When rookie forward Cleanthony Early unexpectedly fell to the New York Knicks four picks into the second round of the 2014 NBA draft, he might have instantly turned into a big part of what later became the Knicks’ most important offseason move less than three weeks later.
Moving on from the draft, New York desperately sought to keep franchise forward Carmelo Anthony, so much so that they gave him all but $5 million short of a maximum possible contract of $129 million over the next five years.
But while that signing looks good for the Knicks on the front end, there’s a chance that Anthony, who turned 30 on May 29, could begin to break down as he reaches his mid-30s toward the end of that deal.
That’s why the Knicks may need to count on Early right from the start next season.
Averaging a career-high 38.7 minutes last year, Anthony logged the second-most minutes of his 11-year NBA career, playing just 13 fewer minutes than the 2,995 minutes he totaled as rookie (the only season in which Anthony played a full 82 games).
While Anthony often plays through minor injuries, aches and pains, and he only sat out four games last year, he missed 27 contests during his first full season in New York (2011-12) and 15 the following year.
Although no one yet is expecting Anthony’s latest mega contract to eventually hold the Knicks’ salary cap space hostage in the way Amar’e Stoudemire’s has, there could be some justifiable concern over the status of Anthony’s health going forward now that he’s moved past his 20s.
To remain as healthy as possible for the longest time possible, Anthony may need Early, who signed with New York on Aug. 1.
Even though the Knicks aren’t currently built to legitimately contend in the Eastern Conference next season, what Early can provide – and the sooner the better – might save considerable wear and tear on Anthony and give the seven-time All-Star and former league scoring champion the type of much-needed rest and reduced workload that he never had the luxury of enjoying last year.
So while that won’t necessarily mean New York can think of printing 2015 NBA Finals tickets, or even playoff tickets beyond the first round (if they even get that far), it could keep Anthony healthy enough over the long haul, particularly starting with the 2015-16 season, when the Knicks will have some serious cap space to build around Anthony in earnest.
The way things have gone in the past years, it would be “so Knicks” if when New York finally puts all of the necessary pieces in place around its marquee player, that Anthony would begin to physically fall apart at that point, and the overriding longer term designs to contend crumble anyway.
In a sense, that’s already happened once with Anthony.
Before Anthony’s arrival from Denver, Stoudemire was playing at an All-Star level and had developed terrific chemistry with Raymond Felton, who (don’t laugh) was in the All-Star discussion himself at the time.
Back then, the plan was to build the best front court in the NBA, with Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. But just as the Knicks became Anthony’s team, the injuries started piling up for Stoudemire and eventually for Chandler as well.
This time, New York wants to make sure that if Anthony’s complementary players do pan out as the Knicks’ rebuilding continues and takes a greater shape next summer, that the crown jewel in that process doesn’t lose his luster himself, and throw the entire plan out of whack.
Right now, the best way to do that is to make sure Anthony not only further develops his already great offensive game even further under the newly introduced teachings of new team president Phil Jackson and rookie head coach Derek Fisher, but to ensure that he can do that for the majority – if not all of – his new contract.
Having a forward like Early producing to the point where Fisher won’t have to push Anthony quite as much as ex-Knicks coach Mike Woodson relied on him last year, would go a long way toward achieving that effort, which in turn, could allow Jackson to build the contending team he’s being paid $60 million over five years to design.
Thus, the Knicks will need Early to live up to his surname and then some.
They’ll need him to play well, both early and often.