As atrocious as this Knicks season has been, the dread that surrounds the franchise stems from more lasting concerns. A playoff berth is hardly all that's at stake; Carmelo Anthony's early termination option will allow him to become a free agent either this year or next, making New York's mounting losses a franchise-altering matter. Disappointing records come and go, but the Knicks risk losing their best player or overcommitting to him as a result of their latest turmoil, polar outcomes that could both prove damaging.
That's particularly true if there's any weight to a recent report from Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, who insists that Anthony wants to exercise his early termination option to become a free agent as soon as possible:
...the Knicks’ salary-cap situation is such that if they re-sign Anthony they’ll have to wait until 2015 to add that second star. For one, I’m hearing that Anthony’s camp is interested only in the summer of 2014. They don’t want to hear about 2015. And they’re right. Anthony will be 31 with a lot of NBA miles on his legs before reinforcements arrive.
If that's the case, New York has even less time and capability of making an immediately attractive pitch to Anthony. If Anthony does indeed choose to become a free agent this summer, the Knicks would be well over the cap in committed salary alone and further strapped by Melo's own $23 million cap hold. The roster in place can't undergo much change: signing a player via cap room isn't even a vague possibility, the Knicks are unable to trade a draft pick dated before 2018, and exceedingly few players on the roster could be considered viable trade chips. Team officials would have to sell Anthony on slogging through another year with the same basic core, whether coached by Mike Woodson or not.
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The roster in place will largely be there to stay through the summer of 2015, when the hefty contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani come off the books to expand New York's options. It would be understandable if Anthony would rather not spend the interim in limbo, and according to the New York Post, another prominent Knick might feel similarly:
With the Knicks in chaos, owner James Dolan is going to look to rebuild or reload at season’s end. Whether Chandler, who is starting to show signs of age, is part of the blueprints is unclear. And Chandler may not want to stick around either.
“That’s something I have to visit during the offseason,’’ Chandler said. “We’re all going to have a lot of decisions to make.’’
That they will. Chandler doesn't have the same freedom that Anthony does, as his contract is guaranteed without option through 2015. If the Knicks are resolved to keep him, there's only so much Chandler can do to push for a change. Regardless, this season has taken an evident toll on Chandler, both in terms of his health and his commitment. Playing for this team is wearying. When surrounded by a team of engaged professionals, Chandler is a leader, a top defender and a source of boundless energy. When asked to clean up the constant mess of a roster that has long since checked out, his patience runs thin. You can see it in his uncharacteristic surrender on certain plays, where a typically fearless shot blocker tears into a teammate rather than contest at the rim. There's only so much Knicks a man can take, and one gets the feeling that Chandler has perhaps had his fill.
And who could blame him? This has been a disastrous and demoralizing season for New York, in part because of very predictable shortcomings. Acquisitions were made without much regard for fit or scheme. A faulty rotation was maintained until injury demanded otherwise. Pairings of defense-less players performed about as poorly as expected, certain assets (Iman Shumpert chief among them) have been terribly utilized and the lack of proactive adjustment to any number of problems is baffling. This is the working environment that the Knicks have created, and what's perhaps worst of all: Expecting any kind of change would require putting faith in either a magnificently stubborn Mike Woodson or a James Dolan-led front office.
Rarely does a team create so much incentive for its own stars to consider leaving. Anthony is right to weigh his options. Chandler is wholly justified in his frustrations. They both deserve better, from management to the coaching staff to their teammates, and as soon as this summer will have a chance to pursue those ends.