Phil Jackson loves the passing game so much that Carmelo Anthony figured he should throw him the ball Thursday, if only to put it squarely in his court. On arrival in New York, Jackson had challenged Anthony to elevate his game.
Anthony just challenged Jackson to do the same.
Back in the day, Patrick Ewing tried and failed to convince an arbitrator to make him a free agent, and tried and failed to persuade his new coach, Pat Riley, to trade him to a team that would give him a better shot at a championship before his prime expired. Riley eventually sold Ewing on the vision of a parade in the Canyon of Heroes, and then surrounded him with a cast of grinders and overachievers and damn near pulled it off.
Only those Knicks didn't pull it off, and Ewing retired with no ring and plenty of regrets. "I would have loved to have played with another bona fide superstar," he told me last year before acknowledging the merits of the good-but-not-great sidekicks who did what they could, like Charles Oakley and John Starks.
"But they still weren't Carmelo Anthony," Ewing sighed.
Ewing was already starting to break down when Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell walked into his life, and Anthony doesn't want to meet the same New York, New York fate. Ewing never got his Melo, and now Melo, a pending free agent, wants to make sure he gets his Ewing before it's too late.
In other words, Jackson has to find a way to land LeBron James or Kevin Durant by the middle of July 2016, by which time James (assuming he opts back in with the Heat this summer) and Durant will have made their free-agent choices.
"I'm not at a point in my career where I want to rebuild," Anthony said at the Knicks' practice facility.
He turns 30 next month, and it already feels like he's spent 20 years in the NBA following his one-and-done championship season at Syracuse. So after missing the playoffs for the first time as a pro in a season he called "a failure," extending a title-free drought he called "embarrassing" when measured against the rings won by his classmates from the 2003 draft (James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh), Anthony reiterated that yes, he wants to return to the Knicks. "But I also want to win," he added.
He even claimed he would sacrifice some money to feel what James has experienced twice, and what Wade has experienced three times. "Nothing else even matters," Anthony said.
It was his way of sending a message to the new team president after Jackson had sent a message of his own in the earliest hours of his administration, telling the world that Anthony needed to tweak his game to serve the team's interests over his own. Chances are, with relatively limited options, Melo will grab the extra guaranteed year and $34 million he'd get by remaining with the Knicks and take the $129 million gamble on Jackson.
But he didn't want to pass on the opportunity to put the kind of pressure on Jackson that Ewing once put on Riley, before signing on and hoping for the best.
Will Jackson respond? For starters, he will do what he has to do in firing Mike Woodson, who proved in New York what he had already suggested in Atlanta: He's a decent head coach, but not an especially good one.
Decent coaches don't last long in loud, title-starved markets, especially after missing the playoffs in a conference as painful on the eyes as the East was this year. After swearing over and over that he would hold his Knicks players responsible for their actions, Woodson graded out to a C-minus in Accountability 101, and even Anthony's stated support won't save him.
Soon enough Jackson will move on to his list of triangle-friendly replacements, with Steve Kerr expected to be the central figure in the search. But no matter which candidate and which selfless offensive philosophy wins the day, even the greatest coach of all time understands that his hand-picked hire won't determine if the Knicks succeed or fail to win it all for the first time since 1973.
Deep down in a place he might not want to open for public viewing, Jackson understands that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had far more to do with his 11 combined championships in Chicago and Los Angeles than he did. Jackson understands that Anthony needs another legitimate star to work with, just like Jordan and Bryant did. It's a players' league, they say, and Jackson was paid a $60 million guarantee by James Dolan for his (untested) ability to acquire talent.
He's here to land James or Durant. James is the preference, of course, but either one will do.
Jackson has to keep Anthony first, and then he has to hit a home run with his first-round pick in next year's draft, maybe in the form of a winning quarterback at the point. A James opt-in would put LeBron in a free-agent class of Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, when the Knicks will clear $50 million from their books in the form of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Andrea Bargnani. If Jackson can't score in '15, Durant will represent his must-have signing the following summer.
The Knicks' president will have to convince Anthony to endure one more season before he can hit paydirt, this after Melo made it clear he doesn't want to wait. Anthony knew the heavy package the Knicks sent to Denver to acquire him would lead to a period of roster reconstruction. "But I don't want to go back down that lane," he said.
So Jackson has to do for Melo what Riley did for Wade in Miami (land Shaquille O'Neal the first time around, LeBron James the second), and not what Riley and management did for Ewing in New York. It won't be easy, but then again, Jackson wasn't paid $60 million for a walk through Central Park.
Carmelo Anthony just reminded him that the road to a championship is a two-way street. If the small forward must work on his game this summer, the big executive needs to do the same.