Things are about to get hectic for high-volume scorer Carmelo Anthony.
The 30-year-old, who officially opted out of his contract with the New York Knicks Monday, has already started filling his summer itinerary.
As league sources told Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine, Anthony "has decided to visit the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls once teams are allowed to meet with free agents on July 1." While the former scoring champ could still decide to return to the Knicks, it should be noted that the three teams he plans to meet with averaged 50 victories this past season—13 more than New York.
That could weigh heavily on the mind of someone who has publicly labeled winning as the driving force in his decision:
Carmelo: "I want to come back...I also want to win."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) April 17, 2014
All three of these suitors could offer a faster track to relevance than the cash-strapped Knicks. Each would put an instantly upgraded supporting cast around him while providing a coach who could maximize his strengths or minimize his weaknesses.
So which of these three clubs is best suited to snag the scoring machine? Well, arguments can be made for all three potential destinations.
The Case for Houston
Long seen as one of the front-runners in this race, the Rockets might have the strongest on-paper recruiting pitch.
They'll be dealing with the fewest hypotheticals. They have a roster ready to contend now, as evidenced by the 54 victories they reeled off without Anthony in 2013-14.
While other teams can surround Anthony with stars, only the Rockets' come asterisk-free. The age concerns he might have about the 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki don't exist with Dwight Howard (28) and James Harden (24). There are no medical red flags with Howard (who played 71 games last season) or Harden (73) like there would be with Derrick Rose (10).
Anthony will be leaving money on the table wherever he goes if he leaves New York. The Knicks can offer a longer (five years instead of four) and more lucrative ($129 million instead of $96 million) deal than any of his suitors.
Still, the economic loss suffered in Houston wouldn't be like the one he'd encounter by forming a "Big Four" with the Miami Heat. That possibility, first floated by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein, hasn't even been discussed with Anthony, sources told Broussard.
The Rockets are working toward creating a max-contract slot for Anthony (or LeBron James). That process began in earnest when the team agreed to move Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans for a future first-round pick Wednesday, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
For the Rockets, this is Step 1 in clearing the cap space to chase LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony in free agency.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 26, 2014
Houston would need to shed more salary to get into Anthony's (or James') price range, but the motivation to move Asik would be low if the Rockets didn't feel they could make all the necessary moves to pull off such a heist.
Signing Anthony outright, as opposed to landing him in a sign-and-trade, would be huge. That would help Houston retain the key members of its core while still getting Melo a respectful deal. League sources told Wojnarowski that "most scenarios that would hold the Rockets' nucleus together would still find Anthony with a starting annually salary in the range of $19 million."
While Asik is out and Jeremy Lin would likely need to be, too, Houston could still hit the hardwood with a starting lineup of Harden, Anthony, Howard, Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons. Terrence Jones, a versatile, athletic forward, could also stick around to leave a potent weapon on the Rockets' second team.
The Rockets already had the NBA's fourth-most efficient offense in 2013-14 (108.6 offensive rating), per NBA.com, and that standing could improve with the addition of a career 25.3 points-per-game scorer. Late in games, the offensive threats of Anthony and Harden (and, to a lesser extent, Parsons and Howard) could put defenses into pick-your-poison scenarios.
Houston would have its fair share of defensive holes, but it also has a three-time Defensive Player of the Year anchoring the middle in Howard. Beverley is one of the most tenacious defenders in the league, so it's not as if the Rockets' cupboard would be bare at that end of the floor.
As long as Anthony is willing to share the spotlight, he might not find a group of teammates more deserving of some time under the bright lights. Not in a situation that could pay him this well, at least.
The Case for Dallas
The Mavericks are getting more compelling by the minute.
Dallas did its own dealing Wednesday, but the move it made expanded its on-hand talent. Former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler returned to the team he helped lead to the 2011 championship, bringing point guard Raymond Felton along with him, as first reported by ESPN's Marc Stein.
For those keeping score at home, the Mavericks now have 40 percent of the starting lineup Anthony played with last season.
More importantly, they have a better recruiting pitch to their top targets now with Chandler's addition, as Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News explained:
The thinking is that a front line of Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler and either James or Anthony would be as formidable as any in the NBA. That also would make it more likely that veterans, who are looking to position themselves with a team that has legitimate championship aspirations, would choose the Mavericks.
At the very least, it’s a far better sales pitch to free agents than saying your front line begins and ends with Nowitzki.
"It makes us real players for LeBron [or] Carmelo," a team source told ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon.
The Mavericks are unique among Anthony's suitors in that the talent is in place to win now, but he wouldn't be fighting anyone for top billing. The whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts, which is how this team secured 49 victories this past season despite its biggest star being locked in a battle with Father Time.
That's not to suggest, however, that the Mavericks are hurting for individual talent.
Nowitzki, who needs to work out his own contract with the club, averaged 21.7 points on .497/.398/.899 shooting. Monta Ellis put up 19.0 points and 5.7 assists during his first season in Dallas. Free-agent forward Shawn Marion still makes things happen all over the court, while fellow free agent Vince Carter proved he still has ice water pumping in his veins.
Behind their two-man attack, the Mavericks finished tied for second in offensive efficiency per NBA.com, averaging 109.0 points per 100 possessions.
Defense was an issue, but it might not be as big of one with Chandler back manning the middle. Not to mention, the Mavericks could improve their backcourt defense depending on who inherits Jose Calderon's starting spot.
There is no state income tax in Texas, which would not only help Anthony's wallet but might also increase Dallas' buying power among ring-chasing free agents. An Ellis-Anthony-Nowitzki-Chandler core is certainly one worth examining for a veteran player searching for a contender.
Anthony would be given the role of franchise face, but he would not be left on an offensive island. Both Nowitzki and Ellis are more than capable of generating their own offense.
If Anthony wants support as opposed to stars around him, he might have a hard time looking past the Mavericks.
The Case for Chicago
If a clubhouse leader exists at this stage—a source told Broussard it does not—the Bulls could be that favorite.
Mutual interest seems to arise from every angle of this potential relationship.
Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah has been recruiting Anthony for months. Anthony, league sources told ESPN New York's Ian Begley, "has talked to at least one high-profile person who lives in Chicago about what it's like to be famous in the Windy City." Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, has reached out to several of Anthony's former coaches to discuss the player.
Everyone seems to understand how beneficial their union could be.
Anthony would scratch arguably Chicago's biggest itch: putting a secondary scorer alongside former MVP Derrick Rose. The Bulls have no options currently on the roster to fill that role. For evidence of that fact, consider that D.J. Augustin, who was waived by the Toronto Raptors in December, led the regulars in scoring with 14.9 points per game this past season.
As for Anthony, he could learn a lot from someone like Thibodeau. Anthony is often pegged as a defensive sieve, but he has the tools needed to play well on that side. His biggest problem has been exerting the type of energy needed to excel at that end.
"At times he just gives up on plays a little bit, as opposed to being locked in all the time," an NBA scout told Begley. "It's not that he can't do it. He can be a really good defensive player."
Anthony just needs a coach who demands maximum effort. That could be the most powerful tool in Thibodeau's arsenal.
Thibodeau has also proven himself capable of leading a high-powered offense provided he has his best players available to him. With Rose leading the way in 2011-12, Chicago had the NBA's fifth-most efficient offensive attack, per NBA.com.
Anthony wouldn't need to take on the toughest defensive assignment or even handle the heaviest offensive burden. If Rose is healthy—he's played just 49 games since the start of the 2011-12 season—he could continue playing Chicago's primary offensive role, freeing Anthony to worry solely about creating his own chances.
If Anthony is willing to take the pay cut he told reporters he would earlier this year, then the Bulls could field a deep roster around him, filled with defensive stoppers and offensive weapons. If he's not, he would risk lowering Chicago's ceiling by forcing the franchise to sacrifice talent.
"If Anthony is intent on squeezing out a max, or near-max slot, then that means the Bulls would have to say goodbye to [Taj] Gibson -- on top of Mike Dunleavy -- and possibly Jimmy Butler as well depending on how all the numbers shake out," ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell wrote.
If his primary goal is finding a winner, though, one would assume Anthony would do what he can to put his next employer in the best position to win.
With Noah's selflessness and Rose's obvious need for help, Anthony could be embraced right out of the gate. The sooner he's contending, the better, and the Eastern Conference-based Bulls could offer him the fastest track to the NBA Finals.
The Biggest Threat?
Anthony could easily convince himself that any one of the three would be the right place to take his talents. If nothing else, the grass certainly looks greener for the time being.
Ultimately, it's going to take one heck of a sales pitch to pry him out of New York. His bond with the city, and those of his family, will be hard to break.
If there's a suitor capable of doing it, it seems like that would be the Bulls.
The talent base is as good as any he'll find in free agency, provided Rose is healthy. Anthony would still stay on the path of least resistance that is the Eastern Conference and still be enjoying a starring role for a major-market franchise.
Which of these three suitors has the best chance to acquire Carmelo Anthony?
He could have a great season with the Rockets or Mavericks and still be eliminated in an early playoff round out West. If Chicago's cast stays largely like it is, Anthony might secure a guaranteed ticket to the conference finals—or even further should James decide to vacate South Beach and send the Heat into a rebuild.
Anthony's opinion could still be swayed behind closed doors, and he'll give at least these three clubs the option of doing so. Heading into those meetings, though, it appears the Bulls will enter this race from pole position or at least have a share of the lead with Anthony's hometown Knicks.