In a season littered with low points, the 2016-17 New York Knicks appeared to find rock bottom on March 12.
In Brooklyn, the 11-win Nets sank 14 3-pointers in the first half against the Knicks, effectively ending New York's playoff hopes in 24 painful minutes. And head coach Jeff Hornacek wasn't happy.
Hornacek lit into the Knicks in the visitors locker room of the Barclays Center, and according to people familiar with the matter, Hornacek's diatribe was expletive-filled and delivered at a high decibel level.
It's not uncommon for a coach to go off on his players after a pathetic showing. But what happened next was a bit surprising.
Carmelo Anthony, whose default demeanor is relaxed and easygoing, responded with anger and expletives of his own. For those accustomed to seeing Anthony live by his oft-used idiom, "Stay Melo," it was jarring.
Anthony's R-rated rant essentially questioned the direction of the entire organization, according to sources. Associate head coach Kurt Rambis fired back, calling out Anthony's effort on defense.
Anthony responded again, but before things could devolve further, one Knick suggested that the players head back to the court and start warming up.
So they did.
On the surface, some version of that incident has played out in dozens of NBA locker rooms over the years. But the way things unfolded on that Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn spoke to two glaring issues within the Knicks organization: a chasm between some veteran players and the coaching staff/management and, more importantly, Anthony's uncertain future with the organization.
Those with knowledge of the dynamic between Anthony and the Knicks believe that, while no final decision has been made, Anthony is leaning strongly toward waiving the no-trade clause at this point. Anthony said on Wednesday night that he'd "love" to be back, but wants assurances that the Knicks are committed to winning.
No matter what is said publicly, some in the organization believe the only thing that would keep Anthony on the Knicks in 2017-18 is if owner James Dolan fires team president Phil Jackson, which is now highly unlikely, since the Knicks and Jackson quietly picked up their option on the remaining two years of his contract this spring,sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.
Jackson and the Knicks did each have the option to walk away from each other at the end of this season. It was built into the contract after Year 3 because Jackson had no interest in working through a lockout.
There may have been speculation that the standoff between Jackson and Melo would end with Jackson walking away or the Knicks declining their option on his deal, but sources told ESPN the options were picked up "awhile ago." Knicks owner James Dolan publicly reinforced his commitment to Jackson in a February 10 radio interview on The Michael Kay Show on ESPN New York 98.7 FM when he said, " he planned to honor his five-year contract with Jackson "all the way to the end."
So unless things change drastically, Jackson will have the latitude to try and move Anthony if the Knicks star chooses.
To do so, he needs to find a deal that makes sense for the 32-year-old, 10-time All Star. Jackson and the Knicks spoke to at least three teams before the deadline about trades involving Anthony, who said the team never presented him with a formal deal but admitted that he considered waiving his no-trade clause prior to the deadline.
Barring something unforeseen -- such as a highly unlikely scenario in which Jackson and Anthony find common ground during their exit meeting on Thursday -- the Knicks remain committed to moving Anthony this offseason, according to league sources.
If they do execute a trade for Anthony, it will be one of the most important transactions in Jackson's presidency. Some executives around the league believe that Anthony's trade value would be higher if Jackson hadn't endorsed a column that was critical of Anthony in February.
"That one was surprising," said an executive of a team who spoke to the Knicks about an Anthony trade. "I think [Jackson] really hurt himself there."
The back-and-forth between Anthony, Hornacek and Rambis in March was but one example of the instability that plagued the 2016-17 Knicks. It typified a divide caused by some players' lack of faith in the defensive game plan under associate head coach Rambis and Hornacek's use of the triangle offense, according to sources.
Of course, the counterargument is that this year's team could have fought for a playoff spot if players gave consistent effort on both ends of the floor. Some in the organization felt that the defensive habits of Derrick Rose and Anthony had a negative influence on the club's young players. Both veterans finished among the bottom 15 at their respective positions in ESPN's defensive Real Plus-Minus, a measure of a player's contribution to his team's defense.
Another, more subtle, sign that this team didn't have great chemistry came on Jan. 10.
Rose returned to the Knicks' practice facility that morning and apologized to his teammates and coaches for going AWOL the night before. He said that he didn't mean to put his teammates and coaches in a bad spot. When he was done addressing the team, no one said a word, according to people familiar with the matter. It was an odd response, and one that reinforces the notion that this team wasn't cohesive.
The Knicks now face an important decision as Rose enters free agency. Should they bring back the oft-injured guard, who is coming off meniscus surgery, for a short-term deal? Or let him walk and sign or draft another point guard?
When Jackson spoke with ESPN's Jackie MacMullan earlier in the season, it sounded as the Knicks wouldn't hesitate to move on from Rose.
"We had the opportunity to play with Derrick and see if he does have enough left in the tank ... before we have to get into that [free] agent market again," Jackson told MacMullan.
But before Rose's most recent injury, the Knicks hadn't ruled out the possibility of re-signing the 28-year-old if they didn't have any luck with other point guard targets, such as pending free agentsJrue Holiday and Jeff Teague, according to sources.
Assuming the Knicks renounce Rose's cap hold, they should have more than $20 million to spend on free agents this summer. (That number, of course, would have been higher if Jackson hadn't agreed to a four-year, $72 million contract for Joakim Noah, who had an eventful, yet unproductive, first season in New York.)
New York finished tied with Minnesota with the sixth-worst record in the NBA and will end up with a top-10 pick in June's draft. WithKristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez looking like two-thirds of a promising young frontcourt, Jackson and the Knicks have a chance to build something sustainable in the next two offseasons.
Despite the challenges facing the franchise -- and the fact that they've lost at least 50 games in each of the past three seasons -- Jackson is said to be extremely excited about the future of the Knicks.
It seems like Jackson's version of the future is unlikely to include Anthony. But the player -- and not the team president -- will have the final say.
"I have a lot of thinking and reflecting to do," Anthony said shortly before walking out of the Knicks locker room and into an uncertain offseason. "It's all on me at this point."