Tuesday NBA Free Agency Roundup: Rockets, Not Heat, Are Best Fit for Melo

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2018

Tuesday NBA Free Agency Roundup: Rockets, Not Heat, Are Best Fit for Melo

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Carmelo Anthony will be a wanted man once he leaves the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Yes, he is going to leave them.

    Sources told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski that Anthony has been granted permission to speak with the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, among other teams, in advance of his "inevitable" divorce from the Thunder. He has even preemptively waived his no-trade clause to facilitate his potential exit—though, in a market starved for cap space, a buyout and stretch with Oklahoma City remains the most likely outcome. 

    Either way, Anthony is on track to hit the open market for the first time since 2014, when he eschewed suitors like the Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and re-upped with the New York Knicks on a five-year, $124 million pact. 

    His availability will not incite a bidding war. He's coming off a hard-knocks season with the Thunder in which he struggled to master a more complementary role beside Paul George and Russell Westbrook. And it doesn't help that the only teams with meaningful cap room—the Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings—are rebuilding squads who won't appeal to a 34-year-old presumably prioritizing title contention.

    Other suitors will invariably enter the mix. They always do. Keep an eye on the Lakers if they don't finish fleshing out their roster in the coming days. Anthony's connection with LeBron James is real.

    For now, Houston and Miami are the early front-runners, according to Woj. Of the two, the Rockets appear to have a decided edge. That advantage's name: Christopher Emmanuel Paul. The New York Times' Marc Stein went as far as to write "it would be a full-fledged surprised if he doesn't wind up" in Clutch City. 

    Is syncing up with Paul, James Harden and head coach Mike D'Antoni in Anthony's best interests? Are the Heat a better fit? Should he start anew elsewhere?

    Thank you, Melo, for giving us something worthwhile to talk about as free agency slogs onward at a sloth's pace. Truly, in all sincerity, thank you.

What Should Melo Do?

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Deciding between Houston and Miami is a matter of fit versus fate for Anthony.

    The Rockets offer a better shot at cracking the NBA Finals. Even after losing Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Los Angeles Clippers, even while playing in the same conference as the Golden State Warriors, they are by far the more imminent threat.

    Harden, Paul and Clint Capela (more on him shortly) promise 50-plus wins and a likely top-two playoff seed. Ariza and Mbah a Moute were key components of the team's switch-everything defense, but they didn't qualify as lifelines. Houston outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when playing without either of them, according to Cleaning The Glass

    The Heat, on the other hand, guarantee a cleaner fit—or rather, a higher-profile role. They need established shot creators and finishers. Their top-five usage rates among those to make 20 or more appearances belonged to, in descending order: Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside and Kelly Olynyk.

    One of those players could retire (Wade). Another might be traded or spend the year in head coach Erik Spoelstra's no-fly zone (Whiteside). Another attempted only one pull-up jumper per game and had nearly two-thirds of his made buckets come off assists (Olynyk). Yet another is Dion Waiters. 

    Most players heading into their twilight and still searching for a ring would put the Rockets atop their list of preferred landing spots. Anthony may no different. His friendship with Paul helps. But playing a familiar brand of basketball matters to him. He made that clear after Oklahoma City was eliminated by the Utah Jazz in the second round of the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Royce Young:

    "I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season. As far as being effective as that type of player, I don't think I can be effective as that type of player. I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I still can do as a basketball player."

    Anthony's assessment of his time with the Thunder is fair. He posted the lowest true shooting percentage of his career but put down 35.7 percent of his treys and shot better than 45 percent when using between one and six dribbles. He can still get buckets, a timeless talent that Miami needs more than Houston.

    And yet, adapting to the Rockets wouldn't be that much different from adjusting to the Heat. There might be no variance at all. Houston's shot volume is more concentrated, emphasizing Harden and Paul, but Miami's egalitarian distribution leaves too many cooks in the kitchen.

    Dragic, Waiters, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson all command a certain amount of touches. So will Wade if he returns. The Heat have likewise experimented Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow as triggermen. That all adds up.

    Anthony won't want for touches with the Rockets. They had four players make at least 20 appearances and notch higher usage rates than him (23.2). Paul has already shown a willingness to cede ball control, and Harden won't blush at surrendering shots after finishing second among all players in possession time and field-goal attempts per 36 minutes.

    Joining the Rockets does not come without compromise. Anthony's job description would remain the same in many respects. He'll need to play off the ball more. 

    That isn't the end of the world.

    Anthony shot 37.3 percent on catch-and-shoot triples within an Oklahoma City offense that struggled to create consistent space. No team fired up wide-open threes with more regularity, and only the Brooklyn Nets jacked more standstill treys.

    Playing off Harden and Paul is different than working away from George and Westbrook. It's easier. Harden and Paul are more organic setup men. George is a tertiary distributor, and Westbrook is more force of nature who berths assists by formula than selfless artisan.  

    Reuniting with D'Antoni—who is all aboard the Melo train, per Woj—even helps here. Houston's head honcho and his staff strategically staggered the court time of their two ball-dominant stars last season. Paul averaged 15.1 minutes per game without Harden, and Harden saw 21.9 minutes without Paul.

    Working Melo into that dynamic will be difficult, but not impossible. Eric Gordon, the Rockets' third option, tallied more than nine minutes of solo time per game while averaging under five minutes with both Harden and Paul in the lineup.

    D'Antoni will also do some things to keep Anthony involved during full-strength minutes. The Rockets' iso-heavy offense isn't revered for its off-ball motion, but they know how to incorporate pick-and-roll divers. Anthony can take on more rim-running duties in super-small lineups, much like Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker did this past year. He shot under 38 percent in these situations with the Thunder, but they weren't routinely trotting out five-sniper arrangements.

    Toss in the 20 or so games Paul will inevitably miss, and the Rockets are Anthony's best bet. They aren't a perfect landing spot. Using him on defense will be difficult without Ariza or Mbah a Moute. But they blend individual and collective opportunity—a superior balance between fit and fate.

Clint Capela and the Rockets: Getting Closer(?)

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Clint Capela was not happy with the Rockets' initial contract offer, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. The distance between his asking price and the team's original proposal felt ominous following the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute.

    And it still does.

    Houston's best offer thus far comes in at five years and $85 million, with the potential to reach $90 million, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. Capela is reportedly seeking a four-year, $100 million pact, per MacMahon.

    On the bright side for Rockets fans, one individual privy to negotiations told Feigen the team is "absolutely" optimistic an agreement will be struck. Whether this rosy outlook is borne from constructive dialogue or a tepid market remains to be seen. 

    Things stand to get awkward if the Rockets are counting on the NBA's great cap-space famine of 2018 to force Capela's hand. He's open to signing his $4.7 million qualifying offer and re-entering the pool as an unrestricted free agent next summer, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne (h/t Def Pen Hoops' Sagar Trika).

    Plus, at least one of the three teams with significant spending power—Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento—could tender Capela a lucrative offer sheet. The Hawks theoretically loom large here. They have the money to roll out the max(ish)-contract carpet, and the 24-year-old Capela is a tantalizing frontcourt partner for the soon-to-be 21-year-old John Collins. (Never, ever write off the Kings, either.)

    Though the prevailing assumption is that the Rockets will match any contract Capela signs, exits from Ariza and Mbah a Moute suggest they're worried about their luxury-tax situation. Owner Tillman Fertitta disagrees.

    "We know we're going to be in the luxury tax, and if you want to compete for a championship, I feel like unless you get real lucky, you're going to be in the luxury tax," he told MacMahon. "So it is what it is...It never even came up in any discussion."

    Will the Hawks or Kings give the Rockets' pockets a depth test? Will Capela sign his qualifying offer? Will he cave to Houston? Does a happy medium exist? We could pretend to know, but let's face it: This summer is weird, so we don't.

Marcus Smart Still Dancing with the Celtics

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Marcus Smart is officially lowering his expectations.

    In the face of an unfriendly free-agency landscape, the 24-year-old would "consider" signing a deal similar to the four-year extension that the Boston Celtics offered last fall, according to the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy. This assumes that contract, which was worth more annually than Dante Exum's three-year, $33 million pact, is still on the table. 

    It might not be.

    "That’s what I want to know," Smart told the Boston's Globe's Adam Himmelsbach when asked where negotiations stand. "I have no clue. I can only control what I can control."

    Smart needs leverage if he's going to finagle an eight-figure payday. Right now, he doesn't have much.

    He was spotted talking with Nets general manager Sean Marks on Monday, per The Athletic's Michael Scotto, but Brooklyn must jettison incumbent salary to open up eight figures in space. NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely said the Kings could have interest in his services, but the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones debunked that rumor.

    Short of threatening to sign his one-year, $6.1 million qualifying offer, Smart doesn't have the juice behind him to coax the Celtics into action. And even then, they might invite his decision. It gives them a puncher's hope of staving off the luxury tax for another season and puts him, Kyrie Irving (player option) and Terry Rozier (restricted) into free agency at the same time.

    Unless a dark-horse aggressor emerges after dumping salary, Smart will more likely than not stay in Boston. All that's left to figure out is whether that return will come as an expiring contract or as the recipient of a multiyear deal. 

The Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Kawhi Leonard Updates You Absolutely Need

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Davis Bertans and the San Antonio Spurs have apparently adjusted course—together.

    On July 7, Sportando reported the two sides had agreed to a four-year, $20 million deal. On Tuesday, however, Bertans' agent told Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania that his client is staying in San Antonio on a two-year, $14.5 million pact.

    That's a solid agreement for both parties. Bertans is receiving a higher annual salary than initially reported, and the Spurs are getting into him for fewer years.

    Depending on how things shake out with Kawhi Leonard and future draft picks, San Antonio is set up for a 2020 shopping spree. Patty Mills' salary ($13.3 million) and LaMarcus Aldridge's partial guarantee ($7 million) are the only surefire holds on the ledger. The Spurs will add salary between now and then, but if they play their cards right, they'll either have dual-max slots or the leeway to retool around Leonard in a big way two years from now.

    Bryn Forbes is also returning to San Antonio on his own two-year deal, per Charania. He cleared the 1,500-minute mark during his second season, averaging 6.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game. Along with Derrick White, he could be in line for more spin following Tony Parker's relocation to Charlotte.

    Meanwhile, all remains quiet on the Leonard front. Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher penned an in-depth breakdown of the deadlocked soap opera Tuesday, which is stocked with notes from rival executives and worth a read. But here's the fits-into-a-tweet gist: Teams want Kawhi, but they don't know how much to give up for him, and they also aren't sure the Spurs even want to trade him.

2019 Free Agency: A Friend to People with Bedtimes

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Congratulations to those who like getting to bed before the crack of dawn! NBA free agency is getting an early start next year.

    Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed the festivities "will be moved up from midnight EST on July 1 to a more reasonable/TV-friendly hour" beginning in 2019, per USA Today's Sam Amick.

    Don't let the emphasis on television fool you. The NBA is doing this for you, #TeamSleepIsGood. And maybe for Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who refuses to partake in pitch meetings that take place following TNT's final nightly Castle rerun. 

    The full range of benefits won't be apparent until the Association decides on a time. Rest assured, though, Woj and Charania will be breaking contract details roughly 30 minutes to two hours in advance of whenever free agency begins. 

    So if negotiations cannot officially commence until, say, 9 p.m. ET, we'll know about Klay Thompson's veteran-minimum deal with the Warriors no later than 8:30 p.m. ET.   

Top Remaining Free Agents

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    New contracts are now being brokered at a snail's pace, which hasn't left much room for change atop free agency's big board. Here are the five best remaining names, as determined by our original big board. (Note: Text on returning players has been recycled from previous big boards.)

             

    1. Clint Capela, C, Restricted

    Clint Capela tweeted a pensive-face emoji without context on July 1. Was he simply reacting to LeBron James joining the Lakers a full 14 minutes before it became official? Thinking about what to have for dinner? Or could he and the Rockets be at an impasse in contract negotiations?

    Hitting a snag in talks wouldn't bode well for Capela. He doesn't have any obvious leverage after the Dallas Mavericks burned their cap space on DeAndre Jordan. Only the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings can afford to sign him outright. Now, I'm not saying Atlanta should offer him a near-max deal and see what happens. I'm not not saying it, either. 

          

    2. Marcus Smart, PG, Restricted

    Marcus Smart's market is dwindling by the day. The Pacers loomed as a potential destination, but they're out of the picture after landing Tyreke Evans. Hardly anyone has the space to offer Smart more than his $6.1 million qualifying offer.

    He could probably coax a sizable short-term offer out of the Boston Celtics, but that begs them to use him as a blockbuster-trade anchor. The longer he remains unsigned, the more likely he is to accept his qualifying offer and re-assess the landscape in 2019.

            

    3. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Unrestricted

    Isaiah Thomas is having himself one helluva year. Last July, he was talking about his desire to snag a max contract this summer. Then he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Kyrie Irving blockbuster. Then, after not making his 2017-18 debut until January, he was sent to the Lakers. And now, he's without a home, verging on an afterthought.

    League sources told HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy that Thomas is "negotiating a possible deal" with the Orlando Magic, which makes sense. They won't give him anything close to max money; he'll be lucky to get most of their mid-level exception. But they need a point guard, and he needs a team that'll invite him to stuff the box score and recoup some of the luster he's lost over the past 12 months.

            

    4. Jabari Parker, PF, Restricted

    Aaron Gordon received a four-year, $84 million contract from the Magic. Julius Randle is getting two years and $18 million from the New Orleans Pelicans. Where does this leave Jabari Parker, a fellow restricted free agent power forward? Good luck figuring that out.

    Parker is a tantalizing offensive prospect. He has expanded his arsenal to include more three-pointers and off-ball work while retaining his appeal as a from-scratch creator. But his defense is a problem. He's too slow to guard 3s and isn't strong enough to pester 5s. His fit with Giannis Antetokounmpo has fluctuated between weird and downright poor. The Milwaukee Bucks will have a no-thanks breaking point if Parker gets the right offer, but he won't solicit big-money dalliances unless Atlanta, Chicago or Sacramento gets frisky with their cap space.

            

    5. Montrezl Harrell, PF/C, Restricted

    Montrezl Harrell is a small-burst stud. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis were the only other players last season to clear 20 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block per 36 minutes.

    Arbitrary splits? Maybe. Harrell has yet to eclipse the 1,500-minute marker through three seasons, and he certainly isn't Antetokounmpo or Davis. But he is a general worker bee. His wire-to-wire hustle makes him easy to like. He doesn't have much of a jumper, so he's best suited at the 5. The right team will put him in four-out roll-man situations.

    After extending a qualifying offer, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed intent on keeping him. They still might be. Even if they are, their additions of Mike Scott and Luc Mbah a Moute, who will soak up time at the 4, open the door for rival admirers to poach a quality restricted free agent on the relative cheap.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGMReported agreements to sign via NBA.com's free-agent tracker unless otherwise noted.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.