After more than three seasons in a New York Knicks uniform, Carmelo Anthony is in a very similar position to the one he was in during his final days as a Denver Nugget. Still without significant playoff success, the star is desperate for an organization that can form a championship-caliber roster around him.
The difference this time is that Anthony will be 30 years old—not a ripe 26—and he'll be hitting the open market for the first time in his career. And when he finally reviews credentials of all possible suitors, 'Melo will soon realize that the Chicago Bulls present him the best chance at a championship.
The Carmelo-to-Chicago train gained a bit of steam this past week, when it was reported that next season's salary cap will jump even higher than projected. According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the recent development will present serious worries for New York:
The NBA has informed teams that it is projecting a rise in the salary cap of nearly $5 million for next season, which could aid clubs such as Chicago and Houston in their attempts to steal free agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks, according to sources familiar with the forecasts.
Sources told ESPN.com that all 30 teams were informed this week via league memorandum that an increase in the cap from this season's $58.6 million to $63.2 million in 2014-15 -- thanks to increased revenues --is now expected. A corresponding rise in the luxury-tax threshold from $71.7 million to $77 million is also projected, sources said.
Now, teams like Chicago that would have to do significant maneuvering to fit Anthony under the cap will be able to do so more conveniently. Per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls will indeed attempt to go this route:
It's noteworthy that Anthony can net a larger contract by staying with the Knicks. New York can offer him a five-year deal worth $129 million, while other suitors can dangle four-year, $96 million deals.
When he considers the organization's structure from top to bottom, 'Melo will learn that a financial sacrifice would be money well spent.
Reliable Point Guard Play
As great as Anthony is at scoring—he's undoubtedly a top threat in this regard—deficiencies in the rest of his game require a strong lineup around him that specializes in a few key areas.
First, a 'Melo-led offense requires strong point guard play. Without a wise eye at the point, the ball tends to stick in Anthony's hands, thus ruining offensive flow. This is something he has demonstrated over the course of his career, but has been extremely evident this past season.
Even despite what was arguably Anthony's best individual season, New York was never able to sustain any offensive firepower with Raymond Felton at point. Finishing with just 37 wins, the Knicks couldn't escape Felton's putrid performance at the 1 that lasted through most of the year. In terms of Basketball-Reference's win shares per 48 minutes, Felton was better than just three other starting point guards in 2013-14—all rookies.
Any team pursuing Anthony must also know that an established voice out of the point guard spot is crucial as well. It's sometimes easy for a player with Anthony's isolation tendencies and ability to drift away from game plans and become enamored with finding his own shots—not necessarily due to a self-centered agenda, but under the belief that it's the most likely course to victory. A strong voice in the huddle—namely from the point guard spot—helps offset this dilemma.
Felton clearly wasn't interested in providing that voice—not that he had the sufficient CV, anyway. It was most recently seen during Jason Kidd's Knicks tenure, and while Anthony was paired with Chauncey Billups through much of his career.
Via the New York Times' Nate Taylor after a December game during the successful 2012-13 season, Anthony demonstrated exactly how he treats bona fide teammates:
Anthony put his faith in Kidd when the Knicks trailed the Nuggets early in the fourth quarter. During a timeout, Coach Mike Woodson wanted Anthony to be the focal point of the team’s offense. Anthony had a different idea.
“He told me, ‘Let’s play through you,’ ” Kidd said. “Coach wanted to play through Carmelo, but Carmelo was like, ‘No, I want to play through Jason.’ I think that’s the greatest compliment a teammate can get.”
'Melo is more apt to help his team win when somebody in the huddle can stand up to him—and get through to him—if his intentions become overly self-centric. There is no Knick on the roster who can have that sort of effect on their star. Derrick Rose, on the other hand, satisfies this criteria.
Though not a true vocal presence, Anthony would certainly recognize a top-tier talent beside him in the lineup. If Rose was to recommend a shift in game plan—say, a pass out of a double team, or a hard slash to the rim—Anthony would be more likely to oblige if he knew the ball would be in reliable hands.
Not only would Rose act as the voice 'Melo needs to hear, he'd also be the second star that Anthony has sought since leaving Denver.
By coming to New York, Anthony believed he'd be joining forces with Amar'e Stoudemire to form the league's newest All-Star duo. Injuries would make it so that'd never be the case.
Comparisons have been made between Stoudemire's and Rose's knee ailments, but Rose is still only 25 years old and will have a chance to play out his prime completely recovered.
Clamps Along the Perimeter
The next criteria a potential 'Melo landing spot would need to satisfy is on the other end of the court, where Anthony presents the most negatives. Luckily for Chicago, they boast a top-tier NBA defense, and already have several athletic wings to D up along the perimeter in order to cover Anthony's flaws.
In Rose, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, Chicago possesses athletic, young perimeter players to mask the problems Anthony's defensive issues could present. Rose has been a plus defender over the course of his career—Chicago has allowed roughly five points less per 100 possessions with him playing, as opposed to when he's on the bench. Butler allowed just 30 percent shooting on spot-ups this season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
According to Synergy, Anthony struggled this season when defending spot-up shooters, allowing more than one point per play. The Bulls team defense, though, allowed just 0.92 PPP, ranking second in the league.
Chicago's defensive scheme is designed to funnel opponents' shots toward the inefficient mid-range area—a product of strong outside defense and a presence near the rim. According to NBA.com, Chicago forced the second-most mid-range attempts in the NBA this season, and opponents shot under 38 percent on such attempts.
If 'Melo is getting beaten along the perimeter, Chicago has the quickness around him to help make up for it and the presence down low to frighten opponents into pulling up from undesirable locations.
In New York, 'Melo was simply one of many paltry defenders. Synergy had them as the sixth-worst defensive unit, ranking bottom-five in four different categories. The Knicks were actually a better defensive team with Anthony on the floor this season, which is more an indictment on his surrounding cast than a testament to his stopping ability.
Anthony is a mediocre defender who can play slightly above average at that end on his best day—which is to say he needs help. The Bulls can provide it. The Knicks can't.
One thing 'Melo and the Knicks lacked for most of the season was a force in the paint to feed when all else went awry. Interestingly enough, the Bulls can check this off the list, too.
In an ideal basketball world, Anthony is paired with a skilled center who can do more with the basketball than simply connect on putbacks from point-blank range. Opposing teams should have to respect the center's individual offensive ability from both in close and outside, creating space for Anthony to work.
Tyson Chandler's offensive game in 2014 is as primitive as it was when he was drafted in 2001. He'll never be somebody defenses need to account for away from the basket. Joakim Noah's skill with the basketball could be more well-rounded than any center in the game.
He led his team in assists on the season, which hadn't been done in quite some time. According to ESPN Stats and Info:
Like Chandler, Noah operates well out of the pick-and-roll and is among the league's best defenders at the rim. But unlike the Knicks' center, Noah has only improved in the face of adversity this season, while Chandler has regressed.
According to NBA.com, among players who faced at least six shots at the rim per game this year, Noah's opponents posted the ninth-lowest field-goal percentage at less than 47 percent. Chandler was toward the bottom of the pack at 52 percent.
On offense, Noah's vision and playmaking ability would only aid 'Melo's influence on offense. Chandler's future in New York is questionable, but the Knicks would never be able to match Noah's production at the center position.
In Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks have an efficient post scorer to pair with Anthony. But the team can't defensively afford long stretches of a Stoudemire-Anthony frontcourt. Noah's two-way dominance is key.
Immediate Title Contention
Upon signing Anthony, the Bulls would become instant favorites to match up with the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals, given the Indiana Pacers' recent demise. A trio of Rose, Anthony and Noah would rival Miami's triumvirate and would give the Bulls as well-rounded a team as they've seen in years. Not to mention under a coach that has a reputation of getting his players to buy in better than anyone in the league.
Chicago will also be bringing on a first-round draft pick this summer in what's purported to be the best draft in a decade, while the Knicks won't be active in the draft until 2015—and not again until 2017.
D.J. Augustin, Mike Dunleavy and Jimmer Fredette all provide strong three-point shooting, which is another must-have in an Anthony-led offense. Shooters are also relatively available in the free-agent market for reasonable costs, so this doesn't pose a big issue to Chicago in the bigger picture.
It's likely that some of the Bulls would need to part with some complimentary pieces in order to add Anthony—whether it be in a salary dump or a sign-and-trade with New York—but any combination of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Dunleavy, a 2014 first-round pick and Nikola Mirotic are all viable weapons to help round the rotation.
If Chicago amnesties Carlos Boozer, and packages Dunleavy and Gibson in a deal without taking on any 2014-15 salary, a feasible scenario where Carmelo and Mirotic are Bulls next season could come to fruition. The team's trade-deadline silence last February makes it a daunting task, but the window remains cracked, especially with the recent news of a slightly higher cap.
The Knicks, on the flip side, can't offer Anthony a sniff at the Larry O'Brien trophy until 2016 at the earliest.
Next season's roster is essentially locked in, with Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire likely picking up their player options and leaving the team capped out again in 2014-15. New York owns a single pick over the next three drafts.
In offering Anthony a five-year deal, they'd be requesting that he wager another season of his prime in 2014-15, betting that Phil Jackson's front office will be able to construct a champion contender in record time. The Knicks would also ask that 'Melo take less than a max deal—probably something comparable to a contract Chicago can offer—in order to fit enough talent under the cap.
While the Knicks will be asking Anthony to sacrifice time and money to be their centerpiece, the Bulls will dangle their maximum offer to make him the final piece of a championship puzzle.
It will take some pride-swallowing to leave the city he forced his way to, once upon a time, and flee the Big Apple with just one postseason series victory to his credit. But as he turns 30 next month, Anthony realizes that now isn't the time to gamble away seasons:
"I don't know if I can afford another season of losing," he said during his exit interview, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola. "I want to come back," he continued (via Newsday's Al Iannazzone). "But I also want to win."
It's appearing more and more that those two factors are, in fact, mutually exclusive—at least in the short-term. And without trying to parse words, it sounds like Anthony understands that.
Barring some Phil Jackson miracle-working in short order, every other suitor will be able to present Anthony with a more favorable situation than New York. If Chicago comes knocking—and all indications are that they will—it'll be hard for 'Melo to rationalize turning down an offer to join Rose, Noah and Tom Thibodeau for the rest of his prime.
He has left a city high and dry once before, but this time—after squandering his two best seasons on under-achieving Knicks rosters—nobody will blame Anthony for joining up with the Bulls to chase championships.
After missing the playoffs, having his lottery pick fall to the Orlando Magic and watching his franchise's face flee to a rival market, the only person James Dolan would have to blame is himself.
Stats gathered from NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.