Knicks Changing, With or Without Anthony
Phil Jackson is not one to deal in absolutism. He is pragmatic but whimsical. Basketball is his honored career, not his spiritual calling.
Under acceptable or ideal conditions, it might not be a reach to say that he would like to keep Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks and that he believes he can help Anthony grow as a player. But all things considered, it is difficult to imagine him losing much sleep if Anthony walks.
For Jackson, the Anthony issue is more of a compulsory calculation than a potential catastrophe. Jackson said as much in April when asked if he would consider Anthony’s leaving as a free agent in July a debacle for the Knicks, given how many assets they had surrendered to get him.
Most sports executives — and certainly recent Knicks officials under the thumb of James L. Dolan — would have answered such a question by flatly saying that they do not deal in hypotheticals. Not Jackson. With that familiar I-know-something-you-don’t smile, he seemed eager to flaunt at least the perception of ambivalence.
“I’m all about moving forward,” he said. “Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, man, are we fortunate. If it’s not in the cards, man, are we fortunate. We’re going forward, anyway.”
When was the last time you heard such a thing relative to an N.B.A. franchise player in the middle of his prime? These are athletes who typically make groveling supplicants of front-office folks, whose mere sneeze brings some poor flunky running with a Kleenex.
Jackson also said that day that he would expect Anthony to give the Knicks the contractual discount he had previously said he was amenable to as a way to give the team more salary-cap flexibility for its eventual pursuit of free agents.
Whatever the savings, it was never going to make that much of a difference. Being able to pay Anthony the most money is the best thing the Knicks have going for them. The savings would be little more than tokenism for the purpose of allowing Anthony to say he had sacrificed for the team.
So what was the point of Jackson publicly posturing at the risk of upsetting Anthony and his agent — which he most certainly did — and having them retaliate by whispering that Anthony was edging in the direction of leaving to lend his explosive offensive skills set to a more formidable team? People familiar with the Zen master said it was a longtime Jacksonian tactic of using the news media to impose his will or, at least, to state his terms.
Beyond the money, Jackson’s message was to let Anthony know that if he did stay, he had better be clear on the understanding that the organizational culture would be changing. Anthony might still be the core of the offense. No longer would he putatively be in charge. The system designed for the collective — the triangle or some facsimile installed by the new coach, Derek Fisher — would take precedence over Anthony’s personal comfort zone.
Jackson’s 11 championship-coached teams were hardly democracies, catering as they did to resident superstars in Chicago and Los Angeles. But Jackson understood that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were not selfless and compliant, like Tim Duncan. His team-first doctrines have always been bendable, as long as he believed concessions were made in the best interests of winning.
In Anthony’s case, his teams in Denver and New York, while lacking in co-stars, catered to his every whim and were rewarded with the grand total of three playoff series victories in 11 years.
To blame him for all or much of that would be the same foolish act of piling on LeBron James for whatever his teams have failed to achieve. But Anthony should be accountable for admittedly not being in the best shape along with not grasping the purity of team play until he had to share with players as good or better during the Olympics.
Come to think of it, his apparent need of positive role models is as good a reason as any to tell the Knicks next week that he will opt out of his deal and find a new home. Beyond the money, perhaps the only compelling reason to stay would be if Anthony and his good friend James, in the wake of Miami’s five-game flameout in the finals, have been cooking up a scheme for James to join him in New York after next season.
Dolan could be seizing up with fear over the pending loss of his signature acquisition, but let’s presume he does not want to risk being ridiculed for meddling 20 minutes after promising Jackson autonomy in running the basketball operation. Season-ticket renewals were due months ago. Isn’t it possible that Jackson has made a convincing argument to Dolan on the alternative to sinking so much into a 30-year-old gunner so set in his ways?
Why not turn the team over for one season to the willing shooters Tim Hardaway Jr., J. R. Smith, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire? Why not begin to clear out salary for the big purging next summer and maximize the rare first-round draft pick the team has next season? Why not start fresh and have Jackson mix and match the most talented free agents over the next two years?
Jackson, remember, has a five-year, $60 million deal as the latest enrollee in the Dolan Super Pension Fund. Man, is he fortunate. He has time. He has leverage in playing the percentages, calculating the future, with the understanding that there are no guarantees and that this isn’t life or death.
Not for him. Not for the Knicks.