By John Schmeelk
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There are many questions the New York Knicks and Phil Jackson have to ask themselves heading into the offseason, including who will be the new head coach, as we all know Mike Woodson is a goner.
But here’s the one they need to start with: How many great years does Carmelo Anthony have left in his body?
It’s a question that not only Knicks management will ask itself, but also one Melo needs to figure out for himself.
The news that Anthony played with a torn shoulder marks the second consecutive season that he has struggled through an arm injury at the end of the year, when he’s needed most. Anthony has played in over 850 regular-season and playoff games during his 11 years in the NBA, and they have taken a toll on him. How long before those injuries start appearing in December instead of April? How long before those nagging aches and pains turn a 45-percent shooter who averages 28 points per game into a 43-percent shooter who scores 24?
No one is implying Anthony will fall off of a cliff in the next couple of seasons, but attrition could be setting in. Even at his current high level of play, it has been very hard to build a title team around him. Is it possible to do that if Anthony falls to even 80 percent of the player he is today? Certainly not at a max contract.
An even bigger issue for the Knicks is that the 2014-2015 season is one they are going to have to write off. They are in effect throwing away the season in which Carmelo Anthony will most likely be playing his best basketball.
There’s also no guarantee the Knicks will be good enough to win a title the following season. It took the Heat a full year to gel enough to become a contender with the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. A similar experience for the Knicks should be expected. New York is going to have to project Anthony’s health three seasons from now in 2016, when he’s 32 going on 33 and with 13 seasons and 1000 games under his belt.
The Knicks will finally get Amar’e Stoudemire off their payroll after next season, and the worst thing they can do is sign another player that could be broken down two or three years into a max contract. Obviously, Anthony doesn’t have a history of knee issues like Stoudemire’s, but the risk is still there. Some perimeter players don’t age gracefully, but others do. Anthony, however, has never been known to keep his body in shape a la LeBron 0r Kobe Bryant.
If the Knicks make an honest assessment that in three years Anthony will be only 75 percent — or worse — of his current form, they probably shouldn’t sign him. It would put the franchise in another deep, deep hole.
There are no advanced statistics to make this type of determination. Bryant was still in his prime at 34, but then broke down shortly thereafter. Joe Johnson took a huge performance dip at 31, after a smaller dip at 29. Reggie Miller played at a high level until he was 35. Rip Hamilton felt apart at the age of 31. Glen Rice and Allan Houston both fell off a cliff at 32 as injuries took their toll. Paul Pierce sustained a high level of play until 34. Scottie Pippen began to decline at 33. Michael Jordan retired at the top of his game at 34, and Clyde Drexler maintained a pretty high level of play until his 34th birthday.
Big guys seem to last a little longer with Ewing, Olajuwon, Robinson, Barkley, and Malone lasting somewhere between their 34th and 35th birthdays. There’s no real way to know where Anthony will land on this spectrum, but I think it’s fair to say he will start his decline somewhere between the ages of 32 and 34. Those would be the final three years of a potential five-year extension.
Anthony is going to have to make his own calculation. As he considers what is best for him moving forward, he needs to decide whether he’s willing to sacrifice another of his prime years to a Knicks team with little chance to win a championship in 2014-15. No one knows Anthony’s body better than himself, and he might be feeling the clock ticking. Does he think he will still be the same guy three years from now? The Bulls or Rockets would offer him a far better chance at winning next year — and probably the year afterward — than the Knicks. The next two seasons offer him his best chance of winning a title. Is it in his best interests to be on a retooling team during those years? The answer to that questions is probably no.
And an even bigger factor here: Anthony’s strengths come from his numbers. When his rebounding and scoring numbers dip, there’s little evidence he will pick it up in other areas. He is not an intangibles guy that will help the team significantly in other ways, whether on defense or in the locker room with leadership. There’s a chance those skills could develop in coming years, but they haven’t been apparent yet.
How good will Melo be in three years?
Jackson’s answer will go a long way toward determining what he will be willing to offer Anthony as a free agent.
Anthony’s answer will go a long way toward determining whether or not he wants to remain a Knick at all.
If anyone has a crystal ball, this would be a great time to hand it over.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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