Maybe it all started back in 2006, 11 years ago when Barack Obama hadn’t even taken office and the future was about as clear as Phil Jackson in room with sage, incense, and other clouds of organic nature. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James signed extensions with their teams: Bron three years with a player option for the Cavs. Melo, four years with a player option for Denver, and thus began a gradual resetting of courses that at one time appeared maybe, kinda parallel. The ensuing years have revealed not just a gap in on-court skill sets, but a gap in decision making and how these megawatt star players leverage their power to achieve both on and off-court goals.
Fast forward to 2010 when James (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) declined his player option and infamously took his talents to South Beach. In that fell swoop, the Miami super friends seized power from teams, owners, and front offices. (It’s fair to question how much power was seized as each player took less money to join forces.)
By contrast, Melo was stuck in his remaining year in Denver where the core of the roster was set to enter free agency and watching his friends and fellow 2003 draftees must’ve felt like missing out on the biggest basketball party in the world. That Nuggets core included Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups who had a team option remaining. Combine roster uncertainty with what was an almost guaranteed lockout in the following season and Melo had motivating factors for leaving that went beyond New York and his wife’s (La La Anthony) professional ambitions.
Where Bron and friends went for the off-season, long-term approach, Melo took a new tact and forced a trade in-season. Because he was set to become a free agent, he held the power as prospective buyers were rightly reluctant to give up assets in exchange for a player who wouldn’t commit to re-signing. This has become a blueprint of sorts which we’ve seen most recently with the Paul George-to-Lakers posturing and if George ends up staying in Oklahoma City, there will no doubt be second guessing in Lakerland over their decision to not pay up for the multi-time all-star when they had the chance.
The Lakers differ from the Knicks trading for Melo in that they weren’t willing to give up certain assets (Brandon Ingram, the second pick) for a player they have a chance at signing in 2018. The Celtics took a similar tact in their George conversations. The Knicks gave up a handful of low spades (h/t Bomani Jones) to acquire Melo including three picks; one of which turned into Dario Saric in 2014 and a pick-swap in 2016 that turned into Jamal Murray.
Let’s pause here and look at where James’ and Anthony’s decisions had landed them heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season:
- The 2006 decision to re-sign for an extra fourth season pushed Melo closer to financial uncertainty heading into the 2011 lockout whereas James had signed for a highly-flexible six-year deal with Miami in 2010 with years five and six as player options.
- The 2010 decision by James to join Miami landed him with a proven-winner in Pat Riley, an NBA champ in Wade, and a third all-star in Bosh. It was the ultimate in player agency and self-determination.
- Melo’s 2011 forced trade didn’t leave the cupboard bare in New York, but placed him alongside a 25-point-scoring Amare Stoudemire, an aging Billups, and a Marcus Camby-type figure in Tyson Chandler. In addition, he agreed to a three-year extension.
- At this point, neither player had won a title.
While it’s fair to look at how the Knicks have devolved since 2011, at the time, it wasn’t the worst assortment of talent. In December of 2011, using the playbook Melo put together, Chris Paul was reportedly trying to force his way to New York to join Melo and Stoudemire. As NBA players and agents quickly learned from each other how to gain and use leverage, the attempts of Melo, Stoudemire, and Paul to converge in New York was a combination of the Melo leverage play and the Bron/Heat super friends approach. I don’t know if it was quite unprecedented, but it did signal what the future of player movement and team building would look like.
The Paul deal never panned out, Stoudemire was crushed by injuries, Billups fell off and the Knicks didn’t take up his option. Competent executive Donnie Walsh left prior to the 2011-12 season as well, stripping the team of probably its sanest and smartest decision maker.
Melo isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Knicks front office any more than he’s responsible for Stoudemire’s injuries. But positioning yourself as a power player creates a natural, fair or not, over-analysis of your decisions. And the Knicks with James Dolan as owner had a long history of bumbling. That they teased fans with a successful 2012-13 season before spiraling into sub-optimal mediocrity under Phil Jackson is hardly a surprise.
Heading into the summer of 2014, the chasm between James and Melo, which had once been moderate back in 2010, had grown massively and not just because James was the better player, but because he played the decision-making game better. By aligning himself with healthy, in-prime all-stars, and a stable front office, he was fully empowered to excel on-the-court.
In June of 2014, Melo declined his player option with the Knicks and went on a free agency tour that included visits with the Bulls, Lakers, Mavs, and Rockets. Except for the Lakers, the other teams Melo met with offered a combination of proven stars and teams flirting with 50-win seasons – so of course two of the final three teams on Melo’s list were non-playoff teams: the Lakers and Knicks.
In hindsight, bypassing the soon-to-be-ravaged-by-injury Bulls was a stroke of luck and besides, Melo would get his chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York a couple seasons later. But at the time, opting back in to New York was interesting if unsurprising. In what should have foreshadowed future acrimony, there was strain between Jackson and Melo even during the free agency process as Jackson publicly needled Melo to take less money. For Jackson, the notion of courting a star has always run counter to convention or common sense, but when you have two hands worth of rings as your resumé, leeway is granted.
Meanwhile, after getting smoked in the 2014 finals by the Spurs, James returned to the Cavs, but not without assurances; namely Kevin Love. At the same time, Melo either bought into Jackson’s vision of the future or he went with the creature comforts of home. It’s funny to read immediate reactions from Melo’s signing and see where the focus was so heavily directed at title contention – not in 2014-15, but sometime during the Phil/Melo regime. Sweet hindsight provides a clarity inaccessible to the intoxication of a $122M reunion and a future envisioned by a man referred as the Zen Master. Not everyone was on board with Melo’s choice though as GQ’s Bethlehem Shoals was scraping away at the same Melo issues that have reared their head three years later.
By gaining assurances on landing Love and pairing him with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs didn’t offer James a glimpse of the future. They offered him a concrete present where the path to the finals was visible for the most nearsighted of eyes. Owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to competing, regardless of cost, made it possible to build a complementary team of shooters and cheap veteran talent to land a championship roster. (This looks a little different three years into the James return as Gilbert has fired championship GM, David Griffin and as of this writing, the front office remains somewhat in limbo and the Kyrie Irving trade demands cast a shadow on the whole of the Cavs [including Bron’s] management.)
By contrast, Jackson continued to insist on the triangle in New York; continued to insist on the team playing his way, not tapping into the skills of its $122M superstar. It’s not that Griffin’s or Jackson’s approaches to team building are right or wrong. They’re different philosophies with different degrees of flexibility and rigidity depending on personnel. That James chose the more complementary team or managed to gain influence over that team is a testament to either his foresight or power or a combination of both. Melo re-upping with New York without an obvious road to future success speaks either what was most important to him (financial security, New York family) or an inability to assess the NBA’s competitive landscape and how that Knicks team fit into it. Ten to 14 years into the Melo/Bron journey, we’ve seen James continually make decisions that align with his off-court interests and his on-court aspirations while Melo awkwardly fights with his GM and soaks in life as one of the most popular athletes in New York.
The big wrinkle in Melo’s 2014 contract was the inclusion of the no-trade clause which gave him the power to veto a deal to any team in the association. For all of Anthony’s questionable decision making over the years, this was one of his shrewder and smarter demands and is the kind that only a few players can make. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest tool in his belt to fend off Jackson’s repeated attempts to banish him from the Knicks forever.
Alas, even Melo’s better decisions create potential stumbling blocks. Reportedly, Melo refused Phil’s attempts to move him out of New York. For much of the 2016-17 season, an updated Melodrama (Melodrama III if we’re counting, but there’s a minimum amount of relevance required to have your foibles named and Melo’s relevance is nowhere near its peak of 2011) played out across the headlines of New York publications with Jackson doing everything in his power to sink his star’s value while simultaneously trying to trade him. Throughout it all, Melo steadfastly refused to be dealt until Jackson was finally fired in late June. Less than a week after Jackson was dumped, it was reported that Anthony was now willing to waive the no-trade if he was dealt to Houston or Cleveland. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Given that Anthony largely controls the process, it will be difficult for New York to demand significant assets in any trade.” Which makes one wonder what Melo’s true motivations are or were. Did he just want to outlast Phil or did he truly want to remain a Knick? Does winning matter or does it just matter once Melo has everything else Melo wants?
There’s no small amount of irony comparing James to Melo in terms of decision making. After all, Bron is the player who set up an entire televised special to announce he was leaving his hometown Cavs to play for the Miami Heat. His decision and the manner he delivered it exhibited tone deafness and a lack foresight. He’s exhibited passive aggressive behavior towards teammates and front offices, sub-tweeted teammates on social media, taken a shit on fans after losing to the Mavs in 2011. In short, the follies of maturation and shortcomings in interpersonal communication styles have been on loop for all of us to watch for the past 15 years. While his platforms and message have sometimes lacked a broad view, his choices in terms of teams and teammates have been masterful. If you believe him to be a shadow GM, well, his player personnel decisions are much more impeachable.
So we land here in July of 2017 and Melo, after long stating he wants to stick it out in New York hasn’t just lifted the no-trade clause for a couple of teams. Rather, according to Woj, “he’s made it clear to them (the Knicks) that I want to go to Houston. I’m not interested in talking to you about being reincorporated back into this New York roster.” He may have outlasted Phil and resumed his role as controller of his own destiny, dictating his next destination to Steve Mills and Scott Perry. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that he’s managed to land in three separate times in his career. It’s no small thing for a worker to seize the reins of power from management and ownership, but Melo’s done it. And for once, his desire to join a pre-made roster instead of sitting at the center of a future-facing plan looks to be real. Was it all as simple as a power struggle with the ancient Phil Jackson? Or is Melo’s basketball biological clock ticking as sneaks glimpses of pro basketball mortality? We’ll never know. Assuming Melo lands in Houston, without the weight of a franchise on his New York-born shoulders, one only can hope he finds a peace and satisfaction that was always out of grasp at home.