LAS VEGAS -- Admit it: You would have taken the money, too. You would have stared at the same four-year, $73 million(ish) deal the Bulls were offering and the five-year, $125 million(ish) the Knicks had on the table and snapped up the extra $50(ish) million. I know, I know. Carmelo Anthony has made a lot of money in his career, $136 million, to be more precise, plus millions more in endorsement deals. It’s easy to say money shouldn’t be a variable, that Anthony should prioritize different things.
But before you commit to that thinking, ask yourself: Would you?
Anthony, who formally informed the Knicks he was returning on Saturday, according to a league source, wasn’t being greedy. He’s worth every nickel of the contract the Knicks offered him. If the collective bargaining agreement allowed the Lakers or Rockets to offer him a five-year, max deal, they would have. Stars drive revenue in today’s NBA and in a free spending system some teams could have valued Anthony at north of $30 million per year.
An athlete’s earning power is finite; when Anthony’s playing days are over, he doesn’t know when he will collect another paycheck. No one should criticize him for maximizing his value.
But still... Chicago. Damn.
Consider what the Bulls could be with Anthony. The Eastern Conference is in flux. The Heat aren’t exactly rebuilding, but even with another major addition (ex-Bull Luol Deng, perhaps) they will be far from the same threat. The Pacers still look good on paper but last season’s roller coaster ride makes you wonder about that team’s future, and they still haven’t figured out how to get Lance Stephenson’s name on a contract. Cleveland added LeBron James but that young roster is bound to experience growing pains. Washington, Brooklyn and Toronto are good, but not unbeatable.
Chicago? They could have been something.
Think about it. For the last two seasons the Bulls have been a brutal offensive team. Much of that was a product of Derrick Rose’s injury issues, of course, but even at the height of Rose’s powers -- the 2010-2011 season -- Chicago was a middle of the pack offensive team. One of, if not the reason the Bulls haven’t made the Finals in the Rose era is because he has had very little help.
‘Melo would have changed that. The Bulls wouldn’t have asked him to alter his game much. Like most teams, Chicago prefers good ball movement. But Anthony’s ability to make something out of nothing, to convert impossible shots, to put up 20-plus points without breaking a sweat would have been a welcome addition. For all the criticism leveled at Anthony's ball-stopping ability, he has been pretty efficient the last two seasons, shooting right around 45 percent. And Rose? He would welcome another scorer to take an overwhelming offensive burden off of his surgically repaired knees. Anthony has never been known as a defensive stopper, but if Tom Thibodeau can hide Carlos Boozer for 30-minutes a night, if he can find playing time for first-round pick Doug McDermott, he can make Anthony work.
With Anthony, the Bulls would have been the early favorite to win the East, maybe even the title. There is very little concern in Rose’s camp about Rose’s ability to bounce back next season. He may not be Rose, 2011 MVP, right away next season but at 25 the chances of him bouncing back are pretty good. An Anthony-Rose pairing would be dynamic and the defensive attention they would draw would create more opportunities for the likes of Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to get open looks.
Again, this isn’t to suggest Anthony made a bad decision. This time next year, it could look like a great one. The Knicks finally have steady leadership in Phil Jackson. They made modest improvements this offseason, acquiring Jose Calderon to be the triangle offense point guard and drafting Wichita State star Cleanthony Early -- a projected first-round pick -- in the second round. They whiffed on Steve Kerr, but the widely respected Derek Fisher could turn out to be a better coaching fit anyway. And next summer -- when the toxic contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books -- the Knicks will have the flexibility to attract marquee free agents. And unlike in the summer of 2010, they will have one star, Anthony, already in place.
But I wonder if Anthony will always wonder what could have been, about the possibility of playing for a team that appears to only need a player of his considerable talents to win. Instead he goes back to New York, to the city he wanted to play in for the money he deserved to get. Time will tell if he made the right choice.