After 6 1/2 years as a member of the New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony will take on his former team for the first time on Thursday, when the Oklahoma City Thunder welcome the Knicks to Chesapeake Energy Arena to open their 2017-18 NBA season. Anthony’s time in New York featured some highs — six All-Star appearances, a scoring title, the Knicks’ first postseason series win in 13 years, and a franchise-record 62-point explosion in Madison Square Garden. However, it featured many more lows, including four straight sub-.500 seasons without postseason play, and a prolonged battle with team president of basketball operations Phil Jackson that became the top storyline of another circling-the-drain Knicks campaign.
Despite Jackson’s evident eagerness to shed Anthony, and Anthony’s eventual willingness to waive the no-trade clause that Jackson gave him (along with $124 million) to re-up in 2014 if it meant he could find a new employer, the latest round of Melo drama lasted all summer, only coming to a head on the eve of training camp. Why did finding a deal take so long? Well, as Anthony told Marc Stein of the New York Times, it had a lot to do with the different people making and fielding phone calls in New York … and the different things they were asking for:
The delay to find a workable trade, in Anthony’s view, stemmed from the fact that Jackson was willing “to trade me for a bag of chips,” while Scott Perry, who became the Knicks’ new general manager after Jackson’s departure, took a harder line in trade talks with Houston and Cleveland that eventually fizzled.
“They went from asking for peanuts to asking for steak,” Anthony said with a laugh.
Well, to be fair, it was probably something more like going from “insisting they were allergic to Ryan Anderson’s contract” to “trying their damnedest to get anything of value for an asset that the last dude spent most of the last year pretty persistently downgrading to anyone who would listen.” But the food metaphor is probably a bit catchier.
Reasonable people can disagree as to what sort of menu items are represented by the return the Knicks wound up getting from Oklahoma City — big man Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and the Chicago Bulls’ 2018 second-round draft pick. Kanter’s a gifted offensive player with a knack for rebounding who has long struggled to hold up as a defensive presence either at the rim or when drawn into space in the pick-and-roll. McDermott can shoot, but he too leaves something to be desired as a defender. Neither has ever proven particularly adept at helping create for others. The Bulls pick should at least come near the very top of Round 2, because Chicago looks like it might be even more of a yikes festival than New York at this point.
Given how unlikely it is that the Knicks will be any good this season, the biggest draw of the deal could be the financial flexibility it may afford if Kanter decides to decline his $18.6 million player option for next season in pursuit of a longer, richer deal in free agency. (McDermott is set to enter restricted free agency next summer.) But given how limited league-wide salary cap space figures to be next summer, after teams spent much of this past offseason tightening their belts following the spending spree of 2016, it’s entirely possible that Kanter opts in, leaving the Knicks with no real path to significant financial flexibility until 2019 or 2020.
Ultimately, the Knicks bit the bullet and did the deal because everybody involved in the situation seemed to feel that bringing Anthony into training camp would be untenable. Anthony told Stein that he found it difficult to imagine coming back after spending a year battling the “nagging sense” that Jackson was “forcing me out,” because while Jackson was gone, so was his “devotion to the franchise”:
“When I signed back with the Knicks, I wanted to be in New York and I believed in Phil,’’ Anthony added […] “Then last year it went to: I was being pushed out. There were things being said about me that I didn’t know where they were coming from. And I still had to go in that gym and play and practice and deal with the media, answer all those questions every day.”
Asked how many times he and Jackson spoke face to face last season, Anthony said, “Maybe twice.”
“There was no support from the organization,” he said. “When you feel like you’re on your own and then on top of that you feel like you’re being pushed out …” […]
“I think at that point it was too far gone,” Anthony said. “I already had in my mind that I wanted to win, that I wanted to move on. We didn’t think it would take as long as it did, but my mind was already made up.”
As negotiations wore on, Anthony made it as clear that he was willing to play ball, agreeing to waive the trade bonus he’d receive if dealt (another thing Jackson put into the 2014 deal) and eventually telling his agent to “take the geography out of” the decision-making process, opening the field of prospective landing spots wide enough that landing in Oklahoma City alongside reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook and All-Star forward Paul George became a real possibility. From there, all that was left was getting Sam Presti to do his thing and writing that farewell letter.
Questions remain about how Anthony, George and Westbrook will mesh offensively, how committed Anthony will be to defending power forwards in the Western Conference, and how the new-look triple threat will respond to the crucible of its first postseason together. We’ll start to get some answers on Thursday, when Anthony squares off against his former mates; for now, though, Melo sounds at peace with the way things have turned out.
“This is just me. This is Melo having fun again. This is Melo being motivated again. This is Melo having pieces around him who he can play off of and who they can play off of,” Anthony recently told Michael Lee of The Vertical. “This is something that I’ve always wanted. At the end of the day, it’s basketball for me. With basketball, you make adjustments.”
And sometimes, you change your order, to make it easier for everybody involved to move on.
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