In midst of turmoil, Carmelo Anthony holds all the cards in New York
Knicks' star wants to keep his commitment with the franchise and city despite drama with Phil Jackson
Carmelo Anthony wanted to work in New York and become a big deal, maybe even win a championship. Was that too much to ask?
Well, no, not on the surface. But when this desire first got into Melo’s blood six years ago, it eventually produced a “dream” pairing between a star and team that started sloppily and might end the same. While Melo and the Knicks have much to like about each other, it’s questionable whether they were made for each other. And quite bluntly, they’ve got nothing to show for their time together except a trail of crushed hopes.
Melo is clearly at odds with team president Phil Jackson, who’s frustrated with his declining All-Star, and the Knicks are caught in the middle, barely hanging on in the belly of the East and in no danger of ending New York’s championship drought, now 44 years (and counting).
“We converse when we converse and we talk when we talk,” a terse Anthony said Wednesday, explaining the line of communication with Jackson. “I’ll leave it at that.”
It’s astonishing how the relationship of one of the most feared scorers of the last few decades and an NBA coaching icon-turned-team builder have decayed to this point. Anthony is a 32-year-old with multiple knee surgeries. Jackson is the all-time great coach who won 11 titles mainly by coaxing the complex egos of superstars in Chicago and LA but has a spotty stint so far as a team executive. Their current relationship is also a rather accurate reflection of the state of the Knicks, whose only major asset besides Anthony is Kristaps Porzingis and have missed the playoffs in Jackson’s two full seasons. In a sense, the Knicks are no better off now than they were when Anthony arrived, and that’s a good place to start this rocky conversation: The beginning.
Melo forced his way out of Denver to New York in 2011 by holding a pair of ace cards: Pending free agency and the addition of a second New York team. The Brooklyn Nets had invaded the Knicks’ back yard and suddenly Melo had leverage. His heart was with the Knicks, but he demanded they trade for him, rather than sign him that summer; Melo would lose his Bird rights (and the chance to make more money).
The Knicks’ GM at the time, Donnie Walsh, didn’t fall for the veiled Melo threat of signing with the Nets instead. And Walsh told Knicks owner Jim Dolan to sit tight and wait three months until summer free agency, rather than surrender assets for Melo during the season. But Dolan jumped, overruled Walsh, gave the Nuggets a package of picks and young players and weakened the Knicks in the process.
While the Knicks did enjoy a two-year stretch with Melo that produced a 54-win season and a pair of trips to the playoffs, the makeup of the Knicks had a limited ceiling and Jackson arrived to push the restart button. In that time, Melo hit free agency and could’ve left for better situations in Los Angeles and definitely Chicago.
But he stayed.
Well, believe Melo when he talks about his devotion to the Knicks. He’s unique in that regard. Lots of stars want no part of playing in New York and the demands of that. Anthony gravitated toward it. As stars go, he enjoys a solid relationship with the relentless New York media, connects with fans and shows no outward insecurity toward Porzingis, the team’s star of the future.
Yet: Melo wants and craves New York for off-the-court reasons. His former coach in Denver, George Karl, said Melo is “addicted to the spotlight” which seems reasonably accurate. He loves the city. More importantly, his wife and her social connections are in the city. Living among the A-list actors, musical stars, court-side celebrities at the Garden and assorted other big shots means plenty to Melo. He sees himself as one of them, and as the main attraction of the Knicks, he is. Besides, re-signing in New York was also the best business deal, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
He has a no-trade clause precisely because he doesn’t want to change addresses. His family’s social calendar would die a quick death if he’s suddenly catching passes from Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, for example. Melo wants no part of the sleepy Midwest, and his wife definitely isn’t giving up Soho for a tumbleweed town.
And so: No matter how bad it gets with the Knicks, even they somehow bottom out this year and next, Melo is in New York for the long haul. He’s not going anywhere. He knows it, his contract knows it, Dolan most likely knows it and anyone who follows the Knicks knows it. Jackson, on the other hand …
Melo knows he can just wait Jackson out. One more year, or when Jackson’s contract ends in two? Isn’t that when the currently 71-year-old Jackson will tire of the grind and, with Hall of Fame credentials intact and untouchable, will return to the LA-and-Montana lifestyle that he can ride in his sunset years?
Jackson’s record as an executive isn’t convincing enough for anyone to feel Dolan did right by giving five years and $60 million to an unproven GM, just because he played during the Knicks’ glory years and won all those championships as a coach. Jackson drafted Porzingis, easily his best decision. But that’s about it.
He also alienated potential free agents by developing a rift with Melo and also LeBron James; what great player will sign with New York if Melo gives a lukewarm recommendation?
Last summer in free agency, Jackson gave big money to a past-prime Joakim Noah and next summer must either re-sign Derrick Rose, tricky given Rose’s body and character issues, or start over by finding another point guard. Neither option is ideal.
Essentially, Jackson must find worthy teammates for Melo, and quickly, before Melo’s level of play drops another notch, which would cause a search for a replacement for Melo.
“We’re trying to stay positive around here, trying to gather the troops and still believe in one another,” said Anthony.
He was talking about his teammates and his first-year coach, Jeff Hornacek, as they scratch their heads and wonder what hit them lately. Just weeks ago the Knicks were among the top four in the East. Now they’re keeping company with the Pistons and Magic.
There are two big events in February: The All-Star Game and trading deadline. Will Melo be included in either?
He stands a better shot at being an All-Star again than being an ex-Knick. Even if another team was willing to deliver the goods to get Melo, the no-trade clause is the hammer he holds over Jackson.
And that hammer doubles as the key to New York City, which is all Carmelo Anthony ever wanted.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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