“It is tough. You score 40, 44, 44, 44, and all losses," Carmelo Anthony recently told Peter Botte of the New York Daily News after a bouncing buzzer-beater from Dirk Nowitzki sunk the New York Knicks yet again. "You kind of ask yourself, 'Is it worth it?'"
At this stage of his career, Anthony is inching closer to being considered one of those superstars you can't win with. He has yet to earn a championship, and his Knicks are sinking down toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings as the losses and futile efforts continue piling up.
However, he's lucky, simply because he has the opportunity to save himself from what currently seems like an inevitable fate.
By opting out of his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season, 'Melo will have a chance to pick and choose where he goes next. Maybe he returns to Madison Square Garden, won over by a creative plan from the front office. Maybe he goes to the Los Angeles Lakers, staring at the stars in his eyes as he dreams of playing in yet another huge market.
But if Anthony wants to save himself from the misfortune of losing year after year, the Chicago Bulls stand out as the destination of choice.
Playing Alongside a Complementary Star
Can you imagine the type of offensive numbers Anthony would put up while playing next to a point guard who was actually competent?
Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, he's been forced to suit up alongside the ineffective shell of Raymond Felton, the ancient and plodding Pablo Prigioni and Toure Murry, an undrafted rookie guard out of Wichita State.
That's a point-guard rotation that pales in comparison to, oh, roughly 29 other ones in the Association. And the Bulls have one of those 29.
After all, there's this guy named Derrick Rose who should be healthy and raring to go at the start of the 2014-15 season. You may have heard of him, seeing as he's almost universally considered an elite point guard and has an MVP to his credit.
Rose is the superstar 'Melo needs to play next to.
Throughout his NBA career, Anthony has never had an opportunity to play next to a talent like the dynamic point guard, even if Rose will inevitably be coming off his second major injury in recent years. The Amar'e Stoudemire deal with the Knicks never worked out, and it's tough to point to another star player from the small forward's time with the Denver Nuggets.
Why do you think he wanted out of the Mile High City?
Teaming up with Rose would allow Anthony to do two things he's never had the luxury of enjoying during the prime of his career—taking advantage of a defense that can't focus solely on him and thriving on kick-and-shoot opportunities.
Rose may not have developed much of a consistent jumper during his time in the NBA, but he's still one of the premier drive-to-the-basket guards out there. He's more than capable of breaking down just about any defender off the bounce, and his Houdini-esque body control allows him to navigate tight spaces and get to the rim.
But once he's there, he thrives kicking the ball out to open teammates. Few players are better at racking up assists in that fashion, and 'Melo is the perfect player to take advantage of such opportunities.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the small forward is scoring 1.09 points per possession in spot-up opportunities, the No. 74 mark in the league. He's been absolutely incredible from beyond the arc, hitting 56 of his 123 attempts (45.5 percent) going into his March 2 game against the Chicago Bulls.
And those stats come while playing alongside a group of New York teammates who couldn't scare defenses if they were all playing in custom-fitted Freddy Krueger masks.
Rose would undoubtedly help Anthony look even better as an individual and vice versa. As Harvey Araton wrote for The New York Times, "In Chicago, where the Bulls may have interest in him, Anthony would supply the easy baskets they seldom get, and he would lighten a healthy Derrick Rose’s burden."
But it can't just be about two players.
Supporting Cast That Works
No matter who's on the Chicago roster, Tom Thibodeau is going to demand defensive excellence. Be warned, though, that this entire section of the article operates under the fundamental assumption that the rift between the coach and front office isn't enough to drive him off at the end of the season. Without Thibodeau, Chicago is no longer an appealing option for 'Melo.
So, Thibs is staying in this hypothetical situation. Just accept that for now and let's get back on topic.
If you want proof of the defensive excellence, look no further than the current group of misfits that's absolutely suffocating opponents on the less glamorous end of the court.
Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler are the only wing players in the rotation following the Luol Deng-to-Cleveland trade. Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin have been left playing point guard, and Thibs is milking everything possible out of them.
After squeezing every bit of desire and competitive effort out of the Golden State Warriors and then locking down Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to complete an impressive comeback, Chicago is holding opponents to 100.4 points per 100 possessions.
That's the No. 2 mark in the NBA, trailing only the Indiana Pacers and well clear of the rest of the field. Now this isn't the same group that will go to war in 2014-15, especially if Anthony forces the front office to make a few moves and fit him into the budget, but that doesn't matter.
It's just par for the course when we're talking about Thibodeau, who took over the Bulls in 2010 and has never allowed his team to take it easy on defense:
|Thibs' Defensive Excellence|
What makes us think this is suddenly going to change?
No matter who's on the roster, Thiboeau is going to ensure that his system is put into effect. And it's a system that has consistently proven it leads to an elite defensive rating, which is pretty much the all-important number in measuring a team's prowess on that end of the court.
This goes beyond just having a competent supporting cast, something that New York has struggled to provide for the scoring sensation during the 2013-14 season. Not only is Chicago sure to surround Anthony with a quality set of secondary pieces, but the Bulls are also going to be tailored to his needs.
With Rose in his backcourt, 'Melo doesn't need any help on the offensive end. It's all about finding defensive assets who can allow him to conserve energy on that end of the court while complementing his inevitably high-scoring outings.
No team in the NBA with a serious shot at landing Anthony during the upcoming offseason can offer him that.
Well, no team other than the Bulls.
Can Prove He's a Winner
Championships are the ultimate panacea in the NBA.
Nothing changes a reputation like adorning a finger with a ring after leading a team into contention. Past sins are forgotten, and no one can deny that the player possesses the all-too-often-elusive winning gene.
That doesn't happen anymore. Former coaches like George Karl are left to pick on new targets, not that they're authorities on the whole subject of winning championships anyway.
Think about what happened with LeBron James.
He was crucified for his inability to win titles while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fans of Kobe Bryant tended to use rings as the argument for why the Mamba was the better player, but LeBron supporters staunchly defended him nonetheless.
Fast forward a few seasons, and now it's those same LeBron supporters who are using the ring argument to claim superiority over Kevin Durant.
A pair of championships changes everything. Hell, just one opportunity to lift up the Larry O'Brien Trophy can have the exact same effect.
While there are certainly concerns about signing with Chicago—Thibodeau's future and Rose's health being the leading candidates—the Bulls are still the No. 1 option for Anthony if he wants to maximize his shot at a title.
New York clearly isn't set up to compete, and re-signing would mean he's placing all his eggs in the hole-filled basket that is the 2015 free-agency class. There's no guarantee that any marquee player wants to place himself under the control of James Dolan.
The Los Angeles Lakers have also been heavily discussed as a possibility, but the Kobe Bryant injury concerns are quite similar to the ones revolving around Rose's knees. And beyond that, what's the appeal in L.A. besides playing for a legendary franchise with tons of marketing possibilities?
While the Purple and Gold might be the best fit for Anthony in terms of branding, they don't have anywhere near the same ability to help him win a championship.
No one does.
Anthony must eventually decide what exactly he wants out of his inevitable foray into free agency. If it's winning that he desires, the Bulls are the best option, thanks to the presence of a fellow superstar, a standout supporting cast and a roster actually constructed for a shot at a title.
Chicago is uniquely able to save his career from plunging into the dreaded "he's overrated because he never won a title" category.