It's over. It's finally over. Carmelo Anthony has been traded to the New York Knicks, ending the 202-day saga that had dominated the NBA season and cast a shadow over what was happening on the court in a way nothing in league history has since ... well, The Decision, of course. The sound you hear is a nation of basketball enthusiasts and frustrated fans breathing a sigh of relief that we can all get on with our lives. Finally, we can actually talk about the game itself instead of these pampered millionaires that are teaming up and ruining the sacred competitive balance of the league. Right?
Ha, good one. If you were tired of Melo-Drama, just wait: it's going to get worse. It's tempting to equate the Carmelo drama with what happened with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last summer and wonder what it means for the upcoming Dwight Howard-Chris Paul-Deron Williams free agent class of 2012. Keyboards across the country are ablaze with the analysis that this all further proves the player has all the power in the NBA, and teams are now at their mercy.
But to me, this saga demonstrated something else. This was not like The Decision, a carefully-crafted plan by shrewd superstars ruined by a horrendous display of judgment in terms of presentation. That was a plan hatched within the conditions that currently existed, done by several stars (including two of the very best this league has to offer) that were smarter than the decision-makers. The Carmelo Anthony saga, meanwhile, was a clumsy spectacle, filled with people that were all gunning for their own agendas before the storm of the lockout swept over them, all over a player that is, at best, just one of the top 15 in the league. In the end, I suppose it all worked out, but only for those directly involved in the situation. For those who had to witness this, hear about this, cover this or even think remotely about this (i.e. NBA fans), it was a frustrating waste of pixels and breath.
For this, we have a lot of things to blame. Sure, we can blame The Decision a little, for making Anthony realize how he erred by not signing a three-year extension in 2006 and becoming a free agent with LeBron and company. But really, the biggest problem is that we're at a tipping point with the very structure of the league, and Anthony's awkward situation was caught in the crossfire. The battle for Carmelo Anthony's services was just an appetizer for the real battle this summer, when the hawkish owners will fight for massive changes to the collective bargaining agreement against the very players that gamed the system the owners thought they knew.
The fact of the matter is this: without the impending lockout, a lot of this silliness doesn't happen. The whole saga was centered around Anthony's attempt to receive what he couldn't receive if he played out the season and waited until the summer: the right to choose his own team on the open market when he became a free agent. This is a right stars have had since the '70s, but because of Anthony's lack of foresight in 2006 and the impending lockout, it was essentially being denied to him. Had Anthony waited until the summer to sign with the Knicks, he very likely would have had to sacrifice a significant amount of long-term money. Here's what he would end up making under the owners' proposal, via Ken Berger:
Under the owners' proposal, Anthony would only be eligible for a four-year, $47 million deal with New York as an unrestricted free agent. Few executives believe the actual agreement will be that punitive, but Anthony will have to make his decision before learning what the consequences are. One of them could be a franchise tag, which could strand Anthony in a place he doesn't want to be. Though no one knows if there will be such an NFL-style tag, which severely restricts a star player's ability to change teams, an executive familiar with how such a rule would be applied said a player in Anthony's position wouldn't be able to duck the tag by opting out of his contract.
That's instead of the three-year, $65 million deal he will sign to play for the Knicks, and the contract he was offered by the Nuggets. He still would have made millions to play a game, and he's hardly the only 2011 free agent, so I get that it's hard to feel sympathy, but that's a 45 percent pay cut annually. Apply it to your own salary and -- yeah, that's fairly significant. It's kind of like telling a child that they can either do what you want them to do or not do it and get grounded. Sure, it's technically a choice, but is it really a choice? I don't feel bad for Anthony, but I understand his thought process.
But LeBron, Wade and Bosh took a paycut, so why can't Anthony, you say? The pay cut those three took wasn't anywhere close to as significant as the one Anthony would have to take. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all making $14.5 million this season. The alternative was signing a full max contract, which would pay them about $16.5 million this year. That's 12 percent easily made up in increased endorsements. Anthony stood to lose much more than that. So his representatives did their job. They tried to see if Anthony could get to New York and get the money he would get if he was a free agent.
In the end, it worked, but not before a whole lot of drama. The Nuggets ended up accomplishing their goals, but had to resort to some of the most hard-line negotiating tactics you'll ever see. It was the right thing to do, but it was also annoying. Just when we were ready to move on, here came the Nuggets demanding for more inconsequential players in a proposed trade. They did it because they knew Anthony would never be a true unrestricted free agent, and they knew that if the Knicks called their bluff for some reason, they could still tell Anthony they would be the only team that could show him the money. I'm not saying the Nuggets did anything wrong; in fact, they did everything right given Anthony's situation with the upcoming lockout. I'm just saying that, if you're like me and you're tired with how this all dragged out, then the Nuggets' actions helped prolong the saga.
The Nets' presence, meanwhile, feels like a farce right now that also can be traced to the impending lockout. Anthony never seemed to want to play there, and yet their presence was needed to get the Knicks to bite. When Mikhail Prokhorov gave the press conference pulling his team out of the running, it wasn't a power play: it was an admission that Anthony didn't want them. And yet, because Anthony needed that extension, the Nuggets needed to bring them back in to give them more leverage. It could no longer be a simple Knicks choice between trading for Anthony now and waiting until the summer. Because of the lockout, the illusion of the Nets being a real player in this chase had to be maintained. Once again, us fans had their attention diverted.
(Why the Nets played along, for the record, is beyond me. I guess the glee of getting a competitor to "overpay" was enough to sacrifice a shred of their dignity).
In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Anthony was able to get his cake and eat it, the Knicks got their man, the Nets got the Knicks to overpay and the Nuggets got something instead of nothing. Still, it cost fans 202 days of ridiculousness and diverted attention away from what was happening on the court. We, the fans, lost.
But at least everything worked out for everyone this time before the season totally went to waste for all involved. The scary thought is that the conditions that caused Melo-Drama are still there, and they are no closer to being solved.
The current salary rules have been so thoroughly mismanaged by decision-makers that the owners now want out of what they willingly bought into. The lack of revenue sharing has created a league of haves that can spend and have-nots that can only win if they commit to losing money. Finally, the players are sitting in the middle, wondering why they need to accept massive changes to the system when the stars figured out how to game it better than the decision-makers who are paid to do this.
Indeed, a devastating lockout appears to be on the horizon. Too many owners are pushing for unnecessary massive changes, paranoid at the thought of having to be held accountable for their decisions. They see Anthony have his cake and eat it and want the same, except they don't realize that it is their hawkish ways that caused all of this. If Anthony was entitled to a normal free agency, then a lot of the wasted pixels of the past 202 days would never have been there. Sure, there would have been trade talk, but not like this. It might have been similar to the stuff we heard with Amar'e Stoudemire last season, but at least that had a reasonable arc and a happy ending (a deep playoff run for Phoenix and a free agency decision that was fair to the player).
Instead, we had a ton of agendas coming together that obscured the process. Many of those same agendas will return this summer, as a divided group of owners, players and player agents will fight as commissioner David Stern and players' union head Billy Hunter sit befuddled in the middle. The two sides could not be more divided, at least based on this article, and lines are unnecessarily being drawn in the sand when tweaks to the current system (revenue sharing, shorter contracts, potentially a return to a compensatory system for stars that leave teams) should be the goal. There will be ultimatums, unreasonable demands, unreasonable proposals and a whole lot of pixels generated that will surely frustrate people who just want to watch the game of basketball that they love.
Only this time, it won't be an All-Star player whose fate is on the line. It will be the league itself.