Carmelo Anthony, other star NBA free agents face a choice: Money or wins


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Carmelo Anthony wanted to feel the love. He wanted to see his image photo-shopped on side of NBA arenas in in Chicago and Houston, to eat some Latin American food in Houston, to hang out at Mark Cuban’s crib in Dallas, to have Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson fight over him in Los Angeles.

The free agent version of speed-dating that saw Anthony meet with five teams in four cities over three days is complete, but the love-fest continues as the teams wait on a decision. Anthony is expected to make up his mind over the weekend, which should allow for a slow-moving and dull free agency period to finally start picking up. But his choice really comes down to two things: Does he want to get paid? Or does he want to win?

Under the NBA’s current salary cap structure, stars have to make a choice to sacrifice money in an effort to stack the deck toward winning or risk being vilified for getting every penny they’ve undoubtedly earned (because someone was willing to pay).

The New York Knicks won’t come close to building a contender for at least another year, which is one reason Anthony declined the final year of a deal that would’ve paid him $23.3 million next year for the right to become a free agent for the first time in his career.

The Knicks were the last team to sit down with Anthony and unveiled what could be the difference-maker by reportedly offering the seven-time all-star and former scoring champion a maximum contract worth $129 million over five years. With more attractive destinations that are more likely to be playing basketball next June – primarily Chicago and Houston – Anthony would have a hard time explaining that his decision to stay in New York was about winning.

It would be about the money – and that should be okay.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took less to win two titles in four years but it would be unfair to expect players to continue making those decisions – something the Heat all-star trio is beginning to confront. No matter how much money James, the four-time most valuable player, has made from off-the-court endeavors it still doesn’t take away from the fact that he has been one of the greatest bargains in professional sports. The NBA created maximum contracts to make sure that the best players get the most money but that has rarely added up to the most wins.

Kobe Bryant was the last NBA champion to rank among the seven highest-paid players in the NBA, in 2010 – before the current collective bargaining agreement was enacted. When James won his first title, he wasn’t in the top 10. The last two years, James was eighth and ninth, respectively. So, it is really hard to have it all in the NBA.

Bryant signed a two-year extension that will pay him about $48 million through 2016 and was pummeled for not taking less to help the Lakers attract more talent. Refusing to back down from his decision, Bryant’s justification was simple: He should enjoy the spoils of his hard work and success before anyone else. But by taking the money, Bryant all but guaranteed that the next two seasons will be empty endeavors.

If sacrificing money doesn’t yield a championship or two, teams aren’t going to pay back the player on his next deal. That money is gone forever. The profit for the owner who got to market and promote an underpaid star? That isn’t going anywhere.

The window for an elite athlete to get ridiculous sums of money is limited and only one team is allowed to win a championship each year. So, there are limitations to forfeiting the most riches, especially for players in their primes.

Tim Duncan was praised for taking considerably less than his worth to help the San Antonio Spurs surround him with more talent. Dirk Nowitzki did the same this week when he accepted a three-year, $30 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks. But Duncan and Nowitzki are nearing the end of their respective careers and both had been with their organizations long enough and engendered some trust from previous championship runs.

Plus, Duncan has already earned $224 million;e Nowitzki has made $204 million. Anthony has made $136 million through his first 11 years.

Anthony has never been one for discounts. In 2006, Anthony signed a five-year, $80 million rookie extension with the Denver Nuggets while James, Wade and Bosh signed three-year deals with an option for a fourth.

When asked about why he took the longer deal instead of following the same path as his 2003 draft classmates, Anthony said, “I had to make sure my family is straight, make sure my kids, my grandkids, my great-great grandkids are straight. That’s why I feel good about it.”

Anthony wisely didn’t want to risk injury or any other setbacks but wound up looking on in envy in the summer of 2010, when James, Wade and Bosh listened to pitches before deciding teaming up in Miami. Within a few months, Anthony forced his way to New York and got a three-year, maximum contract extension – right before the NBA locked out the players.

He was hardly concerned that the Knicks sacrificed nearly every valuable asset to acquire him, making it difficult for the team to assemble the pieces needed to compete. In his three-plus seasons in New York, Anthony never advanced beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals and failed to make the playoffs last season.

Jackson was hired as team president to restore some championship glory to the franchise where he won two titles as a player. He hired Derek Fisher to be his coach a few weeks after Fisher’s playing career ended. Sending Tyson Chandler and Ray Felton to Dallas for Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and Wayne Ellington was essentially shuffling deck pieces. The Knicks won’t have the financial means to get better players until next summer, when the contracts of Amare Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books.

The path of least resistance to a title is through the Eastern Conference. Chicago is the team that is closest to being a contender but unless the Bulls surrender a key piece of their core, Anthony would have to take a significant pay cut – possibly $60 million – to team up with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

The Lakers also offered Anthony the most that it could – a four-year deal worth about $96 million – but currently lack a coach and talent aside from aging veterans Bryant, Steve Nash and first-round pick Julius Randle.

Dallas is eager to get back into the title chase now that it has the cap space to make some major upgrades and pushed the San Antonio Spurs harder than any other team this postseason. But after getting Nowitzki to commit, the Mavericks can only offer a deal in which Anthony would have to take the same loss in salary as he would in Chicago.

Houston would needed to shed Jeremy Lin’s contract to offer him a maximum four-year deal but Anthony would still lose out on nearly $33 million from his offer with the Knicks. At age 34, Anthony would have a hard time finding a team willing to pay him what the Knicks would give him in Year 5.

Previous marquee free agents such as James, Bosh and Howard chose to leave money on the table to chase rings. But those decisions still required patience. It paid out for James and Bosh in their second season in Miami. Howard’s first year in Houston ended with a first-round exit.

If Anthony learned anything from his time in New York, it’s that simply teaming up with all-star talent doesn’t ensure success. It has to be the right mix and still requires some good fortune. Imagine how Miami’s run over the past four years would look if Ray Allen had missed that shot in Game 6 last year.

The only guarantee in the NBA is the money. If the Knicks are paying the most, Anthony can hold out hope that Jackson will provide the rest.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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