Would First-Round Exit Push Chicago Bulls All in on Carmelo Anthony?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2014

New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, left, passes the ball past Chicago Bulls' D.J. Augustin during the first half of the NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 13, 2014 in New York. The Knicks defeated the Bulls 100-89. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig

The Chicago Bulls are entrenched in a first-round struggle with the Washington Wizards and staring at the prospect of an early departure after falling behind three games to one. Would such an exit force them to go all in on Carmelo Anthony this offseason?

The Bulls' biggest struggle is pretty evident, and it didn’t really need the postseason to manifest itself. Chicago is the lowest-scoring team in the NBA and has the fourth-worst offensive rating.

Anthony, who has the 12th-best scoring averaging in NBA history, would be a pretty big step in the right direction. He’s one of the two or three best pure scorers in the league, along with Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Anthony is the type of player who can make the Bulls' system work properly. 

With the health and future of Derrick Rose uncertain, acquiring Anthony could be a true game-changer. Even without Rose, the current squad would be contenders with Anthony. With a healthy Rose, they might even be favorites. 

However, from the perspective of the Bulls’ front office, the issue isn't whether to chase Anthony so much as it is to question how much is Anthony worth.

Would a first-round exit increase his value to them?

Let’s look at what the Bulls have available to spend, how much Anthony might cost, and what it means for the Bulls to go all in.

How Much Do the Bulls Have?

Due to a dynamic salary situation and some misreporting, there is confusion over how much cap space the Bulls have available. So, in order to avoid confusion, let's reduce this to the basic math.

Mark Deeks of Sham Sports worked out how much cap space will be available to the Bulls this summer back in January, but some things have changed. The Bulls have traded two players and signed Greg Smith. The projected cap has gone up. And the Bulls’ picks in the draft are now locked in.

By making the necessary adjustments to Deeks’ numbers, we can finally get a more or less definitive number for what the Bulls will have to spend, depending on the exact dollar amount of the cap:

Chicago Bulls 2014-15 Salaries
Derrick Rose$18,862,876
Joakim Noah$12,200,000
Taj Gibson$8,000,000
Mike Dunleavy$3,326,235
Jimmy Butler$2,008,748
Tony Snell$1,472,400
No. 16 Pick$1,468,900
No. 19 Pick$1,266,000
Nikola Mirotic Charge$1,075,300
Greg Smith$948,163
Roster Charge$507,336
Roster Charge$507,336
Richard Hamilton *$333,334
Salary Cap63,200,000
Cap Space11,223,372

*Richard Hamilton is not on the roster, but the Bulls used the stretch provision on him, therefore the stated portion of his contract is still assigned to the Bulls cap.

The Bulls have $11,223,372 to spend, at minimum, if they amnesty Boozer. However, they can do some things to increase that number.

One thing they can do is take the Mirotic hold off. Per Deeks,

Teams with unsigned first round picks can, if all parties want, file documents with the league agreeing not to sign the player that season, which in return removes their cap hold for the year. (This rule was used by Dallas last year on Petteri Koponen, and was also used by Chicago on Nikola Mirotic.)

They could also trade this year’s first-round picks for other first-round picks.

Understand, though, that by removing all three of those holds, another incomplete roster charge of $507,336 is added.  Factor that in, and it takes the cap space up to $13,511,564.

They could jettison players via trades, but K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune refutes suggestions the Bulls would move Mike Dunleavy Jr. or Taj Gibson in a salary dump.

I’ve seen no indications the Bulls are willing to trade pieces like Taj Gibson or Mike Dunleavy into another team’s salary-cap space for nothing, as they did in 2010 with Kirk Hinrich to go all-in for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That was a unique summer because the Bulls knew at least two of those players would be part of a package deal.

Therefore, to obtain Anthony through free agency, the most the Bulls could offer him in the first year of his contract would be $13,511,564. Based on the maximum allowable raise, that would turn out to be $57.7 million over four years.

How Much Will Anthony Cost?

If Anthony stayed in New York and took a max deal, he could get a five-year deal worth $129 million, according to Al Iannazzone of Newsday. However, he won’t cost that much.

Anthony is on record as saying he will take less money to stay with the Knicks, per ESPN New York, but that shouldn't be taken as a cue he's not leaving. It doesn't sound like he’s ruling out taking less money to play elsewhere, either, if it gives him the chance to win.

As far as the money, it don't really matter to me. If I go somewhere else, I get paid. If I stay in New York, I get paid. As far as the money goes, it's not my concern. My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level.

Given his druthers, Anthony seems to prefer staying in New York and winning now. But, if that’s not possible (and realistically, it’s not) he’d chose winning over the Big Apple.

Phil Jackson, the new president of the New York Knicks, doesn’t seem sure that Anthony’s future is with his club. Per Harvey Alton of The New York Times, when asked about it at a press conference, Jackson responded:

I’m all about moving forward, Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, man, are we fortunate. If it’s not in the cards, man, are we fortunate. We’re going forward, anyway.

And, then there have also been the reports that Anthony is pondering what it’s like to play for Tom Thibodeau, head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported that Anthony inquired about what it was like to play for Thibodeau: "Carmelo Anthony recently approached a former Chicago Bulls player and asked a loaded question that should make Phil Jackson a little nervous.

“What is it like to play for Thibs?” Anthony said."

On top of that Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported in March:

Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.

So, when you put these things together, you have to figure that, at least on some level, Anthony is considering taking less money to play for the Bulls.

There’s taking less, and being insulted, though, and a $70 million pay cut is pretty insulting. Anthony might take less, but I doubt he signs for $13 million the first year. 

Beating All Other Offers

Clearly then, the Bulls will have to do more than the bare minimum to get Anthony. But how do they do that, and where do you draw the line between going all in and selling the farm to buy the barn?

If the Bulls have to gut the team to get Anthony, they just become this year’s Knicks.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson did something pretty brilliant near the end of the season when they signed Ronnie Brewer, Mike James and Lou Amundson to unguaranteed, second-year deals. That means they have these really nice two-year, unguaranteed contracts they can use in a trade.

According to Don Ellis of Chicago Now, the three players combined make $4,082,108. Since they're unguaranteed, the Knicks could acquire them, then cut them to lower salaries.

That means Chicago could offer the Knicks Carlos Boozer, their two first-round picks this year, their protected Sacramento Kings pick, and agree to take back Raymond Felton's bad contract. 

If the Bulls did all that, and Anthony took a contract to make the salaries match, he would make $17.24 million in the first year of a four-year, $73.63 million deal. That would still be a significant pay cut, but it’s not an insulting one.

So, why would the Knicks do this?

If the Knicks want to rebuild—which would be the best direction for them to go right now—getting three first-round picks and more cap space in 2015 is exactly what they want. Those are two things the Knicks lack, and they're the two most important things to a team intending to rebuild.

And, truthfully, who is going to beat that offer?

The other potential destination for Anthony, the Houston Rockets, couldn't match that deal. They don’t have the immediate first-round picks to offer. The best they can do is Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, who will get paid $15 million but only count for $8.3 million off the cap.

Plus, both Lin and Asik would be unrestricted free agents in 2015. So a year from now the Knicks could have literally nothing to show for Anthony. All they would gain from that trade is slightly less cap relief than they get with the Bulls' deal.

Of course this only makes sense if Anthony is intent on leaving. If the Knicks don't feel they have to trade Anthony, they won't.

And this brings up the third reason the Knicks would want to consider this. Anthony said that he would take a pay cut if it meant winning. That’s a pretty significant qualifier.

What if taking a pay cut doesn't get them closer?

It isn't likely to help, because the Knicks still don’t have a draft pick and still wouldn't have any cap space to be able to do anything. The soonest they’d be able to do something is the summer of 2015, but even then, they’d be pretty limited.

Let’s say Anthony took $18 million the first year to stay with the Knicks. That would still put them at $30 million in guaranteed salaries in 2015-16, with just four players under contract. Add in the roster holds, and that number climbs to around $25 million (though, that will change between now and then).

That would be enough to add a second max contract and a bunch of scrap metal. In other words, it would get Anthony back to where he was when he was initially traded to the Knicks. From there, at a minimum, the Knicks would have to suffer through another rebuilding year.

So now we're into the 2016-17 season, the third year of Anthony's deal. He's pushing 33, and maybe, if everything works out, they contend. Is that what he meant when he said he wants to win now?

The writing is on the wall: Anthony is leaving anyway if he’s serious about pursing a title.

If that’s the case, the Knicks may not have a choice in whether to trade. If it comes come down to losing Anthony for less than what he's worth, or losing him for nothing at all, they pull the trigger. The former is bad. The latter is catastrophic.

The Knicks take three first-round picks and a huge salary break back because that’s the best they’re going to get. No other team can offer the Knicks more and have enough left for Anthony to believe he can win there.

All In

But there's a chance that’s still not enough to convince the Knicks. That’s when the Bulls have to show they’re ready to go all in.

If the Knicks don't budge, maybe Anthony, persuaded by the superiority of deep dish pizza, decides he'll settle for $16.8 million. The Bulls can hit that target if they change positions on dumping Dunleavy for nothing.

Or, maybe close to $17 million and the superiority of deep dish pizza aren't enough for Anthony, and the Knicks keep pressing for more. That might mean buckling and tossing in the rights to Nikola Mirotic instead of one of the draft picks.

The Bulls are at a point where they can’t covet future assets over the present. They must be willing to decide that now is the time and do what it takes to win a title. They've wisely collected assets, but if they aren't willing to use them, they’re just hoarding them.

Yes, there are questions about his defense and passing, but his interest in Thibodeau tells me that he’s open to be coached, and if he’s open to being coached, those issues can be resolved. What can’t be resolved is the total void of scoring talent on the Bulls’ roster outside of Rose.

Anthony’s recent indications that he’s willing to take less money and be coached, coupled with the Bulls total ineptitude on offense this postseason, mean it’s time to go all in and do what it takes to get a true scorer.