The New York Knicks are increasingly optimistic about their chances of re-signing star Carmelo Anthony even as he readies himself to talk to other teams next week, according to sources close to the situation.
Sources told ESPN.com that Knicks officials, while not willing to trumpet it publicly with free agency fast approaching, are quietly confident about their odds of retaining Anthony thanks in part to the idea that new team president Phil Jackson and the high-scoring forward have "connected" to some degree.
Furthermore, one source close to the process told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne that Jackson is planning to make a determined attempt to try to recruit his former Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol to replace the freshly traded Tyson Chandler alongside Anthony on the Knicks' front line, despite the fact New York is limited to offering Gasol less than $4 million for next season.
Time will tell if the Knicks' internal confidence in retaining Anthony proves justified, given that he opted out of the final year of his contract at $23.3 million -- with Jackson urging him to opt in -- and will soon be courted face-to-face by a handful of top teams in big cities.
The 30-year-old officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. and, as ESPN.com reported earlier this week, is planning to go on visits or hold meetings with the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Lakers all before the Fourth of July. It also must be noted as July 1 draws near that the Bulls and Rockets have likewise been radiating no shortage of positivity about their chances of stealing Anthony away from the Knicks.
The Miami Heat are likewise expected to have Anthony's ear if they choose to formally jump into the race, thanks to the close relationship between LeBron James and the Knicks' star, sources say. But Heat president Pat Riley -- after confirming a recent ESPN.com report that Miami has Anthony on its radar despite the challenges it faces just to get James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all re-signed -- has acknowledged that growing the Heat's Big Three into a Big Four is a "pipe dream."
Sources told ESPN.com this week that the Knicks swung their trade with the Mavericks to send out Chandler and the out-of-favor Raymond Felton to bring back a clutch of veterans in return -- headlined by point guard Jose Calderón -- in their belief that Anthony would relish the prospect of playing with the Spaniard. Calderon has been a perimeter threat and a beloved teammate everywhere he's played.
Jackson, though, was guarded Thursday in his public comments about the Knicks' chances of retaining Anthony, with New York hamstrung in what it can to do to upgrade the roster around him until it has significant salary-cap space in the summer of 2015.
"It's a big question because there are so many things that can happen out there," Jackson said. "We really don't know. With LeBron getting in this free agency ... we don't know what all that means. But we have every confidence that Carmelo is good for what his word is, that he wants to be in New York, he likes playing in New York, he wants to compete, he wants to be part of a playoff team that is competitive toward a championship."
Sources nonetheless insist that the Knicks feel far better about their chances than Jackson is letting on. No team can match the five years and $129 million that New York can provide if it wishes to offer a maximum contract to Anthony, and while Anthony is undoubtedly intrigued by the chance to team with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, he also still loves the Madison Square Garden stage dearly.
Anthony also said in an interview in early June that he would be hesitant to uproot his family -- 7-year-old son Kiyan in particular -- from New York to another city.
"The average person sees the opportunity to say, 'Melo should go here; Melo should go there; he should do this; I think he should do that,'" Anthony said in an interview with Vice Sports. "They don't take in consideration the family aspect of it. Where are you going to be living at? Do you want your kids to grow up in that place or that city? Do I want to stay the rest of my career in that situation and city? All that stuff comes into play."
A source told ESPN New York that Anthony has expressed similar concerns to close friends in recent days.
Amid speculation that the Knicks are reluctant to offer a max deal to Anthony, Jackson said: "We haven't come to that. But the perception is we want Carmelo to be as interested in winning. When saying he's competitive and wants to be on a competitive team to also being able to demonstrate that if push comes to shove in a situation where he may have to take a little bit less and we're more competitive to bring in another player to help us bring this concept along."
A source told ESPN New York recently that Anthony viewed Jackson's message as "piggybacking" off what the All Star forward himself suggested in February about taking a pay cut and doesn't necessarily see it as Jackson placing a demand on him.
Anthony can receive a maximum of $95.9 million over four seasons if he decides to leave. Jackson has refused to address whether he will consider doing a sign-and-trade if Anthony opts to leave, but he did insist that the Knicks improved their chemistry Wednesday by shedding Chandler and Felton in the Dallas deal and contends that the trade sends "a message to all of our players that we are on the move and we are making changes."
As ESPN.com reported earlier this week, sources say Chicago has been plotting its free-agent pursuit of Anthony all the way back to the January trade of Luol Deng, while Houston on Wednesday night struck a deal to trade center Omer Asik to New Orleans in the first major step toward clearing enough salary-cap space to pursue Anthony or James. The Rockets have been telling teams for weeks that they have a subsequent trade lined up to move out guard Jeremy Lin if a marquee free agent verbally commits to Houston.
Chandler, for his part, thinks his return to the Mavericks will enhance Dallas' pitch to Anthony greatly.
"[Anthony] wants to win and he wants to be in a system and he wants to be in a culture," Chandler said this week. "I think that's going to go into a big part of his decision-making.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team and the organization. At the end of the day, free agency is kind of an individual thing ... But I'll tell you one thing: Dallas isn't a bad place to be; it's a great opportunity and clearly we've done it in the past. It's not a hard place to sell. I'm going to do whatever it takes."
Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com contributed to this report.