Visions of James and Anthony playing together are nothing new, but with both galloping toward free agency—or rather, possessing the option to become free agents—this time-honored fantasy is inheriting more attention than usual after USA Today's Sam Amick dropped this scaled-down bomb:
Yet according to two people with knowledge of the situation, Anthony's part in this fluid free agency situation is worth monitoring as James is known to be interested in eventually playing with his close friend. Anthony also has a player option on his deal for next season (worth $23.5 million), and his connection to James has teams like the Lakers, Knicks and even the Heat wondering whether he may be able to join the four-time NBA MVP.
More than just the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat would pounce on this opportunity. You can bet your grandmother's secret tapioca pudding recipe on that.
Teams like the Houston Rockets—who are preparing to make a play for one of Anthony and James, per Amick—and Chicago Bulls—who are one of the favorites to land Melo, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski—would gladly foot the bill and handle the baggage this coupling comes with.
They just can't. Not soon enough, at least.
Unlike 27 other NBA teams, the Heat, Lakers and Knicks are positioned to make this happen. It's a ridiculously long, long, long shot, to be sure.
For different reasons, though, these three offer the right combination of appeal and possibilities. If Anthony and James are determined to play alongside one another, their best chance at building castles in the sky lies in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. One of these clubs is just more likely to actualize this immeasurably improbable merger than the others.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Bringing Anthony and James to Los Angeles is going to be especially tricky.
And no, I’m not saying he did something wrong either. Again, I’m saying he made a choice.
As far as the cap is concerned, it makes no difference whether the Lakers offered him the money or he asked for the money. The same amount is left for free agency. Either way, he still chose to receive more money over receiving better teammates.
Regardless of the scope you view Bryant's extension through, it's a deterrent to the degree that it would be easier to put superstars around him if he was making less. The end. No shots at Bryant's character or intentions implied.
Good news, though: Bryant's contract hasn't obliterated Los Angeles' flexibility entirely. The Lakers still have the means to add talent over the next two years.
If it's both Anthony and James they're seeking, next summer is the time. We're not even going to touch this summer.
The Lakers could use the stretch provision on Steve Nash to free up extra cap space and work from there, but it's not worth the extra $3.2 million that would count against their books through 2016-17.
Now, the Lakers could sign Anthony this summer, hope James opts in with the Miami Heat for another year and then go shopping again next summer. That's a play they could make.
But it becomes difficult to gauge how much of a pay cut Anthony needs to take if he's not signing in conjunction with James. It also wouldn't behoove him to join an aging Bryant and cash-strapped Los Angeles until he knows help is on the way.
As of now, the Lakers have one guaranteed contract on the books heading into 2015-16, and it's Bryant's. They'll have whoever they select with the No. 7 pick this year, too.
Assuming the projected cap of $62.3 million holds steady, the Lakers will have $28 million committed to two players in 2015—$25 million for Bryant and $3 million for their 2014 draft pick—if they only take on one-year deals this summer.
(Aside: Ben McLemore, the seventh overall pick in 2013, is earning $3 million in his second season, so that's where the figure comes from.)
Toss in nine minimum cap holds worth $500,000 each ($4.5 million combined) to get their roster at 11 players—two short of the league minimum—and the Lakers would have $32.5 million on the books, giving them $29.8 million in spending power.
When shared between Anthony and James, that's about $14.9 million apiece. That's nowhere near enough. Though the Lakers could open up an extra $3 million in cap if they dump their sophomore contract, $1.5 million each is an inconsequential amount.
Not only do the Lakers need both players to opt into the next year of their deals, they need them to accept drastic pay cuts that amount to tens of millions of dollars over their life.
How likely are James and Anthony to make such sacrifices when an aging lifelong Laker like Bryant wouldn't?
2. Miami Heat
Pat Riley has a Big Four on the brain.
According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein, the Heat are actively positioning themselves for a shot at signing Anthony:
Sources told ESPN.com that Heat officials and the team's leading players have already started to explore their options for creating sufficient financial flexibility to make an ambitious run at adding New York Knicks scoring machine Carmelo Anthony this summer in free agency.
Timeliness is a major benefit here. Understand that before we delve into finances.
No waiting is involved. Anthony doesn't have to opt into the last year of his deal with the Knicks, and James is free to sign a new contract with the Heat instead of opting in himself.
Onto the numbers...
Having any kind of financial flexibility will require Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James opting out of their contracts. It's definitely possible, but optimal pliability is only achieved if the Heat can enact a series of other changes.
Chris Andresen and Udonis Haslem must decline their player options, Justin Hamilton needs to be waived and Norris Cole has to get shipped out. This way, James, Bosh, Wade and their No. 26 pick—worth approximately $1 million—are the only financial roadblocks they face.
Each NBA team must carry a minimum of 13 players on the roster. The Heat, theoretically, would have five after accounting for Anthony. That means eight of those nifty minimum cap holds enter the fold.
Combine those with their draft pick, and the Heat have $5 million devoted to nine placeholders, leaving them with $57.3 million to split between their Big Four.
(It's worth noting here that Bosh, James and Wade must sign first unless the Heat renounce their Bird rights, otherwise they count against the cap for $20-plus million each)
This leaves the Heat with somewhere around $14.3 million to offer each star, which isn't insubstantial when you consider that's four separate contracts. Still, this isn't a lot of money for NBA superstars. And, more importantly, that's it on talent. The Heat will be hard-pressed to surround their Big Four with legitimate role players, as SB Nation's Mike Prada pointed out:
It's hard for even a great team like the Heat to find useful complimentary pieces with so few additional resources. One way to account for this is for James, Bosh, Wade and Anthony to take even less money, preserving enough cap space to sign another player. If each takes the equivalent of $1.5 million less in the first year, that may give Miami $6 million to sign a mid-tier free agent like Shaun Livingston, Trevor Ariza or even Spencer Hawes.
Getting Anthony, Bosh, James and Wade to accept $14.3 million is difficult enough. Ensuring they take even less is—well, it's impossible. They may have to take even less anyway if the Heat cannot figure out how to part ways with Haslem and Cole.
The only reason they're ahead of the Lakers is because they already have one of the two players we're talking about. And because Riley's free-agent sorcery is second only to Albus Dumbledore.
1. New York Knicks
Untested free-agent alchemy wins this battle of The Uniquely Unlikely.
Like every other possibility, the Knicks are indentured to "maybes" and "ifs."
For them to make this happen, they need James to opt into the next year of his deal, which isn't unreasonable. They need Melo to stay too—a taller order, apparently.
Frank Isola of the New York Daily News said Anthony still plans to explore free agency. Wojnarowski fought fire with malt liquor by revealing the Knicks superstar already had one foot out the door after being turned off by Jackson's "public proclamations of wanting" him to "take less money to stay with New York."
To keep the dream alive, Jackson and the Knicks must convince Anthony to re-sign or opt into the last year of his contract, because they have neither the cap space nor the assets to land James this summer.
Looking at it in a vacuum, we're essentially betting that the Knicks are more likely to retain Anthony than he and James are to take unprecedented pay cuts in Los Angeles or Miami. And you're about to see why.
Consider what Jackson said, via Isola:
We have an opportunity in the next couple of years to get back in the hunt for free agents that are headline players. This year, not so. But we’re going to make improvements on this team regardless. But next year and the year after we think that we’re going to have that opportunity. Can we get two instead of just one? Yeah, that’s a possibility.
He wasn't kidding.
Possibilites abound in 2015, when the Knicks have cap space. They have $13.4 million committed to five different contracts then, none of which are ironclad—they're a mixture of player and team options, qualifying offers and non-guaranteed deals.
Heading into summer 2015 with all those pacts in tow is the worst-case scenario. We're going to play with that here, since it will highlight their advantages.
The Knicks have a draft pick next summer—no, seriously, they do—and it's impossible to determine its value. Let's again go worst case here, and value it at $2.5 million, which basically assumes they'll wind up in the top 10.
That leaves them with $15.9 million in salary obligations. Factor in the five minimum cap holds they'll need, and that number climbs to $18.4 million. After subtracting that from $62.3 million, they're left with $43.9 million to divvy up between James and Anthony (almost $22 million each), markedly more than Los Angeles and Miami can offer.
And this is on the low end. The Knicks could sign Iman Shumpert to a new contract, but they could also see J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton hit free agency by declining player options. James and Anthony could even agree to pay cuts, giving the Knicks more flexibility.
Should you be purchasing custom-made LeBron James Knicks jerseys? Not at all. Yours truly wouldn't recommend investing in any more Anthony gear either. It may be coming to a clearance rack near you in just a few short weeks.
This, again, isn't likely. The Knicks, like the Heat and Lakers, need hoards of what-if factors to bend in their favor. But if James and Anthony really wish to play together, and they also want to get paid, New York offers both.
Summoning the requisite patience is up to them.
*Salary information via ShamSports.