When Carmelo Anthony officially announced his decision to remain with the Knicks, the headline of his website, thisismelo.com, read, “My City, My Heart.”
It should have also read: “My Team.”
While the critics will point to the massive five-year contract Melo signed to stay in New York — more than any other team could offer — that money represents not just the biggest payday of his career and security for his family for generations to come, but also his position among the hierarchy of this franchise. He appears to be part-owner now and responsible for the direction of this team almost as much as Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher.
That is what makes so significant his willingness to adjust the contract. Jackson, Steve Mills and Melo’s reps put together various concepts for Melo to consider that would allow the team to still be major players in free agency next summer, when the team anticipates to have the ability to create room (keyword: create) for at least one max contract to offer.
“He did exactly what we kind of asked him to do: give us a break in the early part of his contract so when we have some wiggle room next year — which will be hopefully big enough wiggle room — we can exploit it,” Jackson said.
The argument from others, of course, is that if Melo was really about winning, he would have signed with the Chicago Bulls, who have Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, along with one of the game’s most respected coaches in Tom Thibodeau.
Let’s get one thing straight for the record: The Bulls were the only real threat in this situation. Anything you heard about the Rockets and Lakers was fabricated speculation by agenda-driven sources. And teaming up with LeBron James to play in Miami? That scenario was impossible considering that LeBron had his mind focused on a possible return to Cleveland for months. But at least the coverage didn’t lack for entertainment.
The Bulls offered Melo the best immediate potential. To go to Chicago, however, he would have had to take a significant pay cut — almost $10 million less than New York — unless a sign-and-trade was executed. That, however, was never discussed because Melo never asked for it, which lends credibility to when he said, “my heart never wavered” about leaving New York.
And while on paper, Melo on the Bulls might have been ranked ahead of even LeBron’s Cavs next season, there are no guarantees it could win a title in the first year. Or even the second.
The only thing that’s guaranteed is the money. So there’s no faulting Melo for taking the money over the potential. But there’s still even more to it than that.
The Knicks represent something Melo wants beyond the salary: The stage, the city and the challenge.
In his three-plus seasons here, he quickly learned playing in New York is unlike anywhere else in the NBA. Not just because of the bright lights of The Garden or the marquee status he earned as a celebrity, but for the burden that suddenly dropped on his shoulders, for the incessant criticism that he’ll never win here.
I talked about this with Patrick Ewing, who looks at Melo and sees himself a decade or so ago. Ewing heard it all the time too. In 1991, he almost left for the same reasons. But he took the money to stay, took ownership of the franchise, trusted a championship coach (Pat Riley), who came in with a plan, and then came so painfully close in ’94.
Any of this sound familiar to current events?
What Melo said in his statement, about being “a New York Knick at heart,” is true. If the 2012-13 season, when he won the scoring title and led the team to the Atlantic Division title was his baptism, the record-setting 62-point performance in January was his confirmation. When his career ends, Melo will be in the lineage of Braun, McGuire, Guerin, Reed, Frazier, Monroe, King and Ewing.
And if he wins just one championship here … just one … he understands that, considering market, fan base and the desperation of an agonizing four decade wait, it would be equal to the two LeBron won in Miami.
The effort to do that started with Melo keeping his word. That was the first investment in the plan.
Remember, it was he who, before the All-Star Break, first discussed the idea of taking less money to help the Knicks build a championship team around him. But when Jackson acknowledged that idea publicly after he was hired as team president, Melo bristled.
After the two had a chance to talk on a personal level, things were smoothed over quickly. Jackson’s pedigree had Melo’s attention and Melo’s potential, which Jackson scouted carefully over the last month of the season, had Jackson’s attention. An early bond formed quickly and Jackson found Melo engaging him in philosophical discussions about the game, which, of course, the Zen Master loved.
“There was never any tension in our conversations,” Jackson said. “So I think it really went very well for us. All of our conversations were relaxed, they were comfortable.”
And that allowed Jackson to offer his opinion about Melo’s game and changes the seven-time All-Star needed to make from his reputation as a primary scorer into a player who can thrive within a system. It wasn’t dissimilar to the process Jackson went through to help Kobe Bryant go through his own transformation.
“I talked to Carmelo a little bit about that in the process,” Jackson said. “That one of the things about the [Triangle] offensive system is you can’t try to score every time you touch the ball. You have to participate.
“And you also have to have guys who are strong enough to know there’s a whole offense to run and guys to all be involved. Then when breakdowns happen, you need to have that guy who can get shows on his own and we have a guy that’s a great bailout guy in Carmelo.”
Jackson came away from those conversations convinced that Melo, at 30, was ready to make that transformation.
“I think that’s what he’s really looking for,” he said. “He admired San Antonio’s game and the way they played. And that’s the way we want to play.”
There is still a great distance between New York and San Antonio. And not just geographically.
Considering their salary cap limitations this season, there isn’t much improvement possible for the Knicks on the short-term. But Jackson believes the system alone will improve the team dramatically.
They will have significant cap space next summer, with a chance to make a play for a major piece such as, perhaps, Marc Gasol (who might be a better fit than his brother, Pau, in the Triangle) or two excellent supporting cast players.
That, of course, suggests patience, which is another investment Melo made in this agreement.
“We’re glad Carmelo is seeing we have the vision, trusted us with … his desire to win, be on a competitive team,” Jackson said. “And our message to him is we are going to be a competitive team.
“It may not be instantaneous, we may not just be able to drop in and win a championship, but it’s going to be something that we’re goal-oriented and that’s the direction we’re going.”
- Jackson admitted the Knicks may not use their exceptions — the $3.2 million Taxpayer’s Mid-Level or the $3.6 million trade exception they received in the Mavericks trade — because “I want to be fiscally responsible.”Keep in mind the NBA has a repeater penalty that escalates the tax charges for teams that are over the luxury tax threshold in consecutive years. The Knicks may try to stay as close to the threshold ($76.8 million) as possible this season to alleviate the expense that is likely to come after signing another major free agent in 2015.
- So what’s next? With a roster loaded with guards and wing players, Jackson said the focus is to look for another big to bolster the frontcourt with a rebounder to join Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Sam Dalembert and Cole Aldrich. He also mentioned the need to “get some support behind Melo, he played a lot of minutes,” which likely means if rookie Cleanthony Early isn’t ready for the job, the Knicks will be in the market for an affordable, versatile wing player.
- That player Jackson hoped could take some minutes from Melo and also give the Knicks some versatility was Lamar Odom, but the team waived him on Saturday. Jackson, in a statement, made note of how Odom was unable to “uphold the standards” to return to being an NBA player.Jackson, who enjoyed great success coaching Odom with the Lakers before the former New York City product fell into off-the-court issues, said it “hurt” to cut Odom.”Oh yeah, it hurt,” he said. “We really wanted him to have an opportunity. Just couldn’t break free from what was going on and get back on the basketball court and work.”
- The Knicks return to action in the NBA Summer League Monday against the Charlotte Hornets. We’ll have the coverage on MSG Network at 4 p.m. ET.