Summer in the NBA is a time for reflection, improvement and—for certain teams—a time to embrace dreams of the pipe persuasion.
Yes, conversation. This is no longer a matter of landing one. It's about targeting both. Together.
In an attempt to strengthen sales pitches made to either superstar, a select few NBA teams are positioning themselves to sign both, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst:
With LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony officially opting out of their contracts, multiple teams have begun the process of exploring roster moves that would create sufficient salary-cap space to sign 2014's marquee free agents in tandem this summer, according to sources close to the situation. ...
The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, had begun exploring such machinations even before the opt outs of James and Anthony had become known, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
Intelligent plays don't get any smarter. James and Anthony have long wanted to join forces, as USA Today's Sam Amick reminded us. Creating the ability to sign both is a great way to catch their attention. And it's possible.
Although it remains unlikely that James and Anthony are teammates next season, this isn't a scenario to be discarded with yesterday's stale Froot Loops. There are teams that can make this financially feasible. The Lakers and Heat are among them.
And one of them is better suited to successfully engineer the most ambitious free-agency revolution in recent memory.
The Heat have an inherent edge over any team wishing to land Anthony and James. It's a damn good one, too:
They already have one. Half the work is already done—in a kinda-sorta-not-really sense.
It certainly doesn't hurt the Heat that half of this free-agency tandem calls Miami home, and if James and Anthony were the only two moving parts at play, the latter's tailor might as well start fashioning warm-weather wardrobes.
But signing Anthony is about more than the secret handshakes he shares with James. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade need to be on board with his arrival. So on board that they, along with Anthony and James, must sacrifice tens of millions of dollars.
Before anything can happen, Bosh and Wade have to follow James' lead by opting out of their contracts. Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick says this won't be an issue: Both are expected to reach free agency.
Once all four stars are officially on the open market, it's time for Pat Riley to work his spellbinding, precedent-setting, wallet-emptying magic.
Norris Cole is on a guaranteed contract for 2014-15. Let's say the Heat keep him for the sake of convenience. Justin Hamilton's pact is non-guaranteed next season; he'll have to go.
Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen both hold player options. They'll need to make like James, Bosh and Wade, and opt out.
Birdman is already expected to opt out, according to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. Convincing the seldom-used Haslem to pass up $4.6 million will be the real challenge.
Or maybe not.
Skolnick writes that "Haslem—who shares an agent with Wade and Bosh—has consistently expressed an openness to extend his deal to three years," suggesting that he's willing to bite the opt-out bullet.
If he and Andersen opt out, and Hamilton is waived, the Heat are left with two guaranteed cap holds totaling roughly $2.9 million for Cole and their No. 26 pick. With two roster spots fulfilled and four more on the way, seven minimum cap holds worth about $500,000 will be added to the Heat's bottom line so that their docket reaches the 13-player benchmark.
This clocks the Heat's salary obligations at $6.9 million spread among nine holds, leaving them $56.3 million under the projected salary cap ($63.2 million). That gives them approximately $14.1 million to split between the Big Four in the first year of their new deals.
Anthony's 2014-15 salary can exceed $22.4 million, so we're talking about an $8 million-plus pay cut that totals almost $34 million over four years, without even considering the extra year and increased salary the New York Knicks can offer.
Parting ways with Cole will open up slightly more room, but not much. If the Heat really want to change things up, they'll have to get creative. Or Wade will have to get super generous, like Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster explained:
Don't rule out the idea of Wade taking much less than everyone else as well. He's the one who took the biggest hit back in 2010, and with his inability to play full seasons because of his knees, perhaps he'll willingly take less money than everyone else.
How much less, though? Even if he agrees to earn, say, $10 million next season, Anthony, James and Bosh aren't bringing home less than $15.5 million apiece.
Consider also the comments Wade made to ESPN.com's Michael Wallace during the NBA Finals, when asked if he'll re-sign at pennies on the dollar:
Obviously, you don't have to do anything. From the standpoint of us even coming together, it wasn't anything I had to do. It's what I wanted to do. And will never feel like I have to do this. We all think I worked very hard over my career to earn what I've earned and put myself in that position. So I will never feel like I have to take less after this, or have to do this. It's not my job. It's the job of others around to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I'll be a part of that. But if I don't, I won't. It's simple as that. I don't feel that pressure at all.
Accepting $14.1 million is sacrifice enough—an unlikely one at that. Don't expect Wade to start dipping below eight figures annually. Same goes for James, Bosh and Anthony. It's not going to happen.
That $14.1 million figure is, more likely than not, what the Heat have to work with. They don't have the assets to execute a sign-and-trade with the Knicks or the means to cut costs elsewhere.
All they have is the hope that four friends are ready to take unheard-of pay cuts in the name of winning.
Things get a little more interesting when we journey west.
Additional possibilities have found their way to Los Angeles now that the Lakers are prepared to use their No. 7 pick as a buffer in any Steve Nash salary dump, according to Stein and Windhorst.
Trading Nash and their pick—the actual player, since they're prohibited from trading the pick itself—without receiving anyone in return leaves the Lakers with only two guaranteed contracts in those of Kobe Bryant and Robert Sacre.
Those pacts combine for a cap hit just shy of $24.5 million next season. Toss in the salaries of Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore—whom the Lakers have the option of bringing back—and six minimum cap holds that total $3 million, and the Lakers will have more than $32 million to burn through.
Agreeing to sign on for $16 million still means James and Anthony are being paid well below their market value, but it's more than the Heat can offer after gutting their roster dry. The Lakers, in this scenario, still have a few serviceable role players on their docket. There's no telling which veterans will take a discount to go ring-chasing in Los Angeles either.
Here's the thing: Why?
Why should James and Anthony take these pay cuts when Bryant himself didn't? It doesn't matter that his latest extension wasn't a negotiation. He could have offered to take less.
He still had a choice.
Good businessmen never diminish their own value. We should all get that. But Bryant still had a choice, and he chose money over everything else.
And it's not Anthony's and James' responsibility to bend more than him. The Lakers are his team. They would always have to take less, but $7.5 million less than an aging 35-going-on-36-year-old Bryant, who appeared in just six games last season?
Yes, Carmelo Anthony & LeBron James are going to take pay cuts to join Kobe & the #Lakers after a 27-win season where Bryant played 6 games.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) June 24, 2014
And the Winner Is...
Now breathe. Then breathe again. One more deep breath.
This still isn't likely. It's a possibility. That's all.
But it's a stronger possibility than Miami.
The climates are comparable, the Lakers' history is rich and sporting purple and gold means better contracts for James and Melo. They would be earning more than $2 million less per year with the Heat.
When taking a pay cut—because that's what has to happen no matter how you slice this—every cent counts. And don't sleep on the endorsement deals a trio of Bryant, Anthony and James would generate (yowsa). They could even handpick a head coach if they wanted.
There are other possibilities, of course. Ones that don't include Los Angeles or Miami.
The Cleveland Cavaliers believe they can clear as much as $30 million in cap space, according to Stein and Windhorst. That certainly allows them to enter the conversation. The Atlanta Hawks are mentioned, too.
Chris Broussard of ESPN.com (subscription required) also depicts the Houston Rockets as a threat, writing that they could clear cap space to sign James, then complete a sign-and-trade built around James Harden for Anthony.
Not one other team is a stronger possibility than Los Angeles and Miami, though. Had Anthony and James waited until 2015 to explore free agency, it would be different. Other teams—the Knicks—would have an edge.
Instead of waiting, they opted out now. That limits their choices considerably. Every remaining suitor has to clear more red tape, hence why the Lakers supersede even the Heat. They have the flimsiest red tape to bust through of anyone. One salary dump and pay cuts.
Plus the prospect of Kevin Durant.
Yup, we're going here.
If James and Anthony wish to team up now and are intrigued by joining forces with Durant later, the Lakers are their team. Provided they keep their books clean between now and summer 2016, they can make a run at the reigning MVP in two years' time, when Bryant's contract ends.
Which team is more likely to land Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James?
Ignorance at its peak?
Most definitely, but we're dealing in all hyperbolic hypotheticals here. Not one of these scenarios can be pawned off as an ironclad certainty.
Seeing Anthony and James wrapped in purple and gold is merely the least ridiculous notion in a string of overly ambitious pipe dreams.
*Salary information via ShamSports.