Joining forces with Dwight Howard and James Harden would make for a harrowing offensive triumvirate and give Houston one of the league's more lethal setups, as Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver detailed:
From a talent standpoint, the addition of Anthony would seemingly vault the Rockets, who lost in the first round of the playoffs, into a small group of Western Conference contenders alongside the Spurs and Thunder. In an ideal situation, perhaps Anthony would plug in as a small-ball power forward — filling Houston’s hole at the position — alongside small forward Chandler Parsons, who is expected to become a restricted free agent this summer.
Sounds exciting, even if it's not perfect.
Is it possible?
After some extensive maneuvering, it just may be.
Acquiring Anthony via a sign-and-trade is the easiest way for the Rockets to pry him out of New York in theory. All it takes is one word from Phil Jackson: Yes.
Houston's general manager Daryl Morey has already prepared the Rockets for this exact scenario. They're expected to decline Chandler Parsons' team option—worth under $1 million—and allow him to reach restricted free agency, according to Wojnarowski.
This move requires a second glance. Maybe even a third. Risk losing Parsons? When you could have kept him? For under $1 million?
Shame on you, Morey, you brilliant, scheming, cap-managing sage.
Making Parsons a restricted free agent is actually a good thing if the Rockets are hoping to land Anthony. As a restricted free agent, Parsons can be signed and traded to the Knicks in a package for Melo, which makes figuring out the dollars and cents of any deal far less convoluted.
At slightly over $960,000 next season, Parsons isn't going to net the Rockets a star. He has the talent and promise, but he lacks the salary. Anthony made more than 20 times that last season.
Signing him to a new contract as part of the deal increases his financial value, making it easier for the trade to go through. If he's making $10 million or more annually, perhaps the Rockets are only forced to give up either Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik in any swap.
Even if they must relinquish both, it heightens the attractiveness of what they're offering. The Knicks won't worry about Parsons becoming a rental—he'll be locked down long term and unable to explore unrestricted free agency next summer.
There is a downside to this: New York's willingness to make a deal.
The Knicks won't take back any contracts that extend beyond summer 2015, when they're slated to have mountains of cap space, per Wojnarowski. Committing four years to Parsons is actually a deterrent.
Expiring pacts will be of more value to them. Though Asik and Lin—and technically Parsons—are just that, Jackson won't help facilitate Anthony's exit for money that's coming off New York's books anyway. It's going to take draft picks. Plural.
Morey and friends would already be hamstringing themselves financially by adding another superstar. Draft selections are what will help the Rockets assemble a supporting cast around a theoretical Big Three of Anthony, Howard and Harden.
Shipping one or more picks off to New York, when they're already handing over two, possibly three, rotation players reeks of roster depletion—the very kind that has apparently caused Anthony to sour on the Knicks.
Unless the Knicks are complicit—see: feeling generous enough—to assist in helping Anthony end up with Houston, creating enough cap space to sign him is the Rockets' best shot at landing him.
Tinkering with their financial outlook begins with dumping the expiring contracts of Lin and Asik, no small task in light of their 2014-15 salaries (approximately $15 million) nearly doubling their cap hits (roughly $8.4 million apiece).
Moving Lin and Asik doesn't faze Morey, though. Wojnarowski said that he and the Rockets are confident in their ability to trade both without taking back any salary in return.
Assuming the Rockets can do this, they'll have five players under guaranteed contract for next season—Harden, Howard, Terrence Jones, Isaiah Canaan and Donatas Motiejunas—totaling $40 million.
Francisco Garcia holds a player option worth almost $1.3 million, Troy Daniels has a team option worth $816,482, and Robert Covington, Patrick Beverley and Omri Casspi are on non-guaranteed deals worth a combined $2.6 million.
Toss in those five salaries, and the Rockets have about $44.7 million committed to 10 different players. And then they have Parsons to consider.
Once he enters restricted free agency, Parsons' cap hit changes. Dan Feldman of NBC Sports breaks it down further:
By Houston declining it and then extending a qualifying offer, Parsons will count against the cap at $2,875,130* until he signs either a contract or offer sheet. Then, he’ll count against the cap at his 2014-15 salary, which will surely be much higher.
*He earned a higher qualifying offer by meeting the starter criteria. That puts his qualifying offer equal to the rookie-scale amount for the No. 21 pick in the 2010 draft (not 2011, as previously noted). Though Parsons was drafted in 2011, the 2010 draft is used because players drafted in the first round in 2010 are finishing their contracts this season.
Parsons increases Houston's salary commitments to $47.8 million split between 11 players. After accounting for their first-round pick—No. 25 overall—they're at $48.9 million, assuming their rookie signs at a rate similar to the Los Angeles Clippers' Reggie Bullock, who was drafted 25th overall in 2013.
Thirteen players must be on the roster, and the Rockets now have 12. Melo would be lucky No. 13.
And expensive No. 13.
Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported that the NBA's salary cap would rise to $63.2 million next season. Our rough estimates have the Rockets being able to offer him $13.4 million in the first year of his new deal, which, according to Larry Coon, author of the CBA FAQ, is about $9 million less than Anthony can make in 2014-15.
"At this point of my career, I’m not concerned with money," Anthony said in April, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. "The contract will be the contract."
Sing that song to us when you're staring an annual pay cut of $9 million in the face, Melo. That's $36 million over four years. If you factor in the extra year New York could offer him, it begins to creep above $60 million.
One could buy a lot of replica championship rings with that money.
Texas doesn't withhold income tax, but let's not get completely carried away. Melo isn't signing for under $14 million to start. If he's willing to accept that much less, the Miami Heat become instant favorites to land him.
The Rockets can open things up even further by trading away one of their smaller expiring deals. The empty space that creates would be supplanted by a minimum cap hold worth slightly above $500,000.
For example, if Garcia is dealt or declines his $1.3 million player option, the Rockets open up somewhere around $800,000 in additional cap space. In this case, their best offer to Melo would approach $14.2 million to start.
This is where things get difficult. Wojnarowski says the Rockets would love to retain Parsons and sign Anthony, but that's highly unlikely.
Bidding farewell to Parsons would save them $2.4 million—almost $2.9 million, minus the minimum placeholder worth $500,000. Parting ways with him and Garcia gives Melo a starting salary of $16.6 million, which should at least get the conversation started.
But it still falls well short of the max. And while Anthony may be willing to accept a pay cut, will he take anything less than $18 million? Or even $20 million?
For the Rockets to approach $18 million, one or two more players would have to be dumped in addition to Parsons, Garcia, Lin and Asik. For them to hit $20 million, that number can climb as high as five.
So, yeah, Morey has some roster-purging to do.
Hope For a Trade
Cleansing their roster of almost everyone not named Dwight Howard or James Harden is dangerous.
The San Antonio Spurs just wrapped up a championship campaign founded upon depth, and it came at the expense of the star-crammed, depthless Heat. Houston would be following a blueprint similar to the fallen Heatles.
Fielding three superstars doesn't promise Houston a title. It doesn't even guarantee improvement. The Western Conference is alive with contenders, many of whom won't be overthrown by Houston's trio of superstars and a bench emaciated by the organization's infatuation with star power.
Trading for Melo is the way to go. It will still cost the Rockets a significant number of assets, but it won't leave them bereft of a supporting cast.
And if Melo cannot be had via trade, well, they always have the option of pillaging through their roster to make a play for him in free agency before hoping their star power doesn't fall victim to another team's depth next season.
*Salary information via ShamSports.