Franchise players are judged by the size of their ring collection, not their bank account, and if Carmelo Anthony needed any reminder, he found it in his old place of employment, Denver, where Peyton Manning was again forced to answer for a championship résumé best described as one-and-done.
No matter how often superstars tilt the scoreboard, we never let them live down their big-game failures. Manning won the Super Bowl, just not enough of them, inspiring his former boss with the Indianapolis Colts to lunge for his knees in advance of Peyton's homecoming Sunday night. If Anthony read Jim Irsay's quotes in USA Today, and observed the owner's entertaining backpedaling since, he would be excused for asking himself the following question:
If they're doing this to Peyton for winning one, what are they going to do to me for winning none?
"The problem for Carmelo right now, and Kevin Durant, whoever you're talking about, is they're only judged on rings," Jim Boeheim, Anthony's coach at Syracuse, said Thursday by phone. "That's it. Everything else is turned into a negative. I know Carmelo loves playing in New York, but the bottom line is it comes down to, 'Where do I have the best chance to win a ring?'"
No right-minded observer can review the Knicks' roster and supply Madison Square Garden as the answer to that question.
"The Knicks are not going to be favored to get to the Finals this year," Boeheim told ESPNNewYork.com, "and that's not a condemnation of anything. If Amar'e Stoudemire had been healthy, and Tyson [Chandler], they'd have a shot at it. But I don't think Stoudemire is anywhere near where he was as a player because of injuries.
"I think the Knicks are a good team, but do I think they can win the NBA championship? No, I don't think so. I guess I'll have to get Knicks fans mad at me again."
Boeheim has always been a bigger fan of Anthony, who won him a national title at Syracuse, than of Melo's supporting cast in New York, and the Andrea Bargnani trade didn't change much on that front. But the bigger-picture story is the way the media and fans measure players and their legacies, a truth that makes Anthony's words in the New York Observer -- "I want to be a free agent" -- the declaration of a smart man.
Melo maintained Thursday that he doesn't intend to leave New York, that he just wants to explore other opportunities. We'll see about that. Truth is, he would be a fool to sign an extension with the Knicks in February. He would be a fool to pass on entering the free-agent market next summer, when he can meet with the Los Angeles Lakers and others and decide which team gives him the best shot at landing in a parade.
LeBron James was shredded publicly for allowing his 2010 courtship to devolve into a complete mess, but that three-ring circus ultimately provided him with a chance to win, you know, three rings, assuming the Miami Heat stay healthy and hungry through the coming season. James listened to the Knicks and the hometown Cavaliers and the rest before finally buying the pitch made by Pat Riley, the recruiter with the most decorated past and the most credible plan.
Once stamped as something of a choker, LeBron stands as a notarized winner who draws comparisons to the greatest of them all, Michael Jordan.
Anthony doesn't belong in that conversation, and he knows he won't elevate his standing in the game by accepting a five-year, $129 million maximum offer from the Knicks in July (competing teams can offer four years, $96 million) simply because it's the best deal he can get. He knows what Dwight Howard knew when he left the Lakers for less cash and a younger, more athletic roster in Houston:
A championship is the only true game-changer in sports.
"The mood has changed on that," Boeheim said. "I don't think [Karl] Malone and [John] Stockton got killed for not winning, but the media has changed to where you have to win a title or else. I never agreed with that, because sometimes you just end up going against Michael Jordan, but that's the way it is and I think Carmelo understands that.
"My advice to any great player, not just to Carmelo, is that if you get to free agency, you should try to get to the place that gives you the best chance at a ring. It might be staying right where you are, but that's what I would say to any player who asked me. Based on what I know, Carmelo would rather stay in New York. And if he feels good about the chance to win a title in New York, I think he will stay. ... But I do think he should take a look in free agency. I think that's the right decision."
Yes, it is. Once upon a time at the Garden, when he grew tired of the losing and chaos around him, Patrick Ewing tried and failed to force his way into free agency before a new arrival, Riley, stabilized the franchise. By opting out of the final year of his contract, Anthony would be pressuring the new arrival, president and GM Steve Mills, to come up with a viable championship vision and to abandon the idea that a team can win it all with the likes of Bargnani and J.R. Smith as the next-best options on offense.
Glen Grunwald tried to recreate the 2011 Dallas Mavericks in New York and paid with his job after the Pacers stomped on that creation in the second round. Mills? If he wasn't an empty suit in his first go-around as a Garden executive, he did a pretty good impression of one. Maybe the Princeton man will hit his mulligan 300 yards down the middle of the fairway, but until Mills shows he can use his supposedly vast backroom connections to the Knicks' advantage, why should Melo trust him?
All Anthony knows right now is that his team, on paper, is the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and the second seed in New York, right behind the new Kidds on the block in Brooklyn. Yes, Melo wanted this stage and these stakes, and he did press Knicks owner James Dolan to send everyone but Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier to Denver to secure his services. But Anthony is 29 and counting, and he understands how Ewing is often remembered. How Dan Marino is often remembered. How Charles Barkley is often remembered.
How LeBron James would have been remembered if he had spent his entire career title-free in Cleveland.
"There's a big difference between winning a ring and not winning one, there's no question about that," said Boeheim, whose Hall of Fame career revolves around the 2003 title. "Carmelo won that NCAA championship for me, and you can argue that it's harder to win in college, with that kind of [sudden-death] tournament, than in the NBA playoffs, especially for a freshman. And he's got two Olympic gold medals too.
"But in the end, you're remembered for winning an NBA ring, or for not winning one."
Carmelo Anthony hasn't won any to date, and the Knicks haven't won one in 40 years. So the franchise player needs free agency, if only to make sure the franchise doesn't make him the face of the drought.