LAS VEGAS - Nine months of nearly daily speculation about Carmelo Anthony’s future came to an end Saturday when he agreed to re-sign with the New York Knicks, positioning himself as the cornerstone of the franchise for years to come.
Anthony, one of the NBA’s elite scorers, made his decision one day after LeBron James sent tremors across the league by returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two players were the top free agents on the market this summer, with the ability to alter the landscape of the league depending on where each wanted to play.
It was not immediately clear if Anthony had signed a contract, or what the terms of a new deal were. But a source familiar with negotiations confirmed that Anthony would return to the team, which was first reported by The New York Daily News and Yahoo. The Knicks declined to comment.
Anthony was eligible for a contract that would pay him nearly $130 million for five years, more than any other team could offer according to league rules. Anthony, 30, is banking on the notion that Phil Jackson, newly installed as the team’s chief decision-maker, can turn the Knicks, one of the league’s perennial underperformers, into a contender with the clock ticking on Anthony’s career.
The Knicks, too, are making a substantial investment in a player who has not always elevated the play of his team. Anthony, a seven-time All-Star, has appeared in 13 playoff series over the course of his 11-year career, with his team winning just three of them.
Late last month, Anthony opted out of the final two years of a contract that would have paid him more than $23 million next season. On July 1, he officially became a free agent, enabling himself to be courted by several teams, including the Chicago Bulls. And now, after days of deliberating, he has decided to stay put.
Kenyon Martin, a free agent who played for the Knicks last season, said he was not surprised to learn that Anthony was re-signing with the team.
“He wants to win a championship in New York,” Martin said before the Knicks’ summer league team faced the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday afternoon.
Last week, Jackson was optimistic about Anthony remaining with the team. Speaking with reporters at the Knicks’ summer league practice in Las Vegas, he said he felt “really good” about the meeting he had with Anthony in Los Angeles on July 3.
“We really struck a chord,” Jackson said Thursday. “The two of us, I think, feel really passionately about what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
Last season, Anthony assembled one of the better statistical seasons of his career. He averaged 27.4 points and a career-best 8.1 rebounds while playing 38.7 minutes per game, the most in the league. Yet the Knicks finished with a 37-45 record, out of contention for a playoff berth in a weak Eastern Conference.
The team was hindered by injuries, and Mike Woodson, who was dismissed as coach after the season, had made a series of questionable decisions. But even before the season began, Anthony had stated his desire to test free agency - a story line that ballooned into a distraction.
As a free agent for the first time in his career, Anthony embarked on a three-day, four-city tour of potential destinations. The Bulls pitched him on the notion of joining Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, making an elite threesome that could vie for championships. It was much the same message from the Houston Rockets, with Dwight Howard and James Harden. Anthony also visited with Dallas owner Mark Cuban before meeting with officials from the Lakers.
Before he began the process, Anthony emphasized that winning was most important to him at this stage of the career, so the Bulls figured to be a favorite. They would have been a ready-made contender with Anthony, but one problem was money: They could not offer as much as the Knicks, restricted by the collective bargaining agreement and by their payroll. Barring a sign-and-trade deal, which would have required Jackson’s cooperation, the Bulls only could offer Anthony a contract worth a little more than $70 million across four years.
Ultimately, the Knicks still proved to have the most allure, and the most available cash, for Anthony, who met with Jackson and other team officials after his meeting with the Lakers. In the end, Anthony, who has a home in Los Angeles, took more than a week to weigh his options before settling on a return to New York.
Jackson had been making moves that he hoped would appeal to Anthony and the rest of the team’s players, hiring Derek Fisher as coach (after losing out on his first choice, Steve Kerr, another potential protégé who went to Golden State). Jackson also acquired veteran point guard Jose Calderon in a trade with the Mavericks. In Calderon, the Knicks have a pass-first player, a quality that appeals to the offense-minded Anthony.
The Knicks could endure some growing pains this season, even with Anthony - a reality that Jackson has gone out of his way to acknowledge. But they will have cap space in 2015, and Jackson has been targeting that period as his first real opportunity to chase free agents who could join Anthony.
There will be questions, of course, without many guarantees. Will Anthony buy into Jackson’s famed triangle offense? Will Fisher be able to navigate the choppy waters of the NBA in his first season as a coach, at any level? Will the team’s complementary parts - Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, among them - play at a more consistent level than they did last season?
There are also concerns about Anthony’s durability. He has absorbed plenty of contact in his career, a product of his playing style as much as anything else. He will be 35 by the end of his new deal, well past the age when most elite players see their skills begin to diminish.
In the end, Anthony appeared to get the deal he wanted and the Knicks held onto one of the elite scorers in the game. For both sides, it was a marriage worth saving.