Houston Rockets and Carmelo Anthony Both Better off Without Each Other

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Houston Rockets and Carmelo Anthony Both Better off Without Each Other
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony's 2014 free-agency excursion comes with a disclaimer: Leave the New York Knicks at your own risk.

Very few will bat eyes or crinkle their forehead while trying to figure out why Anthony would leave the Knicks, who are only now escaping months of laughter and sorrow, this summer. A breath away from 30, he wants a championship. If the Knicks cannot put him in an immediate position to nab one, he will seek out another team that can.

That team could be the Houston Rockets.

Except it's not.

While imploring Knicks owner James Dolan to stay out of newly installed president Phil Jackson's way, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed that Anthony will give serious consideration to leaving New York, taking long, hard looks at the Rockets and Chicago Bulls:

Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.

The always splash-generating Rockets have mutual interest in Anthony, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman, and are expected to make a play for his services. 

First James Harden, then Dwight Howard and now Anthony. Never say general manager Daryl Morey doesn't keep the Rockets dreaming big. 

But the road to a completed offseason trifecta—Harden in 2012; Howard in 2013; Anthony in 2014—isn't smoothly paved. Bumps and crater-sized potholes line the path to a flashier superteam.

The end destination isn't all rose-colored petals and gleaming championship rings either. Questions and problems await both Anthony and the Rockets if their marriage were to ever make the jump from theory to reality—issues that aren't merely inconvenient drawbacks but absolute deal-breakers. 

 

Money Problems

Let's start with what makes the NBA go 'round: them dollar signs.

ShamSports puts the Rockets' total 2014-15 salary commitments at $63.2 million with all player and team options included, leaving them more than $1 million over the projected cap.

Before even embarking on mass subtractions, the Rockets must first resign to picking up Chandler Parsons' team option instead of offering him a new contract. At under $1 million, this feels like a no-brainer, but it comes with a caveat.

If the Rockets simply exercise their team option on Parsons, he hits unrestricted free agency in 2015, becoming fair game for any team smitten by stretch forwards that has the financial flexibility to finance their lust.

Permitting Parsons to field offers from potentially 29 other teams is a risk in itself. But let's assume the Rockets, confident in their ability to retain him and willingness to pay both him and Anthony, do just this. Chasing 'Melo then becomes a matter of dumping salary.

Truckloads of salary.

Jeremy Lin's and Omer Asik's salaries.

Both players are slated to earn in the $15 million range next season—poison-pill contracts at their finest, folks— but their cap hits account for nearly $8.4 million apiece. In the unlikely event they find takers willing to assume their contracts without sending back anything in return, the Rockets shed an immediate $16.8 million from their ledger, bringing their bottom line to somewhere around $46.4 million.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Can Houston find homes for both Asik and Lin?

By that math, the Rockets can offer Anthony a four-year contract starting at approximately $15.7 million. While a rough projection, it's a fairly accurate number since that $46.4 million would be committed to 11 different players, one shy of the league-imposed 12-player roster minimum.

Houston does have to pay its first-round draft pick, but if it decides to decline Greg Smith's $1.1 million qualifying offer, it's a virtual wash.

Best-case scenario has the Rockets offering Anthony a pact starting around $15.7 million, maybe less. Their spending power only increases if they're able to dump other players in order to create empty minimum cap holds.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Would the Zen Master be open to trading Anthony to Houston?

Would Anthony be willing to take that drastic a pay cut, when he could earn more than $23.3 million by simply opting into the last year of his current contract in New York? Tough to say. History suggests he wouldn't. 

Anthony would already be leaving one year and more than $30 million on the table by spurning New York, so the chances of him taking even less than that just to play elsewhere are basically nonexistent if he wants to maximize his earning potential.

Brokering a sign-and-trade is always an option, since the Rockets should be well below the $75.7 million luxury-tax line. But that still entails them dumping Lin and Asik first or in the trade and is conditional upon New York's interest.

Imagining the Knicks entering negotiations without demanding some combination of first-round picks, Terrence Jones and Parsons is difficult, otherwise they have little incentive to facilitate Anthony's exit. They would be better off daring him to sign with Houston outright.

 

Stormy Fit

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Let's once again say this isn't an insurmountable mountain and assume that by way of unprecedented pay cut or unlikely trade, Anthony finds his way to Houston.

Suddenly the Rockets have three top-15 superstars on their roster thinking dynasty. Equally suddenly, though, they face alps of questions.

The biggest concern would be the Harden-Anthony combo. Anytime you pair one ball-dominant scorer with another ball-dominant scorer, disaster can strike. Risks are more prevalent in this situation because the Rockets, enamored by Anthony, would part ways with Lin no matter what. 

Though overpaid, Lin is their second-best playmaker behind Harden. Removing him from the rotation leaves some combination of Harden, Patrick Beverley—assuming he returns—and fillers to run the offense. 

With Harden averaging 5.6 assists per game, that seems like a good problem to have. To an extent, it is. Too much offensive firepower isn't something coach Kevin McHale will lose sleep over. 

Bill Baptist/Getty Images
Can Harden appease Anthony's shot demands?

But Harden isn't a playmaker first. Natural instincts compel him to look for his shot and pass later. Asking him to selflessly conduct the offense full-time demands he play outside his comfort zone.

Asking Beverley or someone else to take the reins of an offense structured around three established, ball-hungry superstars—plus Parsons—is similarly problematic. Never mind whether there are enough touches to go around, can it even work?

Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster took a nice look at the quagmire Houston could find itself in after adding Anthony:

Anthony, Howard and Harden's usage rates this season add up to 79.5, which basically means that no one else would have the chance to ever touch the ball.

Sharing the spotlight or a small market with other stars may be one thing, but sharing the ball to that likely extent would be something we've never really seen Anthony do. Even in Olympic play, Anthony is typically one of the most assertive and aggressive scorers on the floor. At this point, we know who he is.

As of now, the trio's combined usage rates have increased to 84.7. If the Rockets are somehow hoping to keep Parsons in the fold too, that number jumps to 103.6 between the four. 

Someone will have to make sacrifices if this is going to work. Because Harden is the only viable playmaker of the three (or four), that someone has to be Anthony. 

Alongside Harden and Howard he would need to spend most of his time as a spot-up shooter. Based on what we've seen this season, at the 2014 All-Star Game and during Olympics basketball, such a transition isn't a bad thing. Synergy Sports (subscription required) has Anthony converting 44.1 percent of his spot-up treys this season, which makes him extremely dangerous off the catch.

Asking him to play off the ball a majority of the time, though, is different from the sporadic away-from-the-rock dominance he's exhibited this season and in the Olympics. Same goes with asking Harden to go from No. 1 scoring option to offensive ego-wrangler.

There's no guarantee Anthony and Harden would effortlessly transition into new roles. That Howard, who still needs to get his own touches on offense, would need to be fed as well would only complicate matters.

 

Not Worth the Return

In the realm of problems, things could be worse for both the Rockets and Anthony.

But if you're Anthony, are you willing to sacrifice offensive prominence after first having to cede significant earning potential? And if you're the Rockets, are you willing to undertake the intricate status-balancing act this trio creates? And are you then willing to either sacrifice Parsons or commit something like $70 million to four different players in 2015-16 once you pay him?

Forging superstar-crammed contenders is never easy, but the fit is supposed to come somewhat naturally.

Learning curves are always needed when combining two-plus luminaries, as we saw with the Miami Heat in 2010. But Houston's transition projects to be harder because out of Harden, Anthony and Howard, only one (Howard) can be considered a two-way player, and only one (Harden) is a bona fide distributor.

Once this happens, the Rockets also still play in the Western Conference, where formidable contenders are the standard. They're not going to run away with any conference titles the way Miami has out East. 

In theory, that could increase the urgency behind creating star-powered rosters, yet it also increases the need for spending wisely. Committing a roster's worth of salary to three players whose collective success would be predicated upon each of them accepting change doesn't satisfy the latter need. 

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If the Rockets are prepared to significantly shake up the roster, they're better off trading in their slim chances of landing Anthony for two or three complementary and productive role players. And all along, Anthony's best option—barring the unimaginable—has been to stay with the Knicks for at least another year and let Jackson attempt to turn his Zen-melding guile into a brighter future.

"I never once said I wanted to leave," Anthony said, per Berman. "The only thing I said was I wanted to dabble and try free agency out and opt out. … I’m excited about the opportunity to work with Phil."

As he should be, if only because the risk of actualizing this quixotic marriage to Houston eclipses potential benefits for all parties involved.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and salary information via ShamSports unless otherwise noted. 

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