Knicks, Melo need a second star


After weeks of hand-wringing and speculation, representatives for Carmelo Anthony are currently finalizing negotiations to keep the forward in New York, sources said. The Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets have been told by Anthony's representatives to move on.

Certainly, that Anthony would remain with the Knicks was far from guaranteed. Though the Knicks were able to offer him the most money, the Bulls, Rockets and Dallas Mavericks all offered better opportunities to win right away. On the Knicks' end, it wasn't clear if Phil Jackson even wanted one of the league's best scorers back in the Big Apple. Given Anthony's age and well-publicized struggles on defense, some wondered if another long-term max contract would be a wise investment.

In the end, though, a return to the Knicks made sense, if only because each of the non-New York options presented a massive gamble for Anthony.

In Chicago, there was no telling if Melo would have meshed with Rose, or if Rose would ever again be even a semblance of his former MVP-winning self. Likewise, going to the Miami Heat would have been simply too complicated, and now with LeBron James returning home to Cleveland, the point is moot.

Meanwhile, jumping back to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference would have made Melo's path to a title even more difficult. Never mind that betting on any of these less-than-rosy situations would have required Anthony to sacrifice millions in earnings.

Anthony is as good as he will get

So now, the decision has been made, and it feels like the right one: Anthony gets to go back to the team he pushed to join three Februaries ago, and the Knicks solidify a foundation and can begin to build once again.

But the warm feelings on both sides will prove temporary if a satisfactory infrastructure isn't in place soon. Keeping Anthony in New York was the easy part for Jackson. Now he must find a counterpart for Melo, another cornerstone to build around. The Knicks need to add a player who's even better than Anthony. That will be a significant challenge, and one that will give Jackson a chance to earn his $60 million.

Anthony's decision to return to the Knicks demonstrates a vested faith in Jackson's roster-building sorcery, a belief that the Knicks will be in contention sooner rather than later. That faith might not be misplaced.

This deal itself should provide fair value. Some doubt Anthony can be the linchpin of a championship team. But Anthony has never played better than he has with the Knicks. He's rebounding more than ever, dishing assists at career-high rates and playing as efficiently as he ever has. Last year, Anthony was worth 14.2 Wins Above Replacement (WARP), ninth-best in the league. His 33.6 WARP over the last three seasons ranks in the 98th percentile of all players. To state the obvious, that's max-worthy production.

Anthony turned 30 on May 29. Age is a concern, as is mileage -- Melo has 11 pro seasons under his belt. And so, the back end of this deal could prove problematic. But I'm not too worried. Anthony has been injury-prone at times, but he has never suffered the sort of catastrophic malady (read: leg injury) that would diminish his athleticism. He possesses a skill-based, largely floor-oriented offensive arsenal that should prove resistant to age.

According to SCHOENE's projections from before the season, Anthony is historically comparable to Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Dominique Wilkins. Let's consider that for a moment.

Carter dropped off at 31, then, after three so-so years, reinvented himself as a sixth man for miracle worker Rick Carlisle in Dallas. Pierce didn't drop off until this past season, at age 36. He's one of the most consistent players of all time, and stylistically the most comparable to Anthony. He's a big, strong scorer who doesn't rely on elite speed or athleticism and does most of his work on the floor. Most of those same attributes apply to Melo. In other words, any player's chances of suffering a major injury increase markedly after age 30 -- but time alone shouldn't be enough to derail Melo.

The market value standard for one WARP is $2.405 million. Anthony's averaged 11.2 WARP over the last three years, a rate of production that makes him roughly worth $26.9 million per season. Given a standard aging curve -- appropriate according to Anthony's list of comparables -- Anthony projects to put up about 55 WARP over the lifetime of his new contract. That's worth $133 million at the present standard rate. Rising cap levels will only make the cost of a win more expensive over the course of the contract, and so a healthy Anthony should not transform into the type of albatross the Knicks have been weighed down by in recent seasons.

That said, outside of possible improved efficiency within head coach Derek Fisher's triangle-based scheme, Anthony isn't going to get any better. That's why it's imperative for the Knicks to get their rebuilding plan on the fast track. And so, we can't just take the fair value of Melo's contract into account -- we have to consider the impact of the deal on Jackson's ability to construct a championship roster.

Anthony more Pippen than Jordan?

Jackson's title-winning Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams each included star duos -- Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago; Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles. In Chicago, Jackson had a plethora of top role players at his disposal -- guys such as  Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman. The cupboard was similarly stocked in Los Angeles. It's likely Jackson will be looking for a similar balance of stars and supporting players as he builds a team in New York.

But while Melo might be in the same neighborhood as Jordan and Bryant as a scorer, he hasn't demonstrated a sustained ability to raise his teammates' level of play. He's been more Scottie Pippen rather than Michael Jordan. ... Anthony's teams have been just plus-2.9 points with him on the floor throughout his career.

In retaining Anthony, Jackson gets his primary scorer. But while Melo might be in the same neighborhood as Jordan and Bryant as a scorer, he hasn't demonstrated a sustained ability to raise his teammates' level of play. He's been more Scottie Pippen rather than Michael Jordan. The triangle could help in this regard. But Anthony's teams have been just plus-2.9 points with him on the floor throughout his career. Though we don't have plus-minus numbers for Jordan, Bryant's teams have been plus-5.2. Keeping Anthony simply isn't enough to deliver a title to Madison Square Garden.

Unless Jackson miraculously offloads the last year of the deals belonging to Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks will only be able to improve on the margins this summer. Next year, however, will be something different entirely.

Even with minimal wrangling, Jackson will have a max salary slot available to go shopping for a second star. Players who could be on the market include Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rajon Rondo. Terrific players, all of them. But none of those guys would quite be the Jordan to Anthony's Pippen. That's what makes Jackson's next task so hard: By bringing back Anthony, Jackson slides into place a key piece. But he still needs the piece.

LeBron James reportedly wanted to team with Anthony, even though there wasn't a situation to make it work, and now James is in Cleveland. Kobe Bryant badly wanted Anthony to join him on the Lakers. Whatever you think of Anthony as a player, smart teams chased him hard during free agency, and two of the greatest players of all time wanted him as a teammate. Even Melo can't be the best player on a title team, but he's got the cachet to attract the kind of player who can be that kind of star. It's up to Jackson to figure out who that star is going to be.