Much ink has already been spilled about Carmelo Anthony's free agent future, and much more will be spilled over the next few weeks about his decision on whether to opt out of the final season of his New York Knicks contract and, assuming he does, which team he will subsequently sign with.
While sources and rumormongers will have much to say about where Melo is headed before he makes his final decision, we're not here today to speculate. Instead, let's take a look at how the actual on-court fit would work in each of his potential free agent destinations.
New York Knicks
Strictly in terms of matching skill set to system, this is a great fit, assuming that new Knicks coach Derek Fisher will incorporate at least some aspects of the famed triangle offense, as is widely expected.
Bleacher Report's Dylan Murphy took a look at how Anthony would fit in the triangle not long after the Knicks hired Phil Jackson as their team president. While the entire post is well worth a read, the short version can be boiled down like this: Melo could do incredible damage from the "pinch post," much like Kobe Bryant did for Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers teams.
I'd anticipate Melo finding great comfort as the weak-side "big" in this offense where he plays a lot from the pinch post/elbow area or slides down [five] feet to the mid-block where he can post in isolation while the Triangle is formed on the opposite side. Look at how Kobe played in the 2009 playoffs as an example. He lit up the Nuggets and the Magic from these spots on the floor, scoring well and then forcing double teams (soft shows and hard traps) that put defenses into scramble modes.Ultimately, versatile, elite scorers should love this offense because it allows them to play at all three levels of the floor -- the low block, the mid-range, and beyond the arc -- with actions to open them up and produce good shots at every level. I know Melo has his faults and some like to nitpick his offensive game, but he is a load of a scorer and I truly believe he would be a natural in this offense once he found his rhythm and got a good understanding of how the actions unfold. This might take some time, but he seems to be a smart enough guy in terms of how offensive basketball is played from a scoring sense. So I expect it will happen for him.
It would be an extremely dangerous situation for the defense to have Anthony with the ball at or near the elbow with most of that side of the court cleared for him to attack. He can strike with a quick one-dribble jumper (one of his favorite shots when isolating near the elbow), he can take his man baseline off the dribble or he can back all the way down into the paint, draw a double team and kick out to a shooter in front of his face or, if he can read multiple levels of the defense, across the floor.
Melo already did plenty of damage in post isolations under former Knicks head coach Mike Woodson, but take a look at the difference in where his catches tended to come compared to where Kobe caught the ball in that video above:
Melo caught the ball at the elbow often under Woodson, but far too large a portion of his post isolations originated in the so-called "deep wing" area. This was comparatively disadvantageous because A) it takes more effort to get to the basket for a high-percentage shot if you are farther away (obviously); B) off-ball defenders can shade farther away from their marks on the weak side because they have more time to recover due to passes taking a longer time to travel across the floor, which cuts off driving lanes that may otherwise exist; and C) help defenders have more time to rotate over to protect against the drive, which helps force Anthony into long, contested pull-up jumpers.
(Of note: There's a reason Anthony has typically struggled against Thibodeau-style, strong-side overload defenses. These type of isolations tend to get smothered against that form of defense. Anthony has shot around four percent worse than his career average from the field against Thibs-coached teams.)
Simply moving from the deep wing to the pinch post would help Anthony get cleaner driving and passing lanes, and free him up to go straight at his man without as much fear of being smothered by multiple help defenders.
The problem here, though, is that most of the rest of New York's roster is ill-suited for the triangle offense, which calls for every player on the floor to have the ability to shoot, screen, pass, penetrate and cut. The Knicks have very few players who can do even two of those things with any sort of consistency, let alone all five.
Those best-suited to succeed in the triangle are probably J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert. Smith comes closest to embodying the type of skill set the triangle calls for out of its guards, and could actually fit very well into a similar role that Ron Harper played in the system. However, Smith has a tendency to freelance outside of the offense, and it's hard to see him accepting such a narrowly-defined (and so clearly secondary or tertiary) role.
Meanwhile, Stoudemire's fit in the offense would likely come at the expense of Melo touching the ball in the optimal floor locations. STAT, too, would seem well-suited to attack his man in isolation from the pinch post. Amar'e could also succeed in the two-man game on the weak side, à la Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, but he is not nearly as versatile a threat as either of those players, particularly in the passing department.
Prigioni is already 37 years old and, though a strong shooter, is almost pathologically reluctant to let it fly from outside and almost never penetrates the lane with the intent to score.
Shumpert has been inconsistent at best with his outside shot, and often appeared unwilling to pull the trigger last season, as he made numerous efforts to show he had expanded his off-the-dribble game, which adversely affected his spot-up shooting performance. If he can revert back to his 2012-13 form, when he looked to have the makings of an elite "three-and-D" man, he could play a Harper or even Derek Fisher-like role for a Knicks team using the triangle offense, depending on which of the backcourt spots he mans.
Center Tyson Chandler is almost exclusively a pick-and-roll finisher. Tim Hardaway, Jr. can shoot, and occasionally flashed some off-the-bounce creativity, but he did not show any sort of screening, passing or cutting ability as a rookie.
Raymond Felton can dribble so long as he is not pressured, but he is a poor shooter who does almost nothing well offensively outside of run pick-and-rolls and only succeeds in that arena when he uses the space afforded by defenders who go under screens to penetrate and kick rather than pulling up for long jumpers. The problem is that he is far too willing to take the jumper when presented with the opportunity to do so.
Andrea Bargnani cannot shoot, screen, pass, penetrate or cut.
So while Anthony could theoretically excel in this offense on an individual basis, the pieces are not there just yet to put him in the best position to succeed. He will undoubtedly take both of those facts into consideration when making his free-agent decision.
Remember how I said Anthony traditionally struggles against Thibodeau-style defenses? Well, if he played for the Thibs-coached Bulls, that'd be one less he'd have to square off against.
The Bulls have some cap gymnastics to do in order to acquire Anthony, that much is clear. Getting into position to offer Anthony a contract at close to his maximum salary would certainly involve jettisoning Carlos Boozer, whether through use of the amnesty provision or a trade. It would also mean using one or both of their first-round picks on European "stash" guys, trading those picks for future selections in order to shed cap dollars, using the picks as bait to dump an unwanted contract or two or including the picks in a sign-and-trade transaction with the Knicks. It would also likely call for postponing top European prospect Nikola Mirotic's NBA debut for another year.
While many reports have indicated the Bulls would also have to rid themselves of Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy in addition to making all those other moves, that's not definitely true. There are scenarios in which the Bulls can generate enough cap space to offer Anthony a deal at close to the maximum and still at least hang onto Gibson.
Doing so would be key to Anthony's on-court fit with the team. While Anthony excels offensively as a small-ball power forward, and is at this point in his career better at defending one-on-one on the low block than he is on the perimeter, he is not a good rim-protector or help defender, which makes it imperative to have as strong a defense as possible behind him.
Of the free agent destinations Anthony is reportedly considering, Chicago is in the best position to surround him with the type of defensive help to cover up his deficiencies. Thibodeau is probably the league's best defensive coach and has been for some time. He has experience papering over the flaws of lacking defenders like Boozer and Derrick Rose, and he always puts his players in the best position to succeed on defense because he is maniacal about drilling in correct positioning and adhering to strict defensive rules assignments.
Joakim Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. There is no big man in the league better at picking up guards and wings off the dribble when forced into a switch, and he is always, always, always in the right position, on every play. Gibson, if he played more minutes, likely would have been in the DPOY running as well, and he has probably been the best defensive sixth man in the league for a few years now. With Boozer out the door, he would be an excellent fit next to Anthony in the starting lineup.
The Bulls also have Jimmy Butler, one of the league's strongest perimeter defenders, and someone who can guard both small and big wings, depending on what the matchups call for.
In the 1,234 minutes Butler, Gibson and Noah have shared on the floor in the last three seasons, the Bulls have a defensive rating of 95.1, according to NBA.com, a good enough mark to lead the league in basically every season. With that trio around him, Anthony would be put in a much better position defensively than he ever has so far in his career, and thus would be freed up to help Chicago solve its offensive issues, for which he represents pretty much a perfect salve.
Consider the following, via Synergy Sports (subscription required):
Those are the Bulls' and Anthony's points per play (PPP) marks and the Bulls' league-wide ranks in Anthony's four most commonly-used play types, according to Synergy. Synergy classifies a play as those ending in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover.
As you can see, the Bulls struggled very badly to create points in isolation during situations where the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll finished the play, on post-ups and via spot-up. Melo excels in all these situations, especially post-ups and spot-ups.
Anthony has turned himself into an elite spot-up shooter over the last few seasons; he has shot 39.5 percent on 542 spot-up threes since being traded to New York in February 2011, and made 44.2 percent of such shots last season. The Bulls collectively made only 33.4 percent of their spot-up threes last season after connecting on just 35.6 percent the season before. They very badly need outside shooting help, and Anthony can provide it.
He'd also have more opportunity to act as a spot-up shooter because he wouldn't be counted on to create as much of his own offense as he is in New York, due to the presence of a presumably healthy Derrick Rose. Rose turned himself into an elite pick-and-roll player over the course of his career, and though he would likely be somewhat slower and less explosive than when we last saw him, that wouldn't stop him from being able to create open looks. A Rose who is 90-95 percent of what he was is still one of the more unstoppable off-the-dribble forces in the league.
Picture Anthony spotted up and waiting for a kick-out pass as Rose comes screaming around a Noah screen at the elbow. Now, imagine he's made two of those open looks in a row, so his man closes out extra hard. Anthony can throw a pump fake and attack with a dribble drive to get to the rim. And the path to the basket will be much cleaner than the one he has to navigate while isolating and helping defenders sag way off Felton, Bargnani, and Shumpert.
And Rose isn't the only Bull who could create open looks for Anthony. Noah is one of the half-dozen best passing bigs in the league. His ability to facilitate offense from the elbow allows for the Bulls to run all sorts of creative action. That action was often futile last year, though, because the Bulls lacked shooting, as well as anyone else who could create any semblance of offense, especially off the dribble.
While those opportunities for cleaner offense would certainly be more prevalent than they are in New York, the reality is that Melo would still have to create a large share of his looks on his own. A potential Rose-Butler-Anthony-Gibson-Noah lineup would probably be short on spacing due to a relative lack of outside shooting, and would still have only two players truly capable of creating off the bounce.
When you recognize those facts and also the probability that the Bulls would like to lessen Rose and Noah's workloads to save their bodies from extra strain, it becomes very plan that this would still be the case. But throwing Melo into the mix would do wonders for Chicago's offense, and when you consider that they registered a top-five efficiency mark the last time Rose was healthy for a full season (albeit when they still also had Kyle Korver sniping away from outside), there's the possibility that they could even once again become a top-flight offensive team, provided everyone involved stays healthy.
Much like Chicago, Houston would have to do some cap gymnastics to get in position to offer Anthony a contract at close to the max. The Rockets would first have to find takers for both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to fit Anthony's contract on the books, and they would additionally have to hope that Chandler Parsons does not sign an offer sheet before they manage to ink Anthony to a deal, or their cap space would be tied up with the value of that offer sheet rather than his cap hold, a development that would likely cost them about $8-10 million in cap space were it to occur.
There is the possibility that the Rockets could use Lin and Asik in a sign-and-trade with New York to acquire Melo's services, but there are a few issues with that: A) the Rockets would have to include additional assets to get New York to bite; B) because of the way their contracts are structured, Asik and Lin are paid nearly twice as much in actual dollars as they are on the cap; and C) that would involve James Dolan agreeing to take Jeremy Lin back for at least a year.
But let's assume the Rockets were able to pull it off, say, by attaching picks to Asik and Lin in separate deals to teams with cap space, so they don't have to take back any salary and could thus offer Melo a deal close to the max.
Unlike he would for Chicago, Anthony would not be a solution to Houston's most pressing problem—perimeter defense; in fact, he would likely exacerbate it. That's his biggest weakness as well.
James Harden is allergic to defense. This is well documented:
Chandler Parsons is slightly better, though mostly only because he happens to pay attention most of the time, unlike Harden. Same with Jeremy Lin. Add Anthony to that mix, and things could get awfully combustible.
Even slotting Anthony in at Terrence Jones' power forward spot could hurt Houston's defense, especially because Asik would no longer be around to man the center spot when Howard exits the game. As mentioned earlier, Anthony is lacking as a rim-protector and help defender, two areas in which Jones is average at worst, and in which he often flashed above average potential last season.
This is another thing to consider: A move to Houston would likely mean a full-time move to power forward for Anthony. He's been electric as a small-ball four for years now, but has often expressed disinterest in handling the defensive responsibilities of the position. Obviously if he were to choose Houston this summer, he'd be willing to make that defensive sacrifice.
It's on the other end of the floor, though, where Melo could really flourish with the Rockets. By using a combination of different actions they run for Harden, Parsons and Howard, as well as allowing him to play off any or all of them on the weak side, the Rockets could put Melo in good positions all over the floor.
Let's start with a set the Rockets used to free Harden for jumpers last year:
If that set looks familiar, that's because the Pacers have been using it for a while now. The Knicks ran it a bunch for both J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert last season, and a few other teams around the league have adopted it as well. It's a simple, quick-hitting action to free up a shooter from beyond the arc. Anthony was involved in sets like this last year, but he was almost always the passer because he was the only one on the team capable of both drawing and passing out of a double-team in the mid-post.
But Harden gets most of his shots out of isolation and the pick-and-roll. Having Melo spotted up along the perimeter would occupy another help defender, thus clearing even more space for Harden to get to the rim, where he is among the best in the league at drawing fouls. Additionally, Melo could play off those isolations and pick-and-rolls as an outlet man. If his man collapses on Harden's drive, Melo would be treated to some wide-open looks from beyond the arc, where he's turned himself into a deadly shooter.
Melo already gets a heap of these looks in New York, and he'd get plenty more if it were Harden driving the lane rather than Felton or Smith. Harden is a significantly more dangerous scoring threat on the drive, and also has turned himself into a better passer with each successive season he's been in the league.
Much like Parsons, Melo could also attack those closing defenders with dribble-drives if they got too aggressive.
He has an extraordinarily quick first step for someone his size, and with actual scoring threats to draw defenders far enough away from him so that they might actually have to make some out-of-control closeouts to deter his jumper, Melo would have many more opportunities to pump-fake and drive his way to the rim than he has in the last few years in New York.
Melo could get the same type of spot-up and driving opportunities when playing off of Howard in the post, as well. Dwight's turnovers bumped up a whole lot this year in the post, but he still flashed a willingness to hit the open man if the pass was in front of him, and at times tried to hit weak-side shooters as well, if he knew a double was coming.
The most significant draw here, then, would be the opportunity for Melo to become more of a play-finisher, and less reliant on his own capabilities to create shots. Take a look at this disturbing trend:
As Melo has gotten older, he has actually had to create more of his own baskets. That is not something you want to see as a player gets up there in age. You want to decrease wear and tear on a player as he enters his 30s. Melo's has been going the opposite direction. With Harden and Howard around to sop up a whole bunch of possessions, and to serve as additional creators for everyone else on the floor, Melo would be become a lot less of a one-man show.
Reducing wear and tear would allow him to extend his career; taking more shots that are created via the pass rather than off the dribble or in the post would almost certainly increase his efficiency. One of the knocks on Melo throughout his career has been that he's often fallen on the wrong side of the usage/efficiency curve. If you took a player of his prodigious scoring talent and decreased his usage while also getting him comparatively easy looks, all of a sudden his efficiency could skyrocket. He'd become a totally different kind of offensive player.
Of course, we also saw in the playoffs that the Rockets have a need for Anthony's gift for creating shots for himself. The Rockets' offense often bogged down late in games as Harden isolated or Howard tried to bully his way to the rim from the post (mostly as Harden isolated). Having another option on the floor who can create his own shot can never hurt, especially when the defense so often has its eyes trained elsewhere. Anthony has never had the luxury of having the defense's eyes trained on another primary scoring option, unless you want to count Allen Iverson. We really don't even know yet what that could do for his level of play.
Like Houston, Miami's ails would not be alleviated by signing Melo. He is not a point guard, nor is he a rim-protector. And he will not help their increasingly sagging defense. In fact, Miami would likely have to ditch its trademark swarm defense if it signed Melo, though that may be necessary anyway due to the significant wear and tear it has put on the roster over the last four seasons.
And the crazy cap gymnastics the Bulls or Rockets would have to perform are nothing compared to what Miami would have to pull to land Melo, as Amin Elhassan explains for ESPN Insider (subscription required). Even Pat Riley admitted in a Thursday news conference that it is extraordinarily unlikely the Heat will bring in a fourth "star" this offseason, but he also didn't shut the door completely, so it's worth exploring, at least on some level.
Let's talk about the usage and efficiency tradeoff first. Don't believe what I said earlier? Well, listen to ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton (subscription required), who dug into the subject as it relates to Melo and Miami last week:
The upside for the Heat, if they pulled Anthony's addition off with the right team-first attitude, is the relationship between usage and efficiency. The fewer possessions a player has to use, in general, the better his shooting percentages. Indeed, before Anthony was traded to New York, I found evidence of this effect among his Denver Nuggets teammates.
Typically, the benefit is muted among superstars, since part of the reason they handle so many possessions is their rare ability to do so without sacrificing as much efficiency as players who struggle to create their own shots. But James has been more efficient in Miami than he was playing a larger role with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the best true shooting percentage (TS%) of Anthony's career came when he played a full season in Denver with Allen Iverson and saw his usage drop.
Next, remember the assisted baskets chart for Melo? Let's take a look at the same numbers for Chris Bosh.
Would you be interested to know that Bosh has set a career high in APBR.org's metric True Shooting Percentage in each of the last two seasons as his percentage of assisted baskets has approached and passed 80 percent? Melo finished just shy of setting a new career high in TS% in each of the last two seasons as well, and that was despite creating more of his own shots than ever before.
We've already seen the kind of ridiculous shooting numbers he could put up if he had LeBron passing to him all the time in the 2012 Olympics, and while it wouldn't be reasonable to expect him to shoot 50 percent from three for the rest of his life, a sizable bump in efficiency due to better quality looks (as well as reduced necessity to create his own looks) would certainly be in the offing.
Bringing Melo into the fold would also allow Miami to continue to reduce Dwyane Wade's workload in both minutes and usage. Wade only played 54 games last season, and his body was still breaking down by the end of the NBA Finals. His usage needs to be managed in-game, in addition to the in-season managing Erik Spoelstra experimented with last season.
More importantly, a Melo signing would allow the Heat to finally begin managing LeBron's minutes and usage. LeBron has played more minutes than any other player since he entered the NBA, and he's played more than 2,000 more minutes (including playoffs) since the 2010-11 season than Bosh, who is third to only James and Kevin Durant in minutes played in that timespan.
LeBron is 29 now, and he'll be 30 by midseason. He's an indestructible cyborg only vulnerable to wacky things like excessive heat, but it's high time to start managing his minutes and especially his offensive workload. A Melo signing would certainly go a long way towards helping in that area.
Other - Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns
While the Knicks, Bulls, Rockets and Heat are collectively considered the "front-runners" for Melo's services, with various sources indicating different destinations as currently in the lead, we can't forget that there are other options out there, even if they are much less likely.
Many believe the Lakers have been interested in Anthony for some time, but due to the realities of their roster and the fact that they don't yet have a coach, it's hard to even begin to imagine how Anthony would fit there. Needless to say, the biggest issue would be figuring out a way to play alongside Kobe Bryant, but even that is dicey to get into because we don't know what a post-knee/post-Achilles injury Kobe looks like at all. However, Melo is one of the few players in the world who Bryant openly calls a friend, so if anyone can figure out how to share the court with Kobe, it's him.
Though quite a lot has been made about Melo playing in his "hometown" of New York, the truth is he grew up and spent most of his life in Baltimore, so the Wizards are probably more of his hometown team. The Wiz can open up enough cap space to sign Melo simply by not re-signing Trevor Ariza or Marcin Gortat, but it seems fairly likely that they'll bring both of those guys back.
Playing with John Wall, Brad Beal and Nene would actually be a nice on-court fit for Anthony. He'd have a versatile big man (Nene) behind him on defense, a shooter (Beal) to draw defensive attention away from him and a dynamo of a point guard (Wall) setting him up with open looks all day, especially in transition. Randy Wittman was recently re-upped, and he loves to run his wings off screens at and near the elbow, and that's long been one of Melo's best actions.
This situation is pretty unlikely to happen, though, mostly because the Wizards are expected to re-sign Ariza and Gortat, but also because Melo may want to play with more-established stars if he's going to leave New York, rather than up-and-coming ones.
That would also probably rule out Phoenix, which is a somewhat similar stylistic fit as Washington. The Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe backcourt was dynamite in a box all season, and the floor-stretching shooting of Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green would certainly help give Anthony all the room he needs to operate. There's no rim-protecting big to cover up Melo's defensive deficiencies, but if Anthony were willing to buy into the spread pick-and-roll system he so abhorred when Mike D'Antoni coached the Knicks, he'd have a whale of an offensive season for the Suns.
No one knows yet what choice Melo will make, maybe not even Melo himself. In all likelihood we still have at least two more weeks of rumors before this thing gets decided. There are so many things to be considered—family, money, market, coach, front office, roster and more. I'm not sure I could give a firm answer on which is the best overall situation for Melo to step into. There are advantages and drawbacks to each and every one.
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