Anthony’s Choice Becomes the Knicks’ Conundrum

When he strong-armed his way out of Denver in February, surely did not envision a late-April night when his playoff fate would rest in the trembling hands of Jared Jeffries, the shaky jump shot of Roger Mason Jr. or the shaky confidence of Landry Fields.

But as Anthony pointed out Monday while assessing , the team “lost four key components” at midseason and had “to start off fresh with something new.”

He offered this analysis with no sense of irony or self-awareness, as if the , which gutted the roster and stalled their progress, was caused by unknown forces.

It was, of course, caused by Anthony himself — a fact that was lost in the giddiness over his arrival and forgotten by the time the swept the .

Anthony wanted the Knicks, and the Knicks wanted him. That much was always clear. The question was one of delivery method: by trade or free agency. Anthony could have waited, opted out of his contract this summer and signed with the Knicks.

Had he chosen that path, Anthony could have joined a Knicks team with Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Anthony Randolph and most of its draft picks — although the Knicks probably would have had to let Wilson Chandler go to sign him.

But Anthony chose not to wait. He wanted a maximum, three-year, $65 million extension before the collective bargaining agreement expired July 1. He feared the terms of a new labor deal. If he was going to become a Knick — and get the richest possible contract — he had to force a trade.

As a rival executive who closely monitored the talks said in February, “The money was first, second and third” in driving the deal.

Knicks officials knew this, too, which is why they rushed to meet Denver’s high demands rather than risk losing Anthony to . They believed, as others did, that Anthony would have signed an extension with the Nets. He might never have reached free agency.

So the Knicks made a rational decision. But it was one that was necessitated by Anthony’s impatience and his drive for a rich extension.

Anthony confirmed as much, in less blunt terms, when he was asked on Monday why he did not wait for free agency.

“That’s just something that I didn’t really want to have to deal with, not really knowing what the C.B.A. would be like,” he said. He added: “I don’t regret anything, any decision that I’ve made. And I’m happy with that. I’ll live with that.”

So the Knicks are living with a roster full of holes and severe limitations in trying to plug them.

They used all of their best assets — four rotation players, all 26 or younger — to land Anthony. They also traded their first-round pick in 2014 and second-round picks in 2012 and 2013, and gave Denver the right to swap first-round picks in 2016. They are also without their 2012 first-round pick, which they .

The Knicks have no chips left to make a deal if Chris Paul or follows Anthony’s lead and starts pushing to be traded. They may not have any cap room this summer, either, although that depends on the new labor deal.

The team has until Friday to buy out Chauncey Billups for $3.8 million or keep him next season for $14.2 million. If he stays, the Knicks would be over the current cap ($58.5 million). If he is bought out, the Knicks might have $8 million to $10 million to spend, assuming the cap stays the same.

But the Knicks would still need a top point guard to keep Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire humming, and Billups would be the best one on the market.

Even if they re-signed him for less, they would not have much left to spend, and certainly not enough to fill all of their holes.

The Knicks desperately need a 7-footer to rebound and defend, an established shooting guard to replace Fields (who should be a reserve), a backup power forward to spell Stoudemire, and more size and shooting off the bench. Billups and Stoudemire listed big men as a top priority.

Scouts and executives often say that it is much harder to acquire a star like Anthony than it is to acquire top role players. But the Knicks will not have an easy time replacing the ones they traded.

Gallinari and Felton were high lottery picks. Chandler, drafted 23rd, would be a top-10 pick if the were held again.

The Knicks are drafting 17th this June and will probably not be back in the lottery for many years. They have just one first-round pick in the next three drafts. When they do pick, they will have to be nearly perfect.

No team, even with two elite players, can contend for a title without a strong supporting cast.

How are the Knicks going to acquire the high-value, low-cost players that Stoudemire and Anthony need around them?

Perhaps the answers will be found in a new labor deal, possibly with a higher cap (as a trade-off for a hard cap) and reduced salaries. Otherwise, the Knicks could be handcuffed until the summer of 2012, when they have just $43 million in committed salaries.

They will also have just four players under contract, and nine roster spots to fill. If they somehow signed Paul or Howard, the Knicks would probably be capped out.

No one knows what the new labor deal will entail. But the quest to restock the roster is going to become tougher, not easier.

On Monday, a smiling Anthony said that he wanted input on the Knicks’ personnel decisions this summer. But he was already dictating those decisions in February. His general manager skills leave a lot to be desired.

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