Why Trading Melo Is Personal for Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson’s entire legacy depends on trading Carmelo Anthony.

When it comes to Carmelo Anthony, Phil Jackson comes off as a bully. The Knicks president appears as a ruthless and acrimonious executive who will try and uproot Anthony and his family at all costs. His possible subtweeting, his insistence on the team running the triangle offense, and his free agent and trade acquisitions combine to form a nasty blemish on an otherwise impeccable basketball resume.

His scorched earth approach may seem wrong and mean spirited but Jackson’s comments, and criticisms, are valid as a whole. Maybe he should not be the one making such public comments about Anthony, but what he has said is largely true: A trade does, in fact, make sense for two parties going in seemingly opposite directions.

The trouble is there’s more at stake for Jackson than Melo simply staying or leaving. In fact, Jackson’s entire legacy depends on getting Anthony off the team and focusing on Kristaps Porzingis.

Jackson needs Anthony to go not just for the team’s sake but for his own sake as president. As long as Melo remains a Knicks player, the team will be viewed as a win-now franchise that will do anything but win. Yet if Melo leaves, the Knicks are suddenly a rebuilding team, and the expectations for Jackson going forward are lowered considerably. Jackson goes from a failure to the one Knicks executive willing to undergo a deep rebuild in almost three decades. An Anthony trade is as important to Jackson, if not more so, than it is to the Knicks.

Speaking to the media for the first time in several months on Friday, Jackson said this about Anthony:

What I talked to Melo about is almost what I talked about with him last year, that we are not in a position to win a championship last year. If you feel like we’re not moving quickly enough forward, maybe it’s a good time for you to decide whether you’re gonna stay or leave. And he opted to stay, and we put together a team that considered building around him. This year, at some point in the season, there was some information of curiosity about whether he’d be available for trades, and when we brought him in and asked him about that, it became a public thing unfortunately. I [sic] wasn’t what was intended but it became public. And I complimented him on the fact that he held it together really well for all the drama that went along with that.

This is completely innocuous. If anything, Jackson’s candidness and openness should be refreshing. The people of Oz likely interacted with the Wizard more than the media has with the Zen Master, so this press conference provides some clarity and gives everyone a sense of the team’s direction. The question that should arise is why Jackson decided to build around Melo and not Porzingis. If the plan had been to move at a slower pace last season, why change course and attempt to compete immediately?

Nevertheless, Jackson continued:

We have not been able to win with him on the court at this time, and I think the direction with our team is that he is a player that [sic] would be better off somewhere else and using his talents somewhere where he can win or chase that championship. Right now, we need players that [sic] are really active, can play every single play defensively and offensively. It’s really important for us. We started to get some players on the floor who can do that, and that’s the direction we have to go.

Jackson’s words, specifically when used out of context, come across as vindictive and antagonistic. Maybe in the age of #fakenews and push notifications, we fail to dive deeper and recognize the bigger picture. We’re complacent reading 140-character tweets instead of perusing entire articles.

Yet when explored in context, Jackson’s comments make sense. He didn’t explicitly state it, but Jackson is indirectly saying he deserves the vast majority of the blame. Saying the team hasn’t won with Melo, while factual, could be considered more a knock against Jackson himself than a criticism of Anthony. It’s that, what Jackson didn’t quite say, that should resonate louder than what he did say.

After all, it’s already evident that Jackson was unable to surround Anthony with a competitive supporting cast. Does he really need to say “It’s my fault” for us to know the Knicks performed well below expectations? The team’s record and dysfunction should speak for itself. The biggest free agent Jackson lured to New York was a then 31-year old center, Joakim Noah. Wasn’t Jackson’s name brand supposed to entice free agents to come to New York, à la Pat Riley with the Miami Heat? Why else is Knicks owner James Dolan paying him an annual salary of $12 million?

The Knicks won’t win within the remainder of Jackson’s contract. In fact, no executive could turn the Knicks, with or without Anthony, into a playoff contender within the next two seasons. The team’s record, the limited cap space, the triangle, and Jackson’s comments directed at Anthony and LeBron James will scare away big name free agents. If Jackson feels Anthony can’t be an active, two-way player, and if the Knicks are going to lose anyway, the team might as well trade Melo for future pieces and be hot garbage next season instead of their usual shade of mediocre with him on the roster.

Jackson publicly said what many Knicks fans have been saying for some time: Melo needs to go. So why is it that the moment Jackson echoes the sentiments of Knicks fans, Jackson is the villain in this tale and Anthony the hero? Jackson finally said the thing that people wanted him to say, and now he’s public enemy number one.

An argument could be made that the greats lead their teams to the playoffs, no matter what. Again, most of the blame should fall squarely on Jackson, but Anthony is not faultless. Even when he was surrounded by good players, the furthest Anthony and the Knicks ever got was the second round. Anthony has been the one constant through five coaches and countless amount of players.

The Knicks at least made the playoffs with Melo in the pre-Jackson era. Meanwhile, Jackson has assembled a team in two out of his three years to make the playoffs, and neither has won more than 31 games. In fact, the 2015–16 team that wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs did better than the two teams that Jackson hoped would make the playoffs. That hurts Jackson’s legacy… a lot.

When he says “that [Melo] is a player that [sic] would be better off somewhere else and using his talents somewhere where he can win or chase that championship,” Jackson’s using Melo’s legacy to save his own. If Anthony consents to be traded to a contender, he can be remembered as a player who stayed for the money, the fame, and the legacy, and then later was pressured to leave and chase a ring. In other words, Jackson is trying to give Anthony an out so they can both save themselves. If Anthony doesn’t leave, Jackson will have failed to not only build a team around Anthony but get Anthony to waive his no trade clause while causing unnecessary drama for the organization. A champion 13 times over, Jackson would go gently into that good night as a failure. His tenure will be another brick in the wall for New York and its starved fan base.

Next year, Anthony will be 33 years old. He will be under contract for the next two seasons (he can exercise his early termination option after the 2017–18 season) for $54,171,900. Though still one of the game’s best scorers, Anthony’s defense has been severely limited. Is it because of a natural decline in athleticism as he ages? Is he giving less effort? Are the effects from his knee surgery in 2015 catching up to him? Could it be all of the above?

If you’re Jackson, do you feel a 33-year old player, accounting for 26% of the projected salary cap next year, is good for the Knicks? Wouldn’t capitalizing on a diminishing asset be wise?

The answers to those questions should be no and yes, respectively. That’s where Phil Jackson’s right.

That’s also where Anthony draws the line.

From a playing standpoint, Melo would be wise to explore other options. If the ceiling is the roof for Michael Jordan, the floor is the doorway to hell for Anthony. That doorway resides in the heart of Midtown at 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, also known as Madison Square Garden.

Anthony is an easy-going person, living by his brand and just trying to “StayMe7o.” He may not always be happy but he remains respectful, positive, and often times, upbeat. Like Jackson acknowledged, Anthony has handled an uncomfortable situation with aplomb. He has faced the onslaught of questions from the media, something Jackson has seldom done. After all, it’s Melo who has the leverage with his no-trade clause, and it’s Jackson who gave it to him.

If Melo’s going to waive the no-trade clause, he’ll want it to be on his own terms. Acquiescing to Jackson’s trade demands goes against Anthony’s brand and the values he stands for. After everything Anthony has been through, is this really going to be the breaking point? And who has more to lose here: Anthony, the player who has that no-trade clause, is winning the PR battle, is beloved by fans, and is respected by fellow players, or Jackson, the embattled president, who has only made the Knicks worse since he took over the team?

Jackson has a vision that, given what was said during the press conference, involves rebuilding around Porzingis by drafting talented players with those first round picks he has conveniently kept, continuing with player development, and leaving the team in a good position once his contract expires. The team’s future is the saving grace for Jackson’s legacy.

Maybe Knicks fans will appreciate Jackson five years from now. If he can assemble a young and successful core, history will be much kinder to him than it is presently.

As of now though, there seem to be only three reasons to keep Jackson on board. Jackson has:

It’s sad that the bar has been set so low for this franchise over the years that these are the only reasons to keep Jackson on as president. Firing Jackson isn’t the issue; it’s what would come next that is the problem. If there’s a shake-up in the front office, should Steve Mills be the person fully in charge of the Knicks? Will the scouts, specifically Gaines Jr., stay on if Jackson is pushed out of office? What would Dolan do? He already has to pay Jackson $24 million over the next two seasons, but could he step in and make a trade to satisfy Anthony’s, and not Porzingis’, needs?

And can you imagine what would become of Jackson’s legacy if he were to be fired but everything else stayed intact? The perception would be that he made the Knicks worse, ruffled feathers of almost every player he encountered on the way, and life in New York went on just fine without him.

This is why trading Anthony is Jackson’s last chance at proving himself as a competent executive. If he can move the one player who refuses to leave, and if the Knicks receive assets for his departure, Jackson’s legacy stands a fighting chance. He will be known as the man who played for two championship Knicks teams, coached the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a combined 11 championships, and then struggled mightily before setting the Knicks on a path to success as a front office executive.

And if he can’t trade Melo, Jackson’s legacy will be forever tarnished, his role as president having a lasting impact that overshadows one of the greatest coaching careers of all time. He will have failed to move Anthony, thanks to the no-trade clause he himself gave to the star forward. There would be no one else to blame but himself.