It was only a matter of time before Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony was bombarded with questions about his future. Yet rather than play coy on the matter, Anthony was surprisingly forthcoming on the subject in an interview with Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer:
“I want to be a free agent,” Anthony tells me, as our cigars burn close to the nub. “I think everybody in the NBA dreams to be a free agent at least one time in their career. It’s like you have an evaluation period, you know. It’s like if I’m in the gym and I have all the coaches, all the owners, all the GMs come into the gym and just evaluate everything I do. So yes, I want that experience.”
Take a breath, Knicks fans. That doesn’t mean he’s leaving.
“I came to New York for a reason,” Anthony adds. “I’ve been with you all my life, almost to a fault. I wanted to come here and take on the pressures of playing in New York. So one thing I would tell my fans: If you haven’t heard it from me, then it ain’t true.”
Well, this we heard from Anthony: He wants to be a free agent. Come next summer, no one can stop him; while Anthony is penciled in to make $23.3 million with the Knicks in the 2014-15 season, he has an early termination option that would -- and will -- allow him to test the market early.
From there, New York will undoubtedly be the favorite to re-sign him, for both basketball and extracurricular reasons. But for teams like the Knicks, the danger of free agency lies in the unexpected -- the freedom of a player to explore all options and make a decision on their own terms. Anthony won't exactly have a host of attractive alternatives, but the power will unquestionably be his. Rather than merely leverage his capital within the Knicks franchise toward some end, next summer Anthony will be able to make a final decision regarding his immediate basketball future.
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It's pretty early to be handicapping Anthony's next move, but it's worth looking ahead to see which teams could potentially* even bid for his services. If he so desires, Anthony could demand a first-year salary of $22.5 million, a hefty cut of the projected $62.1 million every team has to work with under the salary cap. Only a select group of franchises have room to make that kind of investment, or the salary flexibility to realistically do so. Beyond the Knicks, they are as follows:
*Note: There always exists the possibility that other teams around the league could liquidate salary in order to open up max-level cap room, or that some of these teams could add salary as to no longer be viable contenders for Anthony's services. Today's salary cap math gives us a starting point, but there's much left to be determined.
Los Angeles Lakers
Let's get one thing clear: In hypothetically committing to the Lakers, Anthony would not be joining a roster led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. In order to even offer Anthony the max, L.A. would likely need to renounce its cap holds to Bryant or Gasol, and possibly both -- thus losing a market advantage. With those Bird rights in-hand, the Lakers would have the ability to offer Bryant and Gasol deals both longer (an improbability given their age) and more lucrative (via higher year-to-year raises over the life of a contract) than any other free agent suitor. That last bit is important given that both Bryant and Gasol insist that they will not be offering the Lakers any kind of discount; with both incumbents looking for serious financial returns, the ability to scale up a contract more quickly in its later years (as afforded by Bird rights) would give L.A. more wiggle room against the cap next summer.
That would seem necessary in finding space to fit one of Bryant or Gasol on the roster alongside Anthony, and yet their cap holds complicate both the timing and execution of such a plan. It's still possible for the Lakers to find some kind of workable arrangement, but even that would require serious salary cap gymnastics, the commitment of Gasol, and the full patience of Bryant. That confluence of events would be remote, to say the least. More likely, at least one of Bryant or Gasol figures to leave in 2014 free agency, giving the Lakers the opportunity to chase Anthony at the risk of further gutting their roster. Finding agreeable deals with Anthony and, say, Bryant, would likely leave the Lakers just a few million short of the cap with only three or four rotation-caliber players on the roster and no more than six players in total. Even before diving into the incredible difficulties that would come in building a team around Bryant, Anthony, and Nash, stretching the team's resources so thin with two core pieces over 35 years old would be a potentially disastrous choice.
All of which is to say that Melo signing with the Lakers isn't what it might seem to be. It's still a glitzy franchise in a major market, two things which clearly appeal to Anthony. L.A. just may not be the best choice for his basketball present or future given the cap complications involved.
Charlotte's signing of Al Jefferson was a statement of purpose, and in time, his performance as an offensive anchor could help inch the Bobcats toward respectability. Yet for the moment, this roster is too lacking -- and its recent misery too fresh -- to market itself as an appealing landing spot for Anthony. That won't likely the deter Charlotte from at least exploring the possibility; the Bobcats would need to clear a bit more cap room (possibly by trading either Gerald Henderson or Bismack Biyombo) to make Melo a true max offer, but salary-wise Charlotte is flexible enough to entertain the option.
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On basketball terms, Anthony would be a miserable fit with Jefferson and, at 30, would be far older than the bulk of the Bobcats' core. But a star like Anthony has to entice a franchise that has thus far gone without much individual player appeal. The best in Bobcats franchise history -- Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor -- were purveyors of grind, not glamour. To sign Anthony would help to shift that precedent, though at the cost of various on-court concerns. This is all a moot point considering that Anthony is incredibly unlikely to leave New York for Charlotte, the Knicks for the then-Hornets, and a steady playoff team for a postseason hopeful. But with the Bobcats aiming a bit higher and willing to spend to get there, a possible pursuit of Anthony is on the table -- even if that interest isn't reciprocated.
Given their willingness to swing for other free agent superstars, the Mavs could well pursue Anthony -- among other available talents -- next summer. Finding a way to make room for the max contract he'll seek, though, will be a challenge. On face, Dallas has enough room under the cap to sign Anthony to a max deal outright. That's only true, though, because Dirk Nowitzki's contract expires at the end of the 2013-14 season. Nowitzki has made it known that he's willing to re-sign at a reduced price to help facilitate the acquisition of more talent, but that's easier said than done with salaries of this size. Given that the Mavs recently committed $15.5 million in 2014-15 salary to Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, it might not be possible to squeeze both a re-signed Nowitzki and a true max free agent in under the cap unless Dirk consents to a criminal paycut.
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Dallas could give itself a slightly bigger cap window by waiving Samuel Dalembert (only $1.8 million of his $3.9 million 2014-15 salary is guaranteed) or trading away one of Brandan Wright or Wayne Ellington, but those moves would seem ill-advised under the circumstances. The Mavs will already be forced to part ways with Shawn Marion and Vince Carter -- two high-level rotation players -- just to clear room for a potential max deal. Conceding further assets would be difficult to bear, especially considering that Dallas would be top-loading its rotation with characteristically poor defenders.
If they were so inclined, the Magic could ditch Jameer Nelson (via trade or waiver; only $2 million of the $8 million he's owed next season is guaranteed), release Jason Maxiell (whose 2014-15 salary is fully unguaranteed), and join the ranks of Anthony's suitors. But what would be the point? Orlando's rebuild is still very much in its infant stages, and adding Anthony would only lodge a mammoth salary in the center of the team's cap sheet. Plus, to devote such incredible resources to a flawed star so quickly would go against all the patient work that Rob Hennigan has done thus far as the Magic's GM. I can't imagine either party being all that interested here.
A similar story. Philly could sign Anthony to a figure of his choice with room, still, to fit a Winnebago under the salary cap, but I don't suspect the Sixers liquidated their roster with that end in mind. Sam Hinkie is playing the long game here, a strategy with which Melo -- both as a basketball entity and a person with his own goals in mind -- wouldn't much agree.
Though similarly positioned to the Magic and Sixers in terms of franchise direction (and corresponding lack of need for a player of Anthony's profile), the Suns don't have the same financial freedom to chase a max-level talent. Based on current cap projections, Phoenix would have just enough room to potentially offer Melo a max deal. Yet that statement assumes: 1) That the Suns will pay the newly acquired Eric Bledsoe $0 next season, and 2) that Phoenix will not take on any salary beyond this season in a deal for Marcin Gortat. The latter might be subject to the ebbs and flows of the trade market, but the former on its own seems especially unlikely. Phoenix wouldn't have sacrificed assets to acquire Bledsoe if they didn't plan to retain him beyond this season, meaning we should expect the Suns to play an active role in his restricted free agency. Even if Bledsoe winds up leaving Phoenix by way of a ridiculous offer, it's unlikely that Anthony would still be available by the time Bledsoe's signing -- following the process of courtship, the signing of an offer sheet, and the ensuing waiting period -- clears. I'm sure Anthony will be very broken up about it.
Any room under the cap that the Jazz do or do not have next season is contingent on the fate of Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward -- two fourth-year players due for raises in coming off their rookie deals. There could be room to retain both while still keeping open the max contract window, but only if the Jazz were very determined to do so and willing to pinch salary elsewhere on the roster to make it happen. I don't see either as being all that likely, nor do I believe that Anthony would be very eager to make Salt Lake City his home.
For Detroit to acquire Anthony, it would almost certainly have to give up Greg Monroe -- a productive young big due for either an extension over the next few weeks or a new contract next summer. That's quite a price, no matter Anthony's value. Yet if Pistons GM Joe Dumars decides that Monroe is expendable, that Melo could be had, and that he so soon wants to bail on Detroit's new core (Monroe, Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, and Brandon Jennings), he could potentially arrange for a sign-and-trade to land Anthony. Such a scenario is too loaded with conditionals to be considered particularly likely.
While the potential for LeBron James to also opt out of his contract to become a free agent is well established at this point, little regard is paid to what that decision could mean for the Heat. Should James opt out, it's possible that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- who have identical early termination options -- could follow suit. That would leave the Heat with a Lakers-like $10.1 million in committed salary, (supposing that Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony pick up their respective player options), thus giving Miami the freedom to explore all kinds of possibilities. The incredibly thorough Heat front office would surely weigh the prospect of signing Anthony, and of potentially uniting him with one of James, Wade, or Bosh. It would take a remarkable chain of events for Miami to get to that point, but the possibility remains.
Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.