NEW YORK — Countless possessions for the New York Knicks last season ended with Carmelo Anthony cradling the basketball as he looked for an angle against a defender. With the shot clock winding down, Anthony would be operating in an isolation set, the crowd at Madison Square Garden awaiting his next move.
In some ways, little has changed since the Knicks wrapped up their disappointing season in April. With the buzzer about to sound on Anthony’s contractual obligations to the Knicks, fans were still craning their necks over the weekend as they tried to anticipate what he would do next.
Facing a deadline of today to decide whether he wanted to exercise the early termination option in his contract, Anthony informed the Knicks that he was opting out so he could explore free agency, according to a person briefed on the discussions.
Had Anthony opted in, as Phil Jackson, the team’s president, publicly encouraged him to do, the sometimes uneasy marriage between Anthony and the Knicks would have been sure to extend for at least another season. By becoming a free agent, however, Anthony can receive offers starting July 1 from potential suitors like the Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets — two teams that could be much better equipped, at least in the short run, to contend for championships.
Opting out does not necessarily mean that Anthony will leave the Knicks. In fact, they can offer him the most lucrative contract under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement: about $129 million over five years. Rival teams can offer Anthony only about $96 million for four years, the word “only” being a relative description, of course.
But if there is financial incentive for Anthony to stay in New York, that assumes Jackson will offer him a maximum contract — and Jackson has indicated that he might not be willing to do so. This was most likely one of the topics of conversation when Jackson met with Anthony in Los Angeles this month alongside Derek Fisher, the team’s new coach, and general manager Steve Mills.
In light of Anthony’s decision, the Knicks are expected to explore sign-and-trade possibilities, especially with the Bulls, who have several contracts that could make a deal viable.
Jackson has said that he would like to build as much flexibility under the salary cap as possible as the Knicks target the summer of 2015. By then, several of the team’s more onerous contracts will be off the books (those belonging to Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, and Tyson Chandler, to name three), and Jackson will be free to crack open the Garden’s considerable piggy bank in his pursuit of A-list stars.
That long-term vision was one of the primary reasons Jackson so aggressively pitched Anthony on the idea of remaining with the Knicks for the final year of his current contract, which would have paid him more than $23 million next season. That, however, would have required a leap of faith by Anthony, who, at 30, runs the risk of suffering an injury that reduces his earning power.
With or without Anthony, the Knicks should have cash to spend in 2015 — but on whom? The Knicks, despite their many missteps in recent years, could be an attractive destination, thanks to their ZIP code and thanks also to Jackson.
“That’s part of why they paid Phil Jackson the amount of money they did,” said Greg Anthony, a former point guard for the Knicks who now works as an analyst for CBS and Turner Sports. “Because of his pedigree and because of what he’s done as a coach in his career, there’s a hope that he’s the type of person who can lure these guys.”
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