With Carmelo Anthony exercising his early termination option to enter free agency on July 1, per Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, much speculation has the Chicago Bulls pegged as the early favorite to land Anthony.
It's easy to see why the Bulls are interested in Anthony's services: He's arguably the most versatile scorer in the NBA, and Chicago's 99.7 offensive rating last season ranked third-worst in the entire league, according to NBA.com.
But the actual logistics of Anthony's arrival in Chicago are a bit complex: Chicago's lack of cap space coupled with Anthony's max-salary worth complicate the matter, and would likely require a massive salary dump by Chicago—amnestying Carlos Boozer along with other minor moves being the most likely option—to complete the acquisition.
There's also the matter of fit in Tom Thibodeau's defense, the crux of his Chicago teams since his arrival. Though he's turned subpar defenders—Mike Dunleavy, D.J. Augustin and Nate Robinson, to name a few—into serviceable perimeter stoppers, none had to shoulder the offensive burden Anthony will likely face.
Even with the return of Derrick Rose, Chicago will hand the offensive reins to Anthony while Rose is eased back into the flow of things. And when the two stars are playing together at full strength, we can likely expect Rose to continue taking on a secondary scoring role—you don't bring in Melo for any other reason besides offense, and relegating him to second banana does not unleash his full potential as a player.
It's common in today's NBA for scorers like Anthony to handle the smallest affordable role on the defensive end. Hiding a premier scorer on a weaker opponent allows him to rest on defense, thereby saving his energy for the area of the game where he's supposed to make an impact.
While that principle would certainly still apply in Chicago, the Bulls defensive scheme does require a five-man effort. Guarding the least threatening offensive opponent will limit Anthony's burden as a one-on-one defender by simply having him avoid these situations, but he will not be able to take plays off as a helper. Throughout Anthony's career, we've seen his defensive effort fluctuate. That will not fly in Chicago.
If Anthony does end up a Bull, he'll likely move back to his more natural small forward position, as Thibodeau prefers classic two-big lineups. This means Anthony will find himself on quicker wing players, something he did not face in more recent years as the New York Knicks starting power forward.
Let's assume that Anthony guards the weakest among opponent wings, likely a spot-up shooter of some kind. In the Bulls' scheme, this still requires a good deal of rotation.
As a rule, the Bulls like to shut down the three-point line. They prefer to funnel drives into the mid-range area or straight at their bigs, counting on the percentages of a pull-up jumper from the elbow area or a one-on-one attack of Joakim Noah at the rim. Open three-pointers are avoided at all costs.
This defense of the three-point line would be Anthony's primary job. Here's a play from Chicago's opening-round series against the Washington Wizards, with Dunleavy serving that role. As John Wall drives to the rim after rejecting a pick-and-roll from Marcin Gortat, Noah, who's guarding Gortat, steps up into a help position.
Per Chicago's defensive rules, the weak-side perimeter defender (Dunleavy) must pinch in to help guard against the roller (Gortat). The problem is that Dunleavy must now guard two players, both Gortat and Trevor Ariza in the corner. Though he's shaded all the way over into the paint, he's not completely covering Gortat: He has to give himself enough time to recover to Ariza.
It's a very fine line, determining how far to slide over towards the paint. Slide too far and Ariza is wide open. Don't slide enough and Gortat is open. Get stuck in the middle and they're both open. Dunleavy probably gets caught a bit too far from Ariza, as Gortat is in a less threatening position floating near the elbow. This allows Wall to fire a cross-court pass to Ariza, who buries the three-pointer before Dunleavy can get back.
That's the dilemma that Anthony will face countless times should he join Chicago: How much does he commit to protecting the paint versus guarding spot-up shooters like Ariza?
Here's a similar play, this time with Tony Snell guarding Ariza. In this scenario we have a one-on-one drive, with Wall getting all the way to the rim and Carlos Boozer forced to rotate to a help position. Tony Snell, meanwhile, has completely left Ariza open in the corner in favor of guarding Boozer's original man, Martell Webster.
In this case, Snell is left with no choice: Webster is in prime position to receive an easy drop-off pass for a dunk, as well as haul in any offensive rebound. Wall's angle also calls for a difficult wrap-around pass to Ariza, should he decide to make it. Snell takes the chance that Wall can't make that pass, and properly decides to protect the rim.
Unfortunately, Wall completes the pass, and Ariza knocks down another three-pointer.
All of these decisions are made in split-second windows and happen multiple times per game. In a league so heavily dominated by the three-pointer, Anthony's role guarding seemingly innocuous players will still be key.
Can he make the right decision on defense? Can he cover such a wide range of ground? Is he completely willing to scramble all the way from a shooter to the paint and back to a shooter? These are all questions Anthony would have to answer as a Bull, and there's no doubt that Thibodeau would demand his fullest effort on such plays.
Offensively, Chicago will fit its style to match Anthony's. But defensively, that won't happen. Anthony will have to adjust, displaying a type of effort he's not used to giving. Without it, Chicago's defense will suffer.
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