No Turning Back Now

Carmelo Anthony, the Triangle Offense, and the Art of What Comes Next for the New York Knicks.

After days — really, on some level, months — of speculation about the future of the Knicks’ relationship with Carmelo Anthony, after reading smoke signals from his camp and the camp of any other free agent whose decision seemed like it might have an impact on Melo’s, after analyzing cap situations and potential sign-and-trade pieces in Texas and California and Illinois and Florida, after denial and frustration and acceptance and equal measures of anticipation and angst at the prospect of starting from scratch; after all of those things, the Knicks and their fans now find themselves back where they started: with a great scorer and a high payroll and the sincere hope that they can find a way to make it all work.

Carmelo Anthony is coming back to the Knicks.

He is theirs and they are his, for better or for worse, for richer and for cap poorer. And like any marriage, when the pomp and romance and celebration of the reception ends, the truly beautiful and difficult part begins: the act of learning to live and flourish together despite their flaws. In the Knicks’ and Melo’s case, their potentially incongruous parts make the union imperfect to objective eyes, yet oddly perfect for one another.

For Carmelo, moving forward means a new coach and system, a roster in transition, and a fan base that will expect not only leadership and patience in the season to come, but also some affirmation of Anthony’s commitment to the franchise. Many are now left with the distinct impression that his free agency tour ended with a somewhat reluctant return to Gotham — even if there is no direct evidence to substantiate that sentiment.

For the Knicks, the task at hand is largely no simpler, nor more complex than it was when ‘Melo first arrived in that now-infamous trade from the Denver Nuggets back in 2011. New York must (again) construct a championship-caliber roster that relies on a centerpiece whose past deficiencies are as notorious as his considerable gifts are undeniable. Tempting though it might be to say that New York would have been better off protecting its financial and roster flexibility — cliché though it is to suggest that a Melo-led team absolutely cannot win a title — Anthony’s retention was the most prudent available option for a franchise whose recurrent and compounding mistakes had completely blocked all less crooked paths to glory.

Even the naysayers — and there are many of them — will be hard-pressed to refute Anthony’s fit within Phil Jackson’s paradigm. The Zen Master’s approach to building a winner will begin with his system, the battle-tested triangle offense. And triangle teams rely on the presence of one dynamic, versatile wing scorer.

The Knicks could have all the cap room in the world for the next 10 summers, and they still might not be able to acquire a player who fits that role better than Anthony.

Consider this: after shooting just 31 percent from three-point range in seven-plus seasons as a Nugget, Carmelo’s efficiency from downtown has skyrocketed. He’s hit his triples at a 38.5 percent clip as a Knick, and his 40.2 percent mark in 2013-14 was the best of his career. He has adjusted his shot selection accordingly, too, attempting over 400 threes in each of his last two seasons after never taking more than 214 in a season in Denver.

Accordingly, the shift of Carmelo’s heat map from the super-inefficient long-two-point range to beyond the arc has not only made him a more efficient scorer, it should (theoretically) reap team-wide benefits in an offensive system that relies heavily on good spacing. That teams need to respect Melo 25 feet from the rim should create scoring opportunities for shooters and slashers alike; that he can also punish defenses off the dribble and in the post should make New York’s offense particularly tough to defend. That is, if Jackson can surround Anthony with the proper teammates.

The triple-threat wing — ‘Melo’s role — is one of two integral components of the triangle offense. The other is a versatile post presence who can pass. As presently constituted, the Knicks have no such player and — with Pau Gasol’s reported signing with Chicago on Saturday — will almost certainly not be able to acquire one before the upcoming season, given their salary cap woes.

Luckily for Jackson and Anthony, however, Pau’s younger brother, Marc, is set to hit unrestricted free agency in next summer. Coincidentally, the Knicks figure to have ample cap space after the expiration of Amar’e Stoudemire’s and Andrea Bargnani’s debilitating contracts. And Marc Gasol, 30 years old and with a game that should age quite well, might fit the prototypical mold of a triangle big better than any other in-prime player in the league.

Complicating matters — because: Knicks — is the fact that Memphis will be able to offer Gasol a more lucrative contract than any other franchise in the league. There’s absolutely no way of knowing whether Gasol will have any interest in rolling the dice on leaving for a less-established Knicks team to play with a star who has a reputation for selfishness, but should the Spaniard be amenable to New York, he should be the Jackson’s Plan A. (Kevin Love, currently slated to be a free agent in 2015, would be an ideal fit for this role as well, too — at least on offense — but it seems far more likely that he will be traded and signed to a long-term deal before the Knicks would have a chance to land him.)

Gasol’s passing, mid-range game, and ability to command a double-team in the post fit the triangle perfectly and complement Melo’s greatest strengths, while his rim protection and defensive savvy protect against Melo’s worst habits.

With Anthony and Gasol, the Knicks would likely have to commit $40 million or so to just two players, but the pair would be ideal matches both for one another and in collectively fulfilling the most important system roles for Derek Fisher.

The beauty of the triangle lies largely in allowing for teams to be top-heavy as long as the players brought in to support its stars properly fit the roles they’re assigned. For example, the system de-emphasizes the need for a star point guard who can engineer the offense off the dribble. In the triangle, the point guard serves as more of a conduit, camping at the top of the key as a release valve, looking to shoot open threes when available or switch the play to attack over-shifted defenses.

Newly-acquired point guard Jose Calderon should fit that role nicely. He’s better than a 40-percent three-point shooter for his career and, as traditional point guard skills go, he’s far more accomplished as a passer than a dribble-penetrator. Calderon will 34 by the time the Knicks could sign Gasol, but the limited need for athleticism from a triangle point guard should hide his advancing years fairly well; anyone who doubts that should look to the example of his new coach, who manned that post in Los Angeles well into his thirties. But whether Calderon ages well or not is secondary to the more general benefit of the system — namely, that in a league with an unprecedented supply of explosiveness at the 1, floor generals whose value derives more from minimizing mistakes and hitting open looks can be had at a bargain.

Similarly, the presence of Melo and Gasol would greatly mitigate the need for the Knicks to look for an additional star on the wing. The triangle offense would place such heavy playmaking emphasis on those two players that the Knicks need only look for wings who can hit open looks and defend to fill out their rotation.

One of the main beneficiaries of the new system in New York stands to be Iman Shumpert. The Knicks have spent three years changing their mind about precisely what he is, but, given their current offense and personnel, they can abandon their misguided intentions to turn him into a point guard or a slasher and try to help him develop into a more consistent deep threat.

Two 2014 draft picks — Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetekounmpo — project to be a shooter and a wing defender, respectively. In the best-case scenario, Early’s ceiling could even see him develop into something of a mini-Melo who could take on increased minutes as the strong-side wing as he develops and Melo ages.

On the interior, New York will be priced out of the bidding for high-flyers and additional post scorers, but should be able to beef up their rotation with rebounders and defenders who can play the potentially low-usage weak-side post role in the triangle while contributing in the areas that their skill sets suggest. In Cole Aldrich, Jeremy Tyler, and Samuel Dalembert, the Knicks already have a handful of guys who could fill those roles. But, again, the larger point is that these player types tend to come fairly cheap, which great news for a team whose best option is to use nearly two-thirds of the salary cap on two players.

J.R. Smith is a wild card, but at his best, he also could prove to be a significant asset in the triangle. His primary job should be to sit either in the strong-side corner or on the weak-side wing and wait for the offense to produce good long-range looks for him. But, given that Melo can’t play 48 minutes, he could also see a couple of shifts per night as the team’s primary perimeter threat, with the hope that could be enough to sate his appetite for ball-domination in a role that actually suits his skills fairly well.

If all of this seems a bit starry-eyed, that’s really fine. The last and best part of the deal for New York is that the player they just retained is one who commanded interest from nearly every team that had cap space and for whom he expressed some willingness to play. This isn’t Amar’e Stoudemire and his uninsurable knees, or Andrea Bargnani, Allan Houston, Eddy Curry, or any of a handful of other players for whom the Knicks essentially bid against themselves.

Anthony is a gifted offensive talent who has been better than ever in the past two years. He is a legitimately valuable asset at any price, and his game relies on his skill, power, and smarts more than his quickness or vertical leap, all of which is to say that he’s likely to retain his value into his mid-thirties better than most elite wings. Barring injury, there should be contenders willing to trade assets for Anthony in seven months (if utter disaster strikes) or 18 months (if New York fails to complement Anthony with another star player and wants to start from scratch) or 30 months (if things simply aren’t working, and both player and team agree that it would be best to part ways). Even if the return in such a deal was underwhelming, it’s better to take a shot at the plan succeeding, knowing you can get something if it fails, than it would have been to let Carmelo walk for nothing this summer.

And, really, that’s what makes Melo and the Knicks so perfect for one another. They’re both taking calculated risks here — risks that New York’s youngsters will develop and that its system will work and that it will have better luck in the coming summers than it did the last time it had cap room to use. They both likely wish they could have done better than they did, but both realized they simply couldn’t. Now their interests are almost perfectly aligned. The circumstances (read: on-court failure) that would lead to Melo wanting out are largely the same ones that would make it wise for the Knicks to trade him.

There’s no more speculation, posturing, leverage, or negotiation. Melo and the Knicks are in this together. Now it’s time to see if it can work.