LAS VEGAS >> With LeBron James having decided to return home to Cleveland, the focus now turns to Carmelo Anthony, who has to choose between remaining with the New York Knicks or accepting an offer from a number of other teams interested in acquiring one of the elite offensive players in the NBA.
On Thursday, Phil Jackson, who has been trying to persuade Anthony to remain with the Knicks, despite the team’s need to rebuild before it can be a contender, was optimistic about the chances of the 30-year-old forward’s remaining with the team. Speaking with reporters here at the Knicks’ summer league practice, Jackson said that he felt “really good” about the meeting he had with Anthony in Los Angeles on July 3.
“We really struck a chord,” he said. “The two of us, I think, feel really passionately about what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
A seven-time All-Star, Anthony put up huge numbers last season, averaging 27.4 points and a career-best 8.1 rebounds. He also played a league-high 38.7 minutes per game — heavy work for a team that needed it. Yet the Knicks struggled to a 37-45 record, finishing ninth and out of playoff contention in a weak Eastern Conference.
And then came Anthony’s stint as a free agent. Over a three-day stretch last week, Anthony went on a well-publicized, four-city tour to meet with representatives from the Chicago Bulls, the Houston Rockets, the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bulls spent nine hours pitching him on the idea of joining an instant title contender. It was much the same message from the Houston Rockets, who plastered the Toyota Center with photo illustrations of Anthony wearing a Rockets uniform and clutching a championship trophy.
Anthony then spent about two hours at the home of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban before decamping for Los Angeles on July 3, where he visited with officials from the Lakers, who plied him with talk of joining the Hollywood elite, a contract worth roughly $96 million over four years and the opportunity to play alongside Kobe Bryant, a longtime friend.
Then, too, there was increasing intrigue that he was waiting to see if James would ultimately stay in Miami while Chris Bosh departed, which, in turn, might have allowed Anthony to squeeze in as part of a revised Big 3 with the Heat. But now, with James’ return to Cleveland, there is no chance of that.
Before he officially elected for free agency, Anthony said winning was most important to him at this stage of his career. So the Bulls, a playoff contender, figured to be a favorite in the Anthony sweepstakes, especially with Derrick Rose primed to rejoin the lineup after a pair of debilitating knee injuries. But because of payroll restrictions, the Bulls are likely to be able to offer Anthony a starting salary of $15 million to $17 million per season, well below what the Knicks and even the Lakers can provide.
Despite inheriting a bloated payroll, Jackson made a couple of moves in recent weeks that he hoped would send a positive message to Anthony and his teammates that he was not satisfied with the status quo. He hired Derek Fisher as the head coach. He helped engineer a multiplayer deal with the Mavericks, acquiring veteran point guard Jose Calderon while trading away Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler. In Calderon, the Knicks have a pass-first player, a quality that appeals to Anthony.
Above all, though, the Knicks are on track to have ample room under the salary cap next summer, which Jackson has targeted as his first legitimate opportunity to chase top-level free agents. Anthony could prove to be a savvy recruiter — if he stays in New York.
If Anthony does choose to stay, the Knicks’ success in coming years could hinge, at least in part, on his willingness to adapt to Jackson’s triangle offense. Anthony has a tendency to dominate the ball, falling into a familiar pattern of operating out of isolation sets. Jackson would prefer for him to break that habit. On Wednesday, Fisher described the appeal he made to Anthony in their meeting last week.
“I shared with him that we’ll be a better basketball team because we’ll play the game in a better way,” Fisher said. “We’ll play as a team. We’ll play with a system, with a format that allows the game to be easier for him and for his teammates.”
Forty-eight hours later it remained to be seen if Fisher’s pitch resonated with Anthony, and if Jackson, too, has been a convincing enough salesman. Or whether Anthony, in search of his first championship ring, will conclude that his prospects are more promising elsewhere.