What's Standing in Way of NBA Free Agency's Big-Game Hunters?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2014

What's Standing in Way of NBA Free Agency's Big-Game Hunters?

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    It’s big-game hunting season in the NBA, and seven teams are looking to land the superstar who can put them into championship contention. For each one, there’s a big obstacle standing in its way.

    There is only one LeBron James and only one Carmelo Anthony. At most, two teams will be happy. The rest will be disappointed. Everything else is just settling.

    Don’t be too confident, though, that it's the other guys. Whichever team is your favorite, there are reasons that it could whiff on landing one of the two coveted trophies.

    Just in case you’re not adequately terrified that your team is going to miss out, I’ve got you covered. For each team, there's something that can prevent the franchise from hitting its most desired target.

    I’ve only included teams that have actually met with the stars and/or their agents*. They are ranked from least to most likely to land one of the two.

    *The Dallas Mavericks were initially in the running, but with news coming on July 5 that they have signed Devin Harris to a four-year, $16 million contract, per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News, they were taken out of the picture. 

Los Angeles Lakers: Only Lemons in the Lemonade

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers have no team and no coach, but hey, when life gives you lemons, open a lemonade stand.

    On July 3, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles told SportsCenter the Lakers pitch to Anthony was built around the idea that he could select his own coach and teammates.

    Of course, the downside of that is you don’t have a coach or a team. It’s easier to sell someone on what you actually have than what you might have.

    It’s one thing to say, “You can pick whoever you want” and that actually being the case. Most of the coaches Anthony would want to play for are probably already taken. He can’t have Tom Thibodeau (Oh wait, he can! Just not in LA). He can’t have Phil Jackson (Oh wait, he kind of can, just not in LA).

    He can pick whatever teammates he wants too, but they have to be available and willing to come. And that may not happen, because they have to be willing to work for the NBA equivalent of dirt.

    The Lakers did have money. They offered Anthony a max four-year, $95 million contract. Based on ESPN’s cap-space meter, his deal would eat everything they have, though.

    They could use the stretch provision on Steve Nash, which would free up about $7 million more, but the roster would be incredibly thin after Kobe Bryant (who may not ever be the same) and Anthony. Of course they can say, “In two more years the team is all yours.” That’s not the greatest selling point.

    Saying he can pick out his team is like pointing to the bargain rack at Dollar General, handing him a $10 bill and saying, “Have at it.”

    You can squeeze your lemons and dilute them with water, but without any sugar, it’s still sour. And that’s the Lakers’ problem—they have no sugar. It’s a creative spin, but it’s not a palatable offer.

Houston Rockets: Who’s in Houston?

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets pitch to Anthony was that he could join James Harden and Dwight Howard to form a new Big Three. And certainly that would constitute an elite trio on par with James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.

    The Rockets look like they have solved the first problem, which is generating enough cap space to fit Anthony, though nothing is finalized. Marc Stein of ESPN.com says the Philadelphia 76ers are willing to absorb Jeremy Lin’s contract:

    Sources told ESPN.com that the Sixers, who have ample room on their payroll to absorb Lin's contract, have emerged as a leading contender to take on Lin in a trade that sends no salary back to the Rockets, which would enable the Rockets to extend a rich offer in free agency to either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh.

    But Houston, we really do have a problem.  

    Viewing salary data from Sham Sports and making the needed adjustments for traded players and cap holds, the Rockets would have about $18 million to offer Anthony in the first year.

    But the rest of the team would be shallow.

    The next biggest names on the roster would be Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas (which actually is a big name but not in the right way). Nothing against those guys, but that doesn’t scream depth. Jones has a promising future, but it’s that—a future.

    The Rockets also finished 13th in defensive rating last year, despite playing both Beverley and Howard, who are excellent defenders. They were fine at scoring points, finishing second. The Rockets seem to need more help on defense than offense, so the fit with Anthony is questionable too.

    Who is in Houston? Is there enough of a roster to win a ring with? Eventually, but it would take a couple of years to round out the roster.

    If Anthony is going to take a big pay cut to win a title, it’s unlikely he goes somewhere with as sparse a roster as Houston has.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Comic in Sans

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    There are mixed signals on the Cleveland Cavaliers' chances of bringing back James, ranging from “it’s a two-horse race” to “Cleveland has given up.”

    On the positive side, Joe Kotoch of Pro Basketball Draft tweets, “Same exec feels it's a Miami-Cleveland battle and LeBron is waiting for a team to make a splash.”

    On the negative side, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports:

    A source familiar with Cleveland's offseason machinations, which have included an NBA-maximum contract extension to guard Kyrie Irving and the selection of Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick in last week's NBA Draft, Wednesday told the Sun Sentinel that it was his impression the Cavaliers have decided to move past a short-term reunion with James, who left Cleveland in July 2010 to sign with the Heat.

    So, Cleveland is somewhere between on the threshold of landing James and giving up entirely on him.

    I lean toward the latter. Much has been made of how he left Cleveland, but owner Dan Gilbert's reaction to James' exit may be what keeps the star from returning. Sans James, Gilbert’s vitriolic tirade was famously spelled out in comic sans font for all the world to read.

    Not so comical were some of the shots fired by the owner, such as accusing James of “cowardly betrayal” and being “narcissistic.” Aside from that there was the literary abuse of excessive quotation marks.

    If a jaded ex-boyfriend reacted to a breakup the way Gilbert did, the court would slap a restraining order on him. No one would blame James if he doesn’t have any inklings of going back to Gilbert.

Chicago Bulls: The Boos in Boozer

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls pitched Anthony on a Big Four with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah teaming up with him to take control of the Eastern Conference. They were hoping that the allure of the best chance to win a ring would appeal to Anthony enough for him to take a substantial pay cut.

    Or, failing that, they were hoping to put together a trade package around Carlos Boozer. But here’s the problem with that. Those “boos” you hear when Boozer is on the court aren’t the fans saying “Boozer.” They’re actual boos, and the fans are booing with cause.

    Boozer’s alphabet jumps from “C” to “E.”

    And this year, he pretty much stopped counting at three—as in quarters. He played just seven minutes in the final frame after the All-Star Break.

    He’s not much of an asset on the offense end of the court anymore either, as he averaged just 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds.

    Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine reports that the Knicks aren’t going to take back Boozer in a sign-and-trade: “The Knicks, according to sources, will not cooperate with any plan that involves them taking back Boozer.”

    Without a sign-and-trade, the Bulls can’t come close to the Knicks' contract offer to Anthony. The most Chicago can pay is in the neighborhood of $65 million over four years. The Knicks can offer $129 million over five years, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

    Walking away from $64 million is a lot easier said than done—especially when it’s not your $64 million. And that may be the ultimate downfall of the Bulls’ pitch to the Knicks. Chicago has the best chance to win, but it's a big cut in pay.

    New York has the most money and might have done enough to convince Anthony that it is on the path to winning to prevent him from leaving all that cash on the table.

Phoenix Suns: The Faux in Phoenix

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    If James decides he will take his talents elsewhere, I think the most likely landing spot is Phoenix, believe it or not. And yes, I know the prevailing opinion is Cleveland. So why am I so high on the Suns?

    There are two things that James seems to want in a new team: a maximum contract and help. How many teams can offer him both? Phoenix is there. Cleveland too, if it needs to be. But there are no burnt bridges in Phoenix, and the core it has is better. 

    The Suns won 48 games last year. They have a young superstar in the making in Eric Bledsoe, aka “Mini-LeBron.” (Admit it, you would watch the Suns games just to see if James called Bledsoe “Mini-Me.”)

    Goran Dragic had a breakout season, won Most Improved Player and was named third-team All-NBA.

    Phoenix added two first-round picks in T.J. Warren (14) and Tyler Ennis (18) to the roster.

    And the Suns have $35 million to spend in free agency, meaning they could land LeBron James even after matching any offers on Bledsoe. 

    Or, as Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski points out: 

    The Phoenix Suns remain an intriguing dark horse for James because general manager Ryan McDonough could offer him something no one else outside Miami can now: a second max-salary slot to pick a co-star. The Suns can quickly shed $10 million more in contracts to pursue James and a second star – perhaps Bosh, if James wanted – and they'd still be able to keep the talented core of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and center Miles Plumlee.

    In short, Phoenix is in a ridiculously perfect situation. If LeBron really wants depth and max money, that’s the place to go. There’s enough of an enticement that the Suns were one of the teams allowed an in-person pitch with James’ agent, per Wojnarowski.

    The problem here might be a perception that the success the Suns had last year isn’t “real.” They aren’t viewed as a power player, even though they are.

    Sam Amick tweets that there are doubts regarding James' interest in Phoenix: "Example No. 2: LeBron's agent also reps Eric Bledsoe, & some skeptical these talks w/ teams largely motivated by desire to help EB's cause."

    That’s because of the way they came out of nowhere last season. Basically the entire team had breakout years, posting career highs all over the place. The Suns were supposed to compete for lottery balls, not the playoffs. Detractors can point to what happened after the All-Star Game when they fell off a bit, going just 18-13. But even that’s pretty good.

    And with the additions they can make, the Suns seem primed for the future.

    Can their short-lived success land James, or will the notion their run was faux nix the chances he signs?

Miami Heat: The Space in the Cap

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    The Miami Heat have $55 million in cap space, but it’s what I call fake cap space.

    They have one player from last season under contract, Norris Cole, who also has the lowest player efficiency rating of any active player with at least 4,000 career minutes. You could literally argue he’s the worst rotation player in the NBA.

    They also have the rights to rookie Shabazz Napier, whom they acquired on draft night.

    Other than that, they have 10 roster spots to fill, and presumably three of those will be James, Bosh and Wade. But there is the rub.

    James is reported to want the maximum, $20.7 million. To say he’s earned it is an understatement. ESPN’s Darren Rovell calculates that he’s worth $161.3 million over the next three years.

    That cuts the available cap space down to $35 million (remember that each addition relieves one incomplete roster charge).

    According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo, "Chris Bosh's reps have made recent calls on market to reconfirm that max slots would be available to him, sources tell Yahoo. Answers: Yes.”

    That would tend to confirm David Aldridge’s tweet, “Agent Henry Thomas, on report clients Bosh & Wade will take $12M/per & $11M/per, respectively: "all the BS you are reading is just that."”

    Frankly, it would be a shock to see Bosh take less than $16 million. That leaves the Heat $19 million. If Wade took $12 million, they would have $7 million left over to build the roster. 

    Per Wojnarowski, even that's too optimistic:

    There had been suggestions the renegotiated contracts of James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade could leave the space for a $9 million-$10 million annual salary slot, but the figure that Miami has floated to prospective players is a first-year salary in the range of $5.5 million and hazy suggestions about sign-and-trades that would ultimately be difficult to execute, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

    And Avery Bradley just signed for $8 million. Avery Bradley!

    We can talk all we want about the magic of Pat Riley, but even he can’t pull a rabbit out of that salary cap.

    And this is where things can get really precarious.

    Wojnarowski writes:

    James has maintained a desire to take a full max contract with a starting salary of $20.7 million, sources said. Wade and Bosh are still reluctant to take severe cuts in their contracts, sources told Yahoo Sports, creating a financial disconnect among the three.

    "There's clearly a breakdown in communication between LeBron and [Wade and Bosh]," one executive who participated in the meetings over the past two days told Yahoo Sports. "[James is] giving Riley time to go get players for them but if that doesn't happen in the next few days … LeBron seems ready to explore the market."

    Players seem reluctant to commit to Miami because they’re wary James will walk. Riley has trouble committing to contract offers because he doesn’t know what he has to offer them. James wants to see the players commit before he does. It’s all a big circle.

    Even Bosh and Wade don’t know what’s going with James, per Chris Broussard, who reports, “Bosh and Wade were so uncertain about James' future after last week's meeting that one of them spoke about what the Heat might look like without James, according to one source.”

    There was a lot of unrealistic optimism at the outset of the offseason that the trio would just take massive pay cuts and the Heat would reload.

    What they’re finding instead is that players aren’t that eager to eat $5-10 million per year, and without that, it’s impossible to shed $25 million from the payroll and get deeper, especially when every team in the NBA seems intent on making it rain for every free agent.

    It’s looking impossible for the Heat to keep all three players, and it’s possible that only Wade stays.

New York Knicks: The 'Me' in Carmelo

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    There’s no "I" in "team," but there is a “me” right in the heart of "Carmelo." But is it possible that right now what’s in Anthony’s heart is “team”?

    He’s been in the NBA for 11 seasons, and the closest he’s been to a ring was the 2009 Western Conference Finals, when the Denver Nuggets got ousted by the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

    He’s at the stage of his career where he’s thinking about legacy more than money. In the present age, it’s all about rings, and Anthony’s fists are barren. With career earnings of almost $136 million, I don’t think his bank account is.

    The Knicks are trying to sell him on the future, preaching that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher can turn the franchise around. They have cap space coming up in 2015 and can lure a max free agent with it.

    And they can offer Anthony a whole lot more money than anyone else with a max deal of $129 million. That's the biggest selling point they have.

    But how realistic are their plans to win in the near future? At best, they ink Kevin Love next summer, who would take a max deal and eat up most of the cap space. The Knicks would presumably have enough to add a role player or two, even after Love.

    Even then, it probably takes a year for the new team to jell together. The Miami Heat took two years to win a championship.

    That would mean the soonest the Knicks could realistically contend for a title is the 2016-17 season, at which time Anthony will be 32 and on the downside of his career.

    And that’s given that Jackson makes all the right moves, Fisher works out as a head coach, Love (or another superstar) signs for the max, and the team can get all the right role players around its two stars.

    Or he could just go to the Bulls, where they already have all that, and contend right now. He could have two rings by 2016-17. There are doubts about Derrick Rose’s knee, but at least Anthony knows Rose is there.             

    If Anthony wants the best chance to win a championship, he goes to Chicago. The best situation is there.

    I won’t say that money is the only thing that would lead him to stay in New York, or that there’s no chance to ever win in the Big Apple, but if the Knicks and Bulls were offering the same amount of money, it wouldn't be much of a decision.

    If he goes to Chicago, he’s not playing for free. He’s still getting a pretty sweet chunk of change; $65 million is nothing to sneeze at. It's just half of $130 million. 

    Wherever he goes, he’s balancing between winning and money, not choosing between them. One way or another, the “me” in ‘Melo will make the choice, and whatever it is won't be wrong because the “me” in ‘Melo is the only one qualified to make choices for him.

    All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/STATS