Phil Jackson was right when he said Carmelo Anthony's best move was to suit up for the New York Knicks next season. To opt in, in other words, and spend the year feeling out Jackson's program before the team president pushed him to take less-than-max money in free agency while courting LeBron James.
Under that scenario, Anthony would have earned $23.5 million on a test drive with rookies Jackson and Derek Fisher, who would have discovered that Melo-ball is compatible with the team-centric principles governing the triangle offense. It shaped up as a win-win designed to create all kinds of salary-cap flexibility next summer, except for one thing:
Anthony has decided to opt out of his contract by Monday's deadline. Just like the time he forced his way from Denver to New York in 2011, Melo prefers to be paid sooner rather than later.
That long anticipated decision had already inspired calls for Jackson to let Anthony walk to Chicago or wherever, and effectively tank 2014-15 to add a lottery pick (yes, the Knicks actually own their first-round selection next year) to the cap space that would accommodate two major free agents from a pool of candidates that might include James, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rajon Rondo.
But Love is likely to be traded long before then, James is likely to choose Miami over a Melo-free New York and other desperate ports a second time, and the Knicks are likely to end up settling for a Plan C similar to the one they settled for in 2010, the Summer of LeBron, when they originally hoped to sell James, Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire on taking considerable pay cuts to form a Big Three at MSG and ended up overpaying Stoudemire instead.
As former Knicks executive Ernie Grunfeld once said, the most frightening front-office possibility in the NBA is clearing cap space and then finding nobody worthwhile to fill it.
So the Knicks should do everything they can to hold off the Bulls and the rest and re-sign Anthony, even if the opt out could be seen as a hard counter to Jackson's public campaign to pressure Melo into taking one for the team. For one, Anthony played his rump off last season, established a career high in rebounding average (8.1), scored 27.4 points per game (2.1 above his career average), finished among John Hollinger's top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating and embraced the big-stage responsibilities of New York that scare off many a star.
For two, Anthony's presence on the roster will enhance Jackson's odds of recruiting the real king makers -- James in 2015 (assuming he remains in Miami for one more year) or Kevin Durant in 2016.
Both superstars like and respect Anthony, their gold medal-winning teammate in the Olympic Games. Sometimes James sounds like he's more interested in seeing Melo win NBA title No. 1 than he is in winning his own NBA title No. 3.
So at age 30, after absorbing what those two Heat championships meant to LeBron's standing in the sport, Anthony is ready to tweak his game inside whatever system he thinks will book him a parade before it's too late. Jackson should therefore see him as a vital asset and not as a triangle buster whose idea of a Big Three includes me, myself and I.
Yes, money is going to be a problem. Anthony made certain of that over All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, where he maintained he would offer a discount on the $129 million maximum in his next deal if it helps the Knicks assemble an improved supporting cast. "If it takes me taking a pay cut," he said, "I'll be the first one on Mr. Dolan's steps saying, 'Take my money and let's build something strong over here.'"
Jackson ultimately met Anthony on Mr. Dolan's steps, announcing it would be a great idea if Melo walked that talk. The Knicks president also said the team would move forward with or without its best player, remarks that upset Anthony and suggested that Jackson didn't really want him back, a notion the Knicks have refuted.
Either way, the Knicks are better off in the short term and long term with Anthony playing for Fisher and not for Tom Thibodeau. Chicago is a clear and present danger here, and Jackson should work overtime to retain Anthony at the best possible price. Chances are Melo will be willing to take slightly less than the max (but not significantly less) to honor his word, show good faith and help Jackson acquire a role player or two in 2015 to complement the marquee free agent he needs to sign.
Jackson isn't going to secure the discount he wanted, but hey, as an incoming savior who didn't exactly give Dolan a discount on his own $60 million deal, he should be happy if Anthony throws him back a million or two per year.
What are Jackson's alternatives, anyway? Is he really that certain he can land a pair of big names next summer after cutting lose Anthony and fielding a 34-win team under a newbie head coach? Does he forget that Anthony went 7-for-7 in making the Western Conference playoffs in Denver and that Love, for instance, has gone 0-for-6 in Minnesota? Does he realize that allowing Melo to team up with Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and a returning Derrick Rose in Chicago (the presumed clubhouse leader over Houston and Miami) on a shorter, less lucrative contract would compromise the Knicks' hopes of ever getting out of the East?
Hard questions, no easy answers. Jackson's best bet is keeping Anthony, hitting a home run on next year's first-round pick and praying like heck that Pat Riley fails to find James the kind of shooters and rebounders Miami needs to beat San Antonio in the rubber match.
That wouldn't guarantee a James arrival in New York, not even close. But it would at least put the Knicks in the game.
Truth is, before Jackson took that truckload of Dolan's money, Anthony would have been better off leaving the Knicks and their big mess upstairs. He had no good reason to stay, other than the extra $33 million he could pocket in a five-year deal.
But Jackson's arrival changed everything. Anthony called him a genius and a guru and said he could sit in the philosopher's office and listen to him ramble all day.
Jackson rambled on in two subsequent meetings, yet Anthony chose to opt out anyway. It's just business, nothing too personal.
Now Jackson needs to take a deep breath and opt in for five more years. If the Knicks have more problems than even a Zen Master could count, Carmelo Anthony isn't one of them.