With big names such as Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo possibly on the move, this summer has the potential to be one of the most buzzworthy offseasons in recent memory. The big question is which NBA superstar, if any, will be the first to go?
Other notable players such as New Orleans' Eric Gordon as well as Detroit's Greg Monroe (restricted free agent) and Josh Smith could find new addresses as well, but it will be the aforementioned trio that will generate the most interest from potential suitors.
Love, Anthony and Rondo each have unique situations that could lead to a departure, but the reason for leaving would be the same: All three want to compete for championships but are currently stuck on teams that are in the midst of a rebuild.
Of the three, Anthony is the closest to freedom. He can opt out of his contract this summer and start exploring his options. As for Love and Rondo, their days of being wined and dined will come next summer when they are both free agents.
Still, the prospect of any of these superstars taking their talents elsewhere should have their respective front offices and fanbases nervous. With a solid group of rookies coming this year and a strong free-agent class next year, now might be the time for someone in New York, Minnesota and/or Boston to cash in their biggest trade chip.
Let's break down each superstar's situation as well as the likelihood that he'll be filling out change-of-address forms this summer.
With all due respect to ESPN's Matthew Berry on The League, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is "the prettiest girl in the bar" this summer. When he opts out of his contract, teams will line up to try and sign one of the best pure scorers the league has to offer.
'Melo finds himself on a Knicks team that is in a state of flux. They finished the season outside of the playoff picture at 37-45 and recently gave head coach Mike Woodson his walking papers. Phil Jackson was brought in midseason to try and restore order in the Big Apple as well as be the carrot that convinces Anthony to stick around.
Anthony is coming off another stellar season. He averaged 27.4 points and a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game. He also shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc.
However, for all of 'Melo's excellence, an NBA title has eluded him during his 11-year career. He'll turn 30 years old in late May, and unless The Zen Master can turn things around immediately, he'll face another uphill battle in his quest to win a ring in New York.
On paper, the Knicks have some talent, but all of their key players come with question marks. J.R. Smith is a talented scorer, but his shot selection would drive the most patient coach bonkers. Iman Shumpert has the skills to be an excellent two-way player but has struggled to stay healthy.
Up front, Tyson Chandler is a former Defensive Player of the Year who comes with his own set of injury woes. Additionally, one-dimensional big men Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani have durability concerns as well.
When you add it all up, it's tough to like New York's championship prospects in the immediate future.
Meanwhile, there are teams such as the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls that can offer less money but a better chance at winning a title. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote back in March that Houston and Chicago will definitely be in the mix for 'Melo's services:
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.
In his exit interview, Anthony said he'd like to return to the Knicks, but he's not interested in rebuilding, as he told The New York Post's Marc Berman:
I want to come back. If we can put ourselves in a position to compete at a high level over the course of five years, whatever that contract will be, I’m willing to stay here. I never once said I wanted to leave. I always said I want to explore options and see what’s out there.
However, the former Syracuse star added this as well:
At this point in my career, I'm not concerned with money. The contract will be the contract. I like to consider myself financially stable. For me, it’s more day-to-day stuff, competing at a high level, night in, night out, having a chance of reaching my ultimate goal of winning that championship.
Carmelo: "I want to come back. I also want to win." #Knicks— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) April 17, 2014
Carmelo: "I'm not at the point in my career where I want to rebuild." #Knicks— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) April 17, 2014
If Anthony truly does value winning championships over money, New York will have a tough time hanging on to its star player. Chicago could amnesty Carlos Boozer and possibly sign 'Melo outright. From there, he joins a roster that includes reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and former MVP Derrick Rose.
In Houston, the team would have to do some maneuvering, but it seems to have a willingness to add 'Melo to a fold that already includes Dwight Howard and James Harden. While that trio doesn't assure Anthony will win a title, it's definitely a better situation than his current one.
Speaking of Howard, don't be surprised if the courtship of Anthony mirrors Dwight's free-agency tour last summer. The Sporting News' Sean Deveney, citing a source, writes that Anthony wants "the Dwight Howard treatment":
Free agency opens on July 1, and, the source said, Anthony would like, “the Dwight Howard treatment.” That means he wants to go through the same sort of process that Howard went through last summer, when Howard set up shop in Los Angeles and set up meetings with five teams—Houston, the Lakers, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta—each of whom came in and made formal presentations.
In the end, it comes down to Jackson being able to sell 'Melo on staying. Throughout his coaching career, The Zen Master has worked wonders when it came time to get superstars to believe in his vision. If Jackson and Anthony can't get on the same page, all is not lost for New York.
They could work out a sign-and-trade and net some nice pieces in exchange for one of the best players in the league. Houston has key pieces such as center Omer Asik as well as forwards Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons.
As for the Bulls, they have a bevy of picks and some young talent that they could offer up as well.
It's tough to see Anthony leaving his love for New York and the electricity of Madison Square Garden behind. Chicago makes the most sense for Anthony this summer, but a hunch tells me he sticks with the Knicks.
Likelihood of Anthony leaving: 40 percent chance
Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has insisted that point guard Rajon Rondo remains a large part of the team's rebuilding plans and that there's no active desire to send him elsewhere. In a recent interview with WEEI's Michael Holley and Jackie MacMullan, Ainge said Rondo will be in a Celtics uniform next season.
“I’ve said that like a thousand times,” Ainge said. “Like, every interview, every day, you heard me say it last night, you heard me say it last week, you heard me say it last month, you heard me say it six years ago."
However, The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn wrote earlier in the month that losing has "taken a toll on Rondo." The Celtics inevitably finished 25-57. Rondo played in just 30 games as he continues to recover from knee surgery, averaging 11.7 points and 9.8 assists per game.
While the rebuilding process may be tough on Rondo, the Celtics are in a good position to bounce back in the near future. They have plenty of cap room as well as a couple first-round picks in this year's draft, including one projected to be in the top half of the lottery.
The Celtics could use that ammo one of two ways. They could continue to stockpile young talent by adding pieces out of a solid rookie class or cash in their chips and try to lure in another big name to play alongside Rondo.
Based on Ainge's comments about this year's class back in March, the feeling seems to think he's leaning towards the latter.
"There aren’t any game changers in the draft," Ainge told the media. "There are a lot of nice players and players that we’ll be excited to work into the development, but they’re not going to come in and turn our team around in one year or two years."
The Celtics already have nice players who are being developed. Young big men Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have the potential to be key contributors. There's also Avery Bradley, who can be a stellar two-way guard when healthy.
In a weak Eastern Conference, all it would take is landing another superstar to turn things around in Boston. That could be someone like Kevin Love via trade with Minnesota. It could also be a restricted free agent like Detroit's Monroe or Utah guard and former Brad Stevens pupil Gordon Hayward.
As for Rondo, his desire to bolt next summer will probably depend on how much progress the team makes during the season. He already has his championship ring, so there's less of a desperation to join a contender. That being said, the goal of any young superstar is to contend for a title.
If Ainge feels like Rondo isn't willing to stick around, he could explore his trade options once again. During the deadline, the alleged price for Rondo varied between two first-round picks, via Bulls.com's Sam Smith and the combination of "at least one lottery pick and a talented young player," according to The Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat.
The Houston Rockets kicked the tires on a potential deal for Rondo back in February, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, but talks never got serious. Rondo would help improve a porous Rockets perimeter defense as well as give the team another superstar to join Dwight Howard and James Harden.
Houston already has an emerging talent at point guard in Patrick Beverley, whose energy and hard-nosed defense gives the team a sense of toughness. Still, if it came down to keeping Beverley or adding Rondo, it's tough to argue against upgrading at point guard.
It's a safe bet that Ainge will make a trade, but it's doubtful that Rondo will be involved. With Rondo under contract for another year and the point guard not forcing anyone's hand, there's less pressure to make a move right away.
The more likely scenario is Ainge will use the considerable resources he has to restore the Celtics back to glory. Whether via the draft or otherwise, the Celtics will be better than the abomination that took the court this past season.
Barring something unforeseen, Rondo seems the least likely of the big names to be moved at this point. Then again, who knows what could happen if someone makes Ainge an offer he can't refuse?
Likelihood of Rondo being traded: 25 percent chance
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven't made the NBA playoffs since the 2003-04 season. That stretch includes the past six years, when they've been led by arguably the best power forward in the game in Kevin Love.
With Love potentially hitting free agency next summer (he has a $16.7 million option for 2015-16, according to HoopsHype.com), his future with the team seems a bit murky. You can't help but give the Timberwolves credit for trying to build a team around the former UCLA standout.
This past offseason, the team re-signed emerging center Nikola Pekovic and added key role players such as Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. The team also drafted Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng last June.
The result was a 40-42 season and head coach Rick Adelman opting to retire. In the wake of Adelman's departure, several hot names have emerged as potential replacements. According to ESPN's Stein, college standouts such as Florida's Billy Donovan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg are on Minnesota's radar.
There's also the possibility of Minnesota's president of basketball operations and minority owner, Flip Saunders, returning to the bench to coach the team if a suitable candidate can't be found elsewhere. After all, Saunders is the last man to lead the Wolves to the postseason.
Still, regardless of who is manning the sidelines, the focus centers around Love. At this point, there isn't much Minnesota can do to make the team around Love any better. They've spent a considerable amount of money on free agents and will likely be picking at the bottom of the lottery this June.
Making matters worse, they are stuck in a Western Conference that is the deepest its been in years. Teams that missed the playoffs this season such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets all expect to be in the running for the postseason next year.
The best move for Minnesota, as hard as this may be for Timberwolves fans, may be to move Love this summer. Stein reported reported in March that the Lakers are willing to make a move to free Love from the icy wilderness of Minnesota this summer:
The suggestion is already in circulation that the Lakers will attempt to use their forthcoming high lottery pick in June to assemble the sort of trade package that finally convinces the Wolves to part with Love and end the uncertainty that hangs over this franchise even before the 25-year-old enters the final year of his contract.
Even with Love's pending free agency after this season, the Wolves could get a pretty penny back if they were to make him available. The Boston Celtics have a need for a superstar and are equipped with draft picks.
The same goes for the Phoenix Suns, who have three first-round picks in this June's draft. The Orlando Magic have two firsts, both in the lottery, and could use someone with Love's talent. There's also the Chicago Bulls, who have multiple picks and other enticing trade chips like European prospect Nikola Mirotic.
For Wolves fans, this must feel like deja vu. Nearly seven years ago, Minnesota gave up on trying to win a championship with Kevin Garnett and sent "The Big Ticket" to Boston in a blockbuster deal. KG inevitably made two NBA Finals appearances and won his first championship.
This time around, Love is at the forefront of the longest current playoff drought in the NBA. With no head coach and no room for improvement, it would make sense for Minnesota to cash in its biggest chip this summer.
The team could build around a core of Pekovic, Ricky Rubio and whoever they get back in a Love trade. Meanwhile, Love can spend the prime of his career playing with a purpose. No fanbase wants to watch a superstar forward chase titles elsewhere for the second time in a less than a decade, but the reality is Love isn't bringing a championship back to Minnesota.
Who Gets Traded First?
The Timberwolves have time to make a deal, but it would be best to try to strike a deal soon while there are quality picks to be had. If Minnesota can move Love and get back someone like Kentucky's Julius Randle or Duke's Jabari Parker in return, it could help the team in the long run and save the franchise the embarrassment of watching its star walk away for nothing.
In the end, Love remains the likeliest candidate to be moved of the elite names potentially on the market. The Wolves gave it their best shot to build around him and came up unsuccessful. Now the time has come for both parties to get what they ultimately want.
For Love, it's a chance to win a title. For Minnesota, it's a chance to save face.
Likelihood of Love being traded: 51 percent chance
This offseason has the potential to be the most exciting since "The Summer of LeBron" in 2010. Outside of the aforementioned trio on the trade market, there are also notable names such as Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol available in free agency.
Even if Anthony, Love and Rondo stay put, the combination of a solid draft and free-agent class makes this a good year for teams trying to rebuild.