There were moments last season when it seemed like Carmelo Anthony might crack. No one would have blamed him.
A year ago at this time, Anthony had been to the playoffs every season of his career. The Knicks were coming off a 54-win campaign in which Anthony led the league in scoring, J.R. Smith won Sixth Man of the Year and Tyson Chandler finally started to shore up a leaky defense. Melo shined while regularly instilled at power forward for the very first time. Even if the Knicks weren't a title contender, they were entertaining. From a distance, it even looked like they were having fun.
It's hard to believe that was only two years ago after the nightmare season the Knicks just endured, one that spiraled out of control before it ever really started. Chandler broke his leg in the fourth game of the season and suddenly the Knicks were 3-13. Every loss felt like a referendum on Anthony's impending free agency, which slowly started to become more meaningful than the actual season. The Knicks were an ongoing plane crash and Melo was the only one with a parachute strapped to his back.
Back in New York
Back in New York
Anthony could have jumped to safety in Chicago, but he chose not to. He'll spend the last remaining years of his prime in New York hoping Phil Jackson can figure out how to overhaul the roster while he's still at the top of his game. Anthony reportedly believes in Jackson's vision for the franchise, and he might as well. It's always possible for Anthony to request a trade should things continue to spiral out of control.
There's a more convenient way to frame Melo's decision, though, one that's less flattering to all involved parties: Anthony's commitment to the Knicks ultimately seems like it was about choosing money over winning.
A backlash was unavoidable, especially after Jackson made it known early in the process he ideally wanted Anthony to accept less money. For as bummed as Bulls fans are to miss out on Anthony, many New Yorkers don't seem thrilled to see Melo getting max money, either. It's a good reminder that when a star player finds himself in Anthony's position in free agency, it's traditionally a lose-lose situation.
Four years ago, LeBron James and Chris Bosh were blasted for taking less money to go to a better team in the Miami Heat. Even after four straight trips to the Finals, James is still seen as unlikable to a large portion of the country. Melo chose to do what James didn't: showing loyalty to his existing flawed team unlikely to win anything significant without major changes. And yet, he still doesn't have anything close to unanimous support for the decision.
The truth is that the Knicks have bent over backwards for Anthony ever since he came to New York. They agreed to trade for him in 2011 instead of signing him in free agency the following summer so he could get more money under the previous CBA. They ditched cult hero Jeremy Lin in part because he didn't mesh with Melo. Leaving max money on the table to leave the Knicks would have been ruthless in its own way, but no one wants to consider that angle. Instead, a common criticism will likely be that Melo cares more about his bank statement than his team's place in the standings.
The pejorative statement does have some elements of truth. The $129 million the Knicks were offering was nearly $60 million more than what Chicago could have given Anthony without a sign-and-trade. Even if the Bulls were able to coerce Jackson into a sign-and-trade, Anthony couldn't have gotten a fifth year guaranteed on his deal, one that will pay him around $30 million when he's 35 years old. It's an incredible amount of money to walk away from any way you slice it, even for someone who has earned about $135 million in his career.
And barring a major coup by Phil Jackson, the Knicks are going to be a bad team again next season, especially now that Chandler is in Dallas. If there's hope, it comes in the summer of 2015, when New York will be armed with a ton of cap space. But it's no surer bet than what the Knicks made in 2010, and the pool of players to choose from isn't particularly inspiring. LaMarcus Aldridge is already on record saying he wants to finish his career in Portland. Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo and Paul Millsap are nice players, but they won't make the Knicks one of the league's best teams unless there's some major internal development. Kevin Love is probably getting traded before then, and even if he gets free, he'd surely prefer the Lakers.
You can't begrudge Melo for taking the money. Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker serve as cautionary tales for why even men as rich as Anthony still need to think about maximizing their worth monetarily. But on the flip side, this might have been Carmelo's last chance to maximize his worth as a basketball player. Chicago was the perfect opportunity to do just that.
The Bulls have a rich history of missing on superstars in free agency or on the trade market, so the sting of Melo choosing New York is a familiar one. It doesn't make it any easier to stomach for Chicago, though. Anthony was the perfect fit for a team that had the NBA's third-worst offense last season, one that scored only 69 points in its final playoff loss. The Bulls had the infrastructure to accentuate Anthony's strengths while masking his deficiencies. From the perspective of both the player and the team, it seemed like an ideal marriage.
Yet Anthony would have been forced to take a major financial sacrifice and move to an unfamiliar location to do so. The choice wasn't easy.
Free agency is typically the most refreshing time of a player's career, a week or two when other teams get to tell him how great he is and when massive amounts of money are put on the table to choose from. For Anthony, though, the entire situation just feels sad.
It's sad because the sand in the hour glass of his career is dropping to the bottom while he's willingly surrounding himself with poor teammates on a historically incompetent franchise. It's sad because the Bulls may have re-energized his prime by pairing him with Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and a finally healthy Derrick Rose. It's sad because many Knicks fans aren't particularly happy to have him around making as much money as he will. It's sad because even despite that, there were sacrifices Anthony had to make to end up in Chicago.
At a fundamental level, free agency is supposed to be a celebration of a great talent. Anthony will remain just that, but there will always be question marks that come with his career. He's never been in a great situation before, and Chicago potentially offered him the chance to be in one. But the money just didn't work and Anthony can only arrive there by forcing his way with a trade down the road.
Instead, he'll cash checks and put up huge numbers for a team that won't immediately be able to help him and for a fanbase that is lukewarm on him being there. It was Melo's choice all along, but it was one he couldn't have won either way.