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Melo in Chicago? Bosh in Houston? Matching free agents with ideal teams

Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler (left) may not be opponents next season.

Free agency is officially underway, leaving talent and salary-cap space to be matched up throughout the NBA. There are no dominoes to account for yet, only an array of quality contributors and an assortment of teams in need of their services. In the spirit of that possibility, let's play matchmaker: While accounting for clubs' financial limitations (potential cap room, existing cap holds, etc.), what are some of the best potential fits on the board?

Carmelo Anthony to the Bulls

The Bulls are often lionized as a proud, Right-Way team that works hard without fail, but effort without sufficient shot creation earned Chicago one of the NBA's worst offenses last season. It didn't merely underperform like the Warriors or fall stagnant like the Pacers. Instead, with Derrick Rose ruled out for the season after only 10 games, the Bulls sputtered to just 99.7 points per 100 possessions -- squarely in the neighborhood of the Sixers, Magic, Celtics and Bucks. More harrowing yet: The lack of production could have been worse had midseason pickup D.J. Augustin either come up short or signed elsewhere.

Anthony, then, fits the prescription. The brilliance of Melo's season was lost in New York's misery. That team won just 37 games and missed the playoffs in the barren Eastern Conference. It also, counter to narrative, finished just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency despite a glaring lack of reliable help. The three most-played Knicks aside from Anthony were Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who combined to shoot 40 percent. Anthony did what he could to salvage things, but only so much can be done when the team's other prominent players are so actively contributing to their own demise.

 

If removed from that context, Anthony's scoring talents should power a quality team again. He's one of the most varied and capable offensive funnels in the league -- outstanding in the post, incredibly skilled in isolation, effective off the dribble, increasingly viable beyond the arc (he shot 44.2 percent on spot-up threes last season, according to Synergy Sports) and more willing to defer to quality players than advertised.

Plug those skills into a Bulls offense that moved the ball well last season with no real end point in mind and you have a perfect match. Anthony, 30, could alleviate the pressure on Rose while capitalizing on Joakim Noah's passing. Jimmy Butler could handle the more difficult wing assignments to protect against Anthony's defensive limitations, while Noah and Taj Gibson (assuming the Bulls can keep him while signing Carmelo) clean up on the back line. It's an arrangement that could bring out the best in both parties, provided that Anthony is willing to commit to a slightly different role.

Chris Bosh to the Rockets

Reports indicate that Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are all good bets to return to Miami, but their free agency leaves open the technical possibility of relocation. If Bosh were to look elsewhere unexpectedly -- the 30-year-old big man has been the most vocal of the Big Three regarding his interest in remaining with the Heat -- he could find no better basketball home than Houston.

Bosh fits the Rockets' needs to the letter. As much as the league now swells with floor-stretching power forwards, few also double as outstanding defenders. That makes Bosh even more valuable than he might seem to Houston, which needs to maintain spacing for Dwight Howard and James Harden on offense and improve its rotations on defense. Howard was overextended last season by all of the Rockets' errors in coverage. With Bosh – a defender quick of foot and mind – alongside him, that burden eases dramatically. Factor in Bosh's elite mid-range shooting, broadening three-point range and willingness to sacrifice individual production for the team and the fit is as clean as could be.

Avery Bradley to the 76ers

The Sixers reportedly have interest, but the Celtics can match any offer for the 23-year-old restricted free agent. That mechanism makes a return to Boston likely, but if Bradley plays the market, I'm interested in his potential fit with Philadelphia.

With the 76ers in a long-term rebuild, pinning down how and when to use cap space can be tricky. It isn't in the franchise's best interests to make big, long-lasting salary commitments, nor does it serve the Sixers to win much next season. Bradley could be an attractive target on both fronts. His point guard size without point guard skills -- and the role specificity therein -- may keep the market for his services reasonable. His complementary game, meanwhile, won't have much of an immediate impact for a team in Sixers-level disarray.

The payoff would come once Philadelphia is in a position to offer more structure, in which Bradley and Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams could blossom into a well-balanced, cross-matching backcourt. Bradley is an All-NBA-caliber defender with room to grow. Perhaps the Sixers can offer a low-stakes environment for development wrapped in a great long-term basketball fit.

UPDATE: Avery Bradley has agreed to a new deal with the Celtics.

Vince Carter to the Thunder

To be fair, the 37-year-old Carter is a great fit for virtually every team. Those with established stars can make great use of his flexibility and spot shooting, while those seeking more offense can focus on leveraging Carter's contributions as a ball handler. Oklahoma City is somehow both at once, positioning the Thunder to take advantage of Carter's complete skill set better than any rival.

Alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks needs a dependable shot maker who can be trusted to maintain his individual defensive assignment. Check and check. When one or both of the Thunder stars retreats to the bench, Brooks needs a player capable of manufacturing offense out of simple actions. That just so happens to be a Carter specialty, as he thrived in pick-and-rolls with Dallas last season. 

Shaun Livingston to the Cavaliers

Livingston's performance last season has likely priced him out of range to re-sign at market value in Brooklyn. All the better for other suitors -- and in a perfect world Cleveland would be one of them. There are plenty of reasons why that likely won't be the case, beginning with the $6.3 million owed reserve guard Jarrett Jack next season and the million grumbles that would come from Dion Waiters should Cleveland pick up a starting-caliber guard.

All the same, I'd love to see Livingston, 28, return to the Cavs to capitalize more fully on his combo guard turn, in which he can handle the ball some but not exclusively, defend both backcourt positions and induce opponents into cross-matches that enable him to exploit his size. Livingston's pairing with Kyrie Irving was quite successful for Cleveland in limited minutes during the 2012-13 season -- enough for that crummy team to outscore opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor. Livingston is more effective now in operating next to a point guard, having done so for much of the season with the Nets. He's less of a shot-hunter than Waiters and a far better defender. If Cleveland really is set to compete for a playoff spot immediately, wouldn't a player of that skill set be of use?

UPDATE: Livingston has agreed to a three-year, $16 million deal with the Warriors.

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