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Carmelo Anthony doesn't owe the Knicks anything

If Melo wants to win, now is the time and there are better options for him than the rebuilding Knicks. Why would anyone hold that against him? And what kind of CBA changes can (and should) really be made to stop players from taking less money to win?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how it ended this season, there is still the possibility that Carmelo Anthony is in play for the Miami Heat this summer.

It is not a good chance. Others have done the maths and there is no need to regurgitate them here, but essentially, to sign Melo as a free agent while retaining the Big Three, all of the Big Three need to take big pay cuts, much bigger than they took last time. Further, Udonis Haslem needs to opt out of an amount of money he will never see again, without any obvious incentive as to why he should do so. And then all parties need to be complicit to the basketball side of things as well.

It is almost certainly not going to happen.

Mind you, the Big Three was almost certainly not going to happen either. Until it did.

When it did, there was a backlash. The idea of the 'super team', something other teams (notably Orlando in 2000) had pursued in the past but not quite achieved, had finally been achieved. Jealousy abounded, and someone had to be at fault. Since it would never have happened in the past, there must be something wrong with it in the present. Et cetera.

The Melo to Miami idea is not about money, just as LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami was not about money. Superteams aren't about money. They are not playing for free, of course, but they are playing for more than money. They are playing for splendor, for glitz, for fun, for winning. Money might help, yet if a player really wants to sign somewhere, they will always take less and always have.

More than anything, they invariably play to win, and will always prioritize the places where that cab be best achieved. Given that winning is the most important factor in determining a player's legacy, how can they not?

If a 30-year-old star who has never won anything sacrifices money and shots for the opportunity to finally win while they still can, and he takes a pay cut to do it, that is a very legitimate thing to do. The incumbent team had every chance of keeping him in this level playing field. If they cannot do so, if he would rather leave regardless of the financial penalty from doing so, maybe the team just blew it. Maybe they wasted that talent.


Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This new idea of a Big Four, just like the reality of the Big Three, once again calls in question the moral legitimacy of players opting to stack the deck in this way. Regardless of how awkwardly this reconciles with the prevalent desire for lamenting the days when teams were stacked, it nevertheless was, is, and will be a prevailing narrative to say that stacking the deck is wrong, the coward's way out, a flaw in the system. It should not have been allowed, and if it was, then surely the Collective Bargaining Agreement must have been broken.

Part of the purpose of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is to level the playing field. The NBA operates in nearly 30 different markets, and not all markets are created equal. Some teams are of a higher revenue than others. Some make big profits, some make big losses. Some teams you can hardly get a ticket for, and some they can barely sell out the upper deck. This is partly due to the franchise's own modes of business, but for the most part is based on socioeconomic factors outside of the NBA's control.

Through revenue sharing, the luxury tax and the like, the NBA endeavors to level the financial playing field. Those making the profits, or choosing to operate at a loss, prop up those who operate at a loss because they have no choice. Yet, there is nothing the NBA or CBA can really ever do to offset the economic disparity between cities, nor the lure of them. Some places are more attractive places to live and work than others. The NBA can balance the books, but it cannot balance desirability.

What it has done is give a team the ability to pay more for its free agent than any other team can, via the medium of Bird rights. This is pertinent with regards to market disparity as the theory goes that, when star players are tempted to leave smaller markets for bigger markets, the smaller market needs protection against this inequality, and if they can pay more, they have a weapon in their arsenal.

The NBA can balance the books, but it cannot balance desirability.

However, when this became the front and center issue in the summer of 2010, it became obvious that it did not necessarily work. LeBron James left the small market of Cleveland, despite it being his home state, for the good times of Miami. Cleveland could pay him slightly more, yet it was no protection at all if the player wanted to go.

There is talk, revisited talk, of having something akin to a 'franchise' tag that allows the incumbent team to pay far more over the odds than they currently can. Using the Carmelo example, the idea that Melo would opt out of his current situation to sign for $13 million (the approximated figure in a Miami Big Four scenario) would be far less likely to happen if he was leaving something closer to $32 million on the table rather than $22 million.

This makes a modicum of sense. It is an obvious and somewhat logical remedy to provide an incumbent team with the opportunity to pay him far more than any other suitor, as opposed to the mere slight amount more they can currently offer. However, it is also highly illogical that the remedy to the situation is simply to provide more money. Money is not the problem here and more money, therefore, is not the solution.

It must constantly be remembered that this whole discussion is being revisited by the idea of Carmelo leaving the New York Knicks. NEW YORK. There is not a bigger market to be in, and yet he might still leave it. He would leave it for less money, less glitz, a less desirable city than the one he essentially hand-picked for himself three years ago. Melo has the opportunity to take much more money to be a star, THE star, in the biggest market available. If he would rather take less to be a sidekick, maybe he just wants that more than any rule change could prohibit.


Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That ought give us pause. What are we mad at here? The market imbalance, or the idea that a 30-year-old player realizes he has to win soon? We were mad when a super team was built by star players leaving unattractive markets for attractive ones. If we are similarly mad when a player leaves an extremely attractive market for another one, then maybe the market inequality, like the money, was not the problem after all.

Indeed, perhaps there is no real problem. If there is, it is a purely basketball one.

If a player does this, however, they run the risk of significant backlash. NBA fans and media are a fickle, sanctimonious bunch, and any decision to change teams is greeted with a damning statement on the guilty party's character.

A few years ago, Karl Malone and Reggie Miller found themselves at the very end of their careers, and at a crossroads. They hadn't won any championships where they were, and they weren't going to if they stayed with the teams they had played for their whole careers. Those teams were not competitive, nor were they going to be again in the foreseeable future.

The two, famously, opted for different paths. Miller stayed with Indiana on a high salary, while Malone took a hugely substantial pay cut to go to the supposedly favored L.A. Lakers and compete for the title he would never get in Utah.

Along the way, the two had something of a spat about it. Malone signed first, about a month before Reggie, but Miller fired the first shot:

"I didn't want to be like some other guys who jump on another team's bandwagon just to get a ring."

Malone fired back:

"If I was coming in here and playing 10 minutes a night, that's riding a coattail. I'll tell you what, I wasn't pulling against the Lakers, but it made my decision a lot easier when they didn't win. When I heard Reggie make his decision, I like Reggie and I won't elaborate, but I'll say this: He had opportunity to do what I did and take less money. But he chose to make more money and stay where he was at."
"At some point, somebody had to make some statement to say it's not all about the money all the time. Now, I don't want to hide the fact it wouldn't have been nice to make $10 million a year. Don't get me wrong. But how is that to the regular fan now? But, Reggie, Reggie stayed in Indiana for the money. He stayed for the money, I didn't. So let him keep talking. I did hear, 'I'm just glad to end my career where I started.' Reggie, just say you stayed for the money."


Malone had a point. For some reason, we feel as though we have to assign a right and a wrong way for players to act in such circumstances. He is further right in highlighting the hypocrisy of a player being faulted for not taking the money. As often as athletes are faulted for being selfish and overpaid, they (or at least the very good ones) are also vilified if they sacrifice money for success. (If memory serves, the Jazz were offering Malone in the region of $12-13 million a year to stay there, yet he took only $1.5 million from the Lakers.)

Seemingly, the only way to please everybody is to stay with the team that drafted you for your entire career, win with them, and take less money with them than you could on the open market. Unless you are Tim Duncan, this never happens. And even he nearly left for a super team in Orlando.

Loyalty to the team that drafted you is apparently a thing. We romanticize the idea of the one franchise player, especially as it becomes less and less common in the modern NBA. Even Paul Pierce eventually got traded, so rare is the concept now. However, it is a concept born out of a strange idea of loyalty that emanates from a choice the players do not have. They are chided if not loyal to staying somewhere they never chose to go to in the first place.

Much as we -- myself included -- may love the draft, it is not exactly fair. Nor is it really an honor. It is certainly a spectacle, and there is some pride to be drawn for a player from where they are taken in relation to their peers, yet it is not something any player would do if they did not have to. In a draft, your name is entered into a draw, whether you like it or not. The only control you have is deciding which of four draws you want to be in, but you still have to go through it.

From there, you wait until you are told which part of the country you are moving to, whether you like it or not, in order to play for a predetermined amount of money. (And that is only true if you are one of the better ones. If you are not, you might get no money at all from one team, and the other 29 cannot even bid.) Should you be so lucky as to receive the honor of being drafted, you might still get traded if they think they can do better. Before, during and after signing that first contract, players are still mere commodities, and never more so than when at the start of their careers.

Given that the first few seasons of their career are completely outside of their control, a player's loyalty to that team is rather bought. Yet there they go obediently to their city, where they are charged with the task of performing decorously and saying all the right things about how much they want to be there, even if they do not. This is the team to which they must be loyal, because the team told them they must be so.

Fine, I suppose. Everyone seems complicit in this bizarre game. But it has a time limit. Loyalty has to be earned, constantly. And that means by doing something to keep them around, something more than money and nice words.

That something, evidently, is winning. That is how you keep players, and the best means teams have against protecting themselves from the risk of these players losing is to do enough to give them reason not to leave. Teams should not be 'rewarded' for the 'development' of these players any more than they already do by having them as players for four price-fixed seasons. If they need any further protection, they already have it by way of the restricted free agency after the expiration of their rookie scale deals, and the ability to negotiate an extension prior to that.

If they do all that and still blow it, what more loyalty can be demanded of the player? At what point can a team said to have burned out their loyalty to a player? At what point can the player say, 'you had your chance, sorry, but I need to win while I still can' without being morally tarnished?

In the case of Malone, apparently 18 years was not enough. Kevin Garnett was a bit more fortunate, mostly absolved of scorn after 12 fruitless years in Minnesota, although perhaps the fact he was traded and did not leave as a free agent was a factor. Conversely, LeBron's seven was not enough to prevent a tidal wave of hatred (the manner in which he left being a big factor, of course), making Melo's three seem comparatively transient.

But three years is a long time in the NBA, and an awful long wait for freedom if you need it. Denver had Anthony for nearly eight years and did nothing with them. He effectively forced his way out to somewhere else, gave them three years, and they did nothing with them either.

Melo's time in the league is ticking away, and he knows it. He wants to win because he knows what it means if he never does, because we as media and fans keep telling him it is the only thing that matters. And yet he has to do it the right way -- even if he is not good enough to do so -- or it still means nothing. It is, pun completely intended, a no-win situation. And so in a no-win situation, why would you not pick the most desirable way? If winning is more important than money, so be it.

Super teams are born out of this frustration at a lack of winning, and money will not fix it. Short of contracting about 18 teams, nothing can. If you want players to be loyal to you, be loyal to them. Loyalty can be bought in non-elite players by overpaying them. But amongst the elites? You had better start winning.


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