Free agency is inching closer and closer, and Carmelo Anthony finds himself at the center of it all, leaning toward leaving the New York Knicks for the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets, the latter of which offers more of what he's seeking.
Consider it a miniature bomb that incited a teensy-weensy explosion. Melo has been labeled a flight risk since the beginning of this past season. That we've now received confirmation of said risk is hardly mind-melting.
Not that it isn't noteworthy. His preference is bound to take some by surprise, including myself. In the interest of full disclosure, I've long been a proponent of Anthony opting in and finishing out his contract. Surveying the free-agency landscape for another season helps ensure Melo makes the right decision by giving him more options to choose from.
New York's superstar apparently disagrees. And that's fine. Acting on his free-agency status now rather than later is his right. Fear of playing through another pointless season could drive him out of New York and into Chicago or Houston or some dark-horse free-agent destination.
Wherever he ends ups, he has to be sure it's the most optimal situation of the scant few available. And if we're to believe he'll choose between the Bulls and Rockets, it's Houston that can assure him of the brighter future.
Why Not the Bulls?
Creating the requisite cap space to sign Anthony won't be hard for the Bulls.
Amnestying Carlos Boozer brings them $16.8 million closer to their goal. From there, it's a matter of shedding salary commitments by finding homes for some combination of Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and their two first-round draft picks. Anything and anyone they have to dump holds value.
Chicago must first be willing to jump through rings of fire to unlock the necessary cap space, a gamble that the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson says it may be unwilling to make:
To this point, the Bulls haven't shown much inclination to trade pieces away for nothing but salary-cap space in return, as they did in 2010 with Kirk Hinrich to the Wizards. The Bulls quietly were confident they would land either LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or both that summer and remain scarred by that failure.
Anthony long has respected Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. But the Bulls would have to use the amnesty provision on Boozer and trade Gibson and another player such as Mike Dunleavy or Jimmy Butler for nothing to get close to maximum salary-cap space.
Such hesitation is understandable.
Holding on to regret from 2010 is absolutely ridiculous, but the idea of trading valuable components for nothing other than cap space in return has a bitter taste to it. The Bulls pride themselves on depth. It's one of the reasons that Wojnarowski says they're so high on his wish list.
Gutting any—or worse, most—of the supporting cast damages their outside appeal. And it has to be done in good faith, since the Bulls cannot sign Anthony and then proceed to clean house.
Let's assume the Bulls uncharacteristically mortgage the farm or that Anthony agrees to sign for less than the max. It doesn't make Chicago the superior fit.
Many of the Bulls-sided arguments focus on Anthony's ability to do the one thing they cannot: score. While true, they ranked 28th in offensive efficiency for 2013-14. Much of the burden will still fall on Anthony. Chicago's second-ranked defense could also suffer with Melo in the rotation, though, head coach Tom Thibodeau's system is designed to cover up the deficiencies of one or two players (see: Boozer).
Playing alongside Rose isn't a selling point either. Not right now. When healthy, he's a top-three point guard, but he hasn't been healthy in three years.
People tend to cite him missing only five games through his first three seasons. Required response to said people: "Cool, but we care more about the last three seasons." And in the last three seasons, Rose has appeared in just 50 games, regular season and playoffs.
Recent injuries don't have to be harbingers of doom, but they also can't be chalked up to bad luck. The Bulls really need to see what they can get from Rose next season before they make such assumptions, as would Melo.
If, for some reason, he delayed free agency until 2015, the Bulls become a more desirable landing spot. There will be a better handle on Rose and what their future holds then.
The Bulls aren't worthless scrubs, just so we're clear. Teaming up with Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Thibs has its benefits even if Rose isn't involved. But he's owed more than $60.2 million over the next three seasons. If he cannot remain an integral part of their success, they're at a severe disadvantage.
One that, even just in theory, can and will act as a red flag as they pursue Anthony.
Rocket to the NBA Finals
Like all good detectives, we won't disguise Houston as the perfect destination.
There's a lot the Rockets must do before going after Anthony. Any chase starts with finding teams to absorb the last year of Jeremy Lin's and Omer Asik's contracts.
Both players have a cap hit that checks in at just under $8.4 million, but their actual salary is nearly double that, courtesy of those poison-pill pacts general manager Daryl Morey handed out like candy in 2012.
Unloading Asik without receiving anything in return shouldn't be a problem. As a 7-footer one year removed from averaging a double-double, he has value.
Trading Lin will be more difficult. While he's proven to be more than a serviceable floor general, he plays at a stacked position. The Rockets may have to ship out a first-round pick of their own to grease the wheels of any deal.
But as Wojnarowski previously acknowledged, the Rockets are confident in their ability to deal Lin and Asik, and plan to make a splash this summer:
In one scenario, Houston could secure three max-out players – including Howard, Harden and a potential star free agent – and then re-sign Parsons to an extension below the max-level range. Parsons could command in the $12 million to $13 million annual range, league executives tell Yahoo Sports.
Is such an assembly likely? Of course not. It's not even possible unless Anthony takes a drastic pay cut. Texas doesn't charge income tax, though, so that's something to consider.
Fit-wise—Parsons or no Parsons—Houston just makes more sense.
They ranked fourth in offensive efficiency this past year. One of the things they lacked was a hot-shooting stretch forward, requirements that Anthony perfectly fulfills.
The Rockets attempt loads of threes—most in the league last season—but converted a middling 35.8 percent of them. Anthony drilled a career-high 40.2 percent of his long balls in 2013-14, and he shot even better in spot-up situations (44.2 percent), per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Placing him alongside Harden and Howard paves way for frequent drive-and-kicks and kick-outs, boosting an already ridiculous offensive attack.
Adding Melo won't help the Rockets' 12th-ranked defense, and he represents yet another offensive mouth to feed, but while available touches will factor into his decision, so will player availability.
Howard and Harden are durable superstars. Both of them are near-locks to appear in more games than Rose at this point. Having endured years of Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler getting banged up, playing next to healthy sidekicks provides Anthony with safety nets he hasn't had in years.
In this case, the safer play, is the smarter play, is the more attractive play.
Engaging in some good ol' fashioned name-gaming—Melo, Superman and Beard on the same team?!—only helps elevate Houston's ceiling.
Better Not Perfect
Cases can be made for and against Chicago and Houston, which speaks to the shaky nature of Anthony's free agency.
If his free-agency decision is about keeping his options open, he would finish his contract with the Knicks. But missing the playoffs for the first time of his career appears to have pushed his win-now fervor into overdrive.
The Knicks cannot promise him the chance to contend next season. And if that's what he will base his decision off, New Yorkers better brace for his departure now.
Unlike the Knicks, the Rockets and Bulls are in better immediate positions.
The Bulls are especially inviting because they play in the wide-open Eastern Conference, which, to date, housed one legitimate contender in the Miami Heat. After a first-round exodus, the Rockets don't seem ready to set the Western Conference's juggernaut-laden lineup ablaze.
Long-term, though, which team would you rather join: One built around Howard and Harden or Rose, Noah and whomever else would still be on the Bulls after Anthony's arrival?
It shouldn't be that simple, and moving forward it won't be. At the moment, weeks—days even, since Marc Stein of ESPN.com says Melo has until June 23 to declare for free agency—before Anthony makes his decision, it is that simple.
“At this point of my career, it’s about winning—nothing else really matters,” Anthony said in April, via the New York Post's Marc Berman. “That’s not going to change."
Anthony's wish list might.
What's obvious won't.
Compelled to choose between the Bulls and Rockets, Anthony must journey where the brighter, less question mark-riddled future lies, which, right now, is in Houston.