced to pursuing the remains of Elton Brand, not to be confused with the remains of Camby, Rasheed Wallace, and Kurt Thomas. The Knicks can't sign any major free agents, and unless they're willing to package Chandler and Shumpert, they can't convince another team to give them a potential Pippen for Melo.
"I think the Knicks are in quicksand now," said one longtime NBA dealmaker who has done business with them. "They're not going to win 54 games again with this group, and they're probably a 5-seed in the East. Brooklyn has definitely passed them by."
The new Nets of Garnett and Pierce could encounter their own problems with age and mileage, but for now they sure don't lack the kind of firepower needed to challenge Miami. The Knicks? They'll still have a winning team and the league's premier scorer in Anthony, enough reason to keep filling up the Garden.
But when they fail to reach the conference final again next summer, will Melo start looking at the Knicks the way Ewing looked at them during his failed bid for free agency in 1991? Will he be next July's Dwight Howard? Will he run off to Hollywood with another pending free agent, LeBron James, and join a Lakers team that will have only one contract (Steve Nash's) on the books if Howard leaves?
Chances are, Carmelo Anthony is telling the truth when he swears his allegiance to the Knicks. That doesn't mean their roster won't change his mind, and heart, this time next year.
3dEthan Sherwood Strauss
4dMatt Walks, ESPN.com