Retaining Carmelo Anthony has gone from a virtual certainty to a ubiquitous question mark for the New York Knicks, who have sullied their appeal with losing and negligent spending, and must now fear the fury and mystique of the Chicago Bulls.
Bringing in Phil Jackson to reinvent a disfigured Knicks franchise has kept hope alive in New York. The Knicks have a plan. They have a masterful man with a plan. That's going to help in July, when Anthony is looking for answers to questions the Knicks inexplicably created.
Only the Knicks aren't alone. There will be other teams looking to answer all of Anthony's questions, hoping to pry him away from the championship-impaired Knicks.
Among those teams will be the Bulls, who have gradually intertwined their impending fate to Anthony's free agency. When he hits the open market, they'll be there, waiting to whisk him away to a different city, armed with a sales pitch designed to keep Anthony interested.
And he will be interested.
All indications are he already is.
Anthony is not a member of the Bulls. He plays for the Knicks. I just wanted to make that much clear, because the way the Bulls apparently feel about Anthony and the way he allegedly feels about them makes it seem like he's already bleeding Chicago red.
In the Knicks' recent victory over Chicago, I half-expected Anthony to begin the second half sporting a Bulls jersey, just to try it on for size. But he didn't. He stuck with the orange and blue. Behind the scenes and off the court, though, it's a freaking love fest between the Bulls and himself.
Days before New York and Chicago faced off, the New York Daily News' Frank Isola revealed that Anthony polled a current Bulls player about life under head coach Tom Thibodeau.
"What is it like to play for Thibs?" Anthony reportedly asked.
"It's the byproduct of playing for a stringent, no-excuses dictator who doubles as a party planner that often hosts bonfire extravaganzas replete with the guy version of girl talk, ego-boosting compliments and an endless supply of s'mores," the anonymous player likely said in response.
So, it's good. Really good.
Every game of every season, Bulls players work like they're prepared to run through a wall or take a bullet for Thibs. He has a way of inspiring his team, ensuring they believe they can win under any circumstances, no matter how many All-Stars they find themselves playing without.
Few coaches would have pushed the Bulls as far as they've gone this season. Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are All-Stars, and they're gone. Rose was lost to (another) injury and Deng was shipped to Cleveland as part of a salary dump and what many believed was a white-flag-waving ceremony.
And still the Bulls continue to win, contending for a top-three spot in the enfeebled Eastern Conference. Star-depleted rosters that seldom win as a result of their offense aren't supposed to be that good.
The Bulls are, and Anthony has taken a flier.
In addition to his covert investigation, the Knicks superstar has publicly endorsed Chicago's coach and system, per Isola:
I have no clue. Thibs is a great coach, his system kind of reminds me of Gregg Popovich’s system.
You put anybody in that system and it’s going to work. That’s what they’ve been doing. They’ve had guys sitting out all season long, guys that’s been in and out of the lineups and they seem to get it done.
Gregg Popovich comparisons are the ultimate form of coaching praise when they don't pertain to surly facial expressions and mid-game interviews. You won't catch Anthony saying any of that about Knicks coach Mike Woodson, nor can you envision him bestowing similar plaudits upon Steve Kerr or Derek Fisher, or whomever else Jackson will have succeed Woody.
Then there's the matter of Thibodeau, who, while candid, isn't one to come to the defense of outside players. Yet there he was leading into Chicago's matchup with New York, touting Anthony's scoring, portraying him as a grossly misunderstood superstar, via the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson:
It's interesting because with USA Basketball, they talk about him being a playmaker. He scores and if a guy is open, he passes the ball. I think oftentimes it's who he plays with.
A lot of the things that you hear about him I heard about Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce before they came together and won it. That changes perception. Carmelo has been one of the elite scorers in the league for a long, long time.
Did Thibodeau also deliver a box of chocolates accompanied by La La's favorite flowers to Anthony's doorstep to pair with his verbal deification? I'm not sure.
But Thibs isn't gushing about him for no reason. He wants Anthony in Chicago.
"It's well-known in league circles that coach Tom Thibodeau would love to add Anthony," Johnson writes. "They share an agency. And Thibodeau agreed with a suggestion that Anthony's reputation as a selfish ball-stopper is overstated."
Garnering Thibs' stamp of approval isn't easy. Ask Carlos Boozer. Anthony already has it. That, coupled with his obvious respect for Thibs, will make for an interesting free-agency meeting.
It doesn't hurt that two of the Bulls' most important players are already aboard the Anthony bandwagon either.
Citing sources close to the situation, ESPN's Chris Broussard alleged that Joakim Noah pitched 'Melo on the Bulls over All-Star weekend. Though Anthony inevitably denied the report, the inquiry he lodged into Thibs' coaching habits suggests there is some truth to the rumor.
Rose is also a fan of Anthony, according to Broussard:
Chicago is a threat to land Anthony if only because it's a big market that is showing preemptive interest in him. There aren't a lot of big-name teams out there with the ability to appease 'Melo's championship-contending needs without forcing him to downsize in location.
The Bulls, in theory, provide the rare combination of both.
Less Appealing and Unrealistic Options
Other teams will want Anthony.
Come July 1, when free agency officially begins, the Knicks and Bulls won't be the only ones calling him, seeking to lock down his services. There will be other suitors—none of whom will be more appealing than the Bulls.
Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets are expected to make a run at Anthony this summer, as Isola reminds us. But while Anthony could have interest and neither scenario is impossible, they are both unlikely.
The Lakers will have plenty of cap space to play with even if Steve Nash doesn't retire, provided they renounce rights to all of their own free agents, including Pau Gasol. They may even make a play for Anthony, but he's not signing in Los Angeles.
Kobe Bryant is pushing 36. He appeared in only six games this season. If there's any player with the work ethic and self-assurance necessary to thwart time and logic, it's him, but that's a risk Anthony cannot afford to take. He turns 30 himself in May. Joining forces with a fellow aging superstar isn't a sound blueprint for success. Not when the Lakers will have next to no money left to assemble a formative supporting cast after paying both Anthony and Bryant.
This is all assuming the Lakers still want him. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding says they're more interested in preserving cap space for 2015, when Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and possibly LeBron James, among many other stars, could become available.
Houston is a similarly unrealistic destination, albeit for different reasons.
It's not a stretch to believe Anthony would overlook the ball-dominating style of James Harden if the Rockets become major players. The prospect of teaming up with him and Dwight Howard and forming a core built around three top-15 superstars is something that would intrigue anyone.
But as Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski details, the Rockets must first shed the necessary salary to make a run at Anthony. They have more than $59.6 million in guaranteed salaries on next season's ledger. Dumping Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik—who will count for a combined $16.8 million against the cap—is a must. And difficult.
Thanks to the poison-pill contracts both players signed in 2012, they're nigh impossible to move, let alone trade in exchange for financial relief. Though their cap hit is just under $8.4 million apiece, they're owed roughly $15 million in actual salary.
Working out a sign-and-trade would be possible, but the Knicks are unlikely to have interest in paying either Lin or Asik. You have to imagine Jackson would also demand top-notch assets in return, such as multiple first-round picks and Chandler Parsons.
Which presents another problem: Parsons. The Rockets can sign him to an extension this summer, or they can exercise their team option worth under $1 million. In order to land 'Melo, they must pick up the option, which means they risk losing him in unrestricted free agency next summer.
There aren't as many hoops for the Bulls to jump through. Clearing space for Anthony will take some finagling, but not as much.
Boozer must be amnestied to start. Then Mike Dunleavy and his $3.3 million salary must be dumped. Both are relatively simple tasks that leave the Bulls with approximately $43.8 million in guaranteed salary, putting them well under the projected $62.5 million cap.
In the interest of full disclosure: That's a rough estimate. All signs point to Nikola Mirotic finally joining the team next season, and he will eat up significant cap space. There's also the Bulls' first-round draft pick and minimum cap holds to consider.
When all is said and done, the Bulls may find themselves in a position where they must part ways with Taj Gibson if they are serious about signing Anthony, unless he's prepared to take a serious pay cut.
Either way, the hurdles they must clear en route to freeing up the necessary funds are far more passable than that of the Rockets. And even after moving whomever they must move, their roster is still far more appealing than what the Lakers' would look like next season.
And beyond the Lakers and Rockets, there are no other serious threats Anthony would consider, which is good news for the Bulls, since they can easily neutralize Houston's and Los Angeles' interest.
Legitimate Threat, Not Inevitable Landing Spot
Don't fit Anthony for a Bulls jersey just yet.
Any number of things can happen between now and July. Anthony's loyalty to New York is well documented, and the fact remains the Knicks can offer him more money than anyone else.
More pointedly, the Bulls and Anthony aren't a perfect match. The Bulls must rid themselves of at least part of their core to nab Anthony. If they're forced to trade, Gibson too, the trade-off becomes too much.
Teaming up with Rose is also a risk for 'Melo. He's spent more than three years watching Amar'e Stoudemire fall victim to recurrent knee injuries. The possibility exists that he finds himself alongside another contractual burden who's seldom healthy. Pairing him with a ball-dominant point guard who isn't known for shooting threes doesn't create the ideal one-two punch either.
The Knicks absolutely hurt their chances of retaining Anthony by missing the playoffs. It's the first time he's failed to see the postseason. That bitter taste in his mouth could linger through the offseason, fueling a potential departure.
But the Knicks, for all their imperfections—flawed team, impractical sales pitch, coaching instability, etc.—are still favorites. Broussard believes that Anthony is leaving. I don't. And you shouldn't.
Passing up the cash and individual prominence the Knicks can offer is too much to ask of a player who yearns for both. They can provide him with just as must future certainty as the Bulls (so, not much). That makes them favorites.
After New York, though, there is Chicago, an equally intriguing destination that trails the Knicks in earning potential only. If Anthony leaves New York, if he ventures out into the open market ready to accept less money for a chance at doing what the Knicks have not, it will be for the Bulls.
Salary information via ShamSports.