The Ripple Effect of Melo’s Reported New York Return

Due to an internal miscommunication, this piece was posted before it was completed. Clarifying information about the status of Carmelo Anthony’s contract and details about the nature of the transaction between Dallas and Houston have been added and updated throughout.

It’s harder than it should be to get excited about Carmelo Anthony potentially returning to the New York Knicks on a massive five-year contract, working the triangle within a revamped roster that carries the promise of max-level cap room next summer.

This upcoming decision (as reported by the New York Daily News), spelled with a lowercase D, will send ripples across the league — provided it actually happens as reported. Anthony’s agent has denied the decision is final, and other teams in the Melo derby haven’t yet been notified of any decision, though they are preparing as if he will be a Knick.

Dallas was a long shot, and it has now reverted to the inevitable fallback plan — using its remaining cap space on a massive offer sheet for Chandler Parsons and moving on from there if the Rockets match. Houston already has two stars, though it would be nice if the younger one would deign to play defense, and it can trade its way to max-level cap space for a third as long as Parsons counts on its books only as a super-cheap cap hold.

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That cap hold will last just 72 hours once Dallas signs Parsons to that three-year, $45 million offer sheet, a delicious F-U power move that puts Houston up against a ticking clock. The Rockets want Chris Bosh, but Bosh wants to play with LeBron James. The Rockets and Bosh will have just those precious 72 hours to figure out what LeBron will do, plan Bosh’s next move, and push Jeremy Lin (and perhaps two other players) off on someone to open up the requisite cap space for Bosh. They could then match Parsons’s offer sheet, but they’d have to snag Bosh first; the moment Houston puts pen to paper with Parsons, he morphs into a $15 million cap hit that vaporizes Houston’s cap space.

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Houston is juggling five balls, and one toss just went 6 inches to the left. If Houston doesn’t like the Parsons price, they could urge the Mavs to engage in sign-and-trade talks before serving Houston with the offer sheet — a process to which both teams are amenable, per Tim McMahon of ESPN Dallas. But Dallas doesn’t have many attractive trade assets, and the Rockets can’t afford to lose Parsons without a top-level replacement lined up on the wing. Losing Parsons for nothing would hurt a team that is pretty close to title contention, and Parsons’s new deal would run only three seasons — a short-term overpay for a guy who still has room to grow. [Update: Marc Stein has reported that Parsons has signed Dallas's offer sheet, so the sign-and-trade scenario is now off the table.]

There are other wing free agents, including Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza, but they’re older than Parsons, and there will be a bidding war for them once James makes up his mind. Retaining last year’s roster with the promise of moderate flexibility going forward is a pretty nice consolation prize for Houston. It comes with the small added bonus of not having to trade Lin, who is a nice rotation piece when you remember he’s a player, and not just trade bait who has already lost his uniform number to a dude who doesn’t even play for the Rockets.

(Whether Houston played its cards right with Parsons is a question for another day. It could have kept him on his super-cheap contract for one more season, with the trade-off being that Parsons would have been an unrestricted free agent a year from now. He’d have been a solid trade asset in the meantime, and likely won’t be under this mammoth new contract. But the Rockets played it this way, and they may have done so in part as a favor to Parsons, who shares an agent with Dwight Howard.)

The Lakers were going to face a long journey back regardless of Anthony’s decision, though they reportedly wowed him in their sit-down.

Chicago will be crushed if it comes out of this summer empty-handed, and the Bulls always offered the best fit for Anthony, even if it would have been tough to open up the cap space required to chase him without the cooperation of the Knicks via sign-and-trade. Anthony would have provided a second offensive hub and some big-small lineup versatility for perhaps the league’s most predictable team. Tom Thibodeau, that baritone-screaming wizard, could have hidden Anthony’s below-average defense just as he survived Carlos Boozer’s flat-footed shouting.

Chicago had plenty of sign-and-trade jewels to toss at New York, even though the two sides started out with mutual hard “nos” on a couple of key issues. The Knicks reportedly didn’t want Carlos Boozer, and the Bulls wouldn’t give up Taj Gibson or Jimmy Butler. It was not realistic for the Bulls to include prized international forward Nikola Mirotic in these talks. But even after all of that, Chicago still had a decent cache of assets — a potential rotation guy in Tony Snell, a possible extra first-round pick from Sacramento, all of its own picks, some swap rights, and a couple of extra second-rounders.

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And, really, if you want Carmelo freaking Anthony so damn badly, maybe at the end you give up someone of real value. It’s unclear how open the Knicks really were to talking sign-and-trade with Chicago, but they should have been pretty damn open. The involvement of the Lakers might have mucked that up. If Anthony really preferred Los Angeles over Chicago, he had a suitor with the cap room to make him a legit max-level offer — no sign-and-trade talks, no cap gymnastics, no leverage for New York to pry assets from another team.

A sign-and-trade to the Bulls would have required Anthony to force New York’s hand, and if he wouldn’t do that, the Bulls were probably out of luck. Same goes for Houston, which might have had the players whom Phil Jackson most wanted in a theoretical sign-and-trade — a route that Houston didn’t have to take, anyway, since it could gather up enough cap space for a real Melo offer.

Chicago still has the same fine mix of pieces, and depending on Derrick Rose’s health and the Heat-Cavaliers poker game, Chicago could emerge by April as the favorite in the Eastern Conference. This has been a 60-win team when Rose has been healthy, and it has the goods now to make up for Luol Deng’s absence.

Chicago can still make a monster offer for Kevin Love, and in the meantime, it can either snag about $12 million in cap room by amnestying Boozer or use the midlevel exception to find another complementary piece.

A sign-and-trade with Chicago would have allowed the Knicks to normalize — to flush away the last vestiges of a half-decade that has seen New York gut its team for LeBron, sign Amar’e Stoudemire instead, fritter away draft picks and the one-time-only amnesty provision, spend like a Supermarket Sweep contestant, push out Donnie Walsh, demote Glen Grunwald, hire Jackson, and generally flail around from plan to plan.

Anthony is a great player. He has gotten better over the past two seasons, emerging as a killer 3-point shooter who makes increasingly efficient and team-oriented uses of his isolations, post-ups, and pick-and-roll attacks. He has embraced life as a stretch power forward, and the team has been better for it.

He’s a so-so defender on his best nights, and his game on offense can stray into ball-hoggery, especially when the quality of his supporting cast dips. But Melo is a force, an efficient offense almost on his own, and his game has evolved in healthy ways. The triangle should nudge him toward his best habits and away from his worst.

He’s also 30, and he may be about to sign a contract that will pay him nearly $30 million in 2018-19, when he’ll be 35. There just haven’t been many (any?) 35-year-old guys who have played up to $30 million contracts. Anthony would eclipse Kobe Bryant as the highest-paid player in the league once Bryant’s deal expires after the 2015-16 season. In an efficient market, the league’s best-paid player would also be its best player.

Anthony isn’t the best player now, and he might not even be among the league’s 10 best, depending on how much you like defense. He didn’t make an All-NBA team this season, though making it as a forward is like surviving The Hunger Games at this point. He will not be anything like the league’s best player when he’s 35. There is a near 100 percent chance we’ll look at this potential max contract as a bad deal over its last couple of seasons, even with the cap set to go up every season at a rate that is tough to predict.

New York has already begun the normalization process, and it has accelerated under Jackson. It drafted two rotation wings in Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. before Jackson arrived, and the Knicks nabbed three nice young pieces in the Tyson Chandler deal — Shane Larkin and two second-rounders they turned into Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. That is how you begin restoring order after dealing away so many picks and larding up the cap sheet.

The Knicks will still have some flexibility even with Anthony’s mammoth deal. They could have as much as $23 million or so in cap room next summer, though that would require renouncing Bird rights on Shumpert, waiving Pablo Prigioni, and holding off on signing any multiyear contracts in the current free-agency period.

That would be plenty for one max star to pair with Anthony, and all the available evidence suggests that Anthony alone is not enough to power a team into a title chase — even with a capable supporting group. But two max guys would be impossible without some pay-cut magic, and that should be the case as long as Anthony remains a Knick under this contract. And that’s fine. Having three max-level stars on actual max contracts is a historical rarity.

But even that $23 million figure might be misleading. Toss in Shumpert’s cap hold, and that figure could scrunch down to about $17 million — enough to fit a max contract for a guy coming off a rookie deal, but not for any veteran player of that stature. Given Melo’s salary and the likelihood of signing a midsize multiyear contract here and there, the Knicks may get just a single shot, maybe two, at a star free agent during Melo’s time. Maybe they get LeBron at some point; he and Melo are pals, after all, and his next contract might be a short-term one around which the Knicks can plan. Maybe you luck into Kevin Durant after 2016. Love will be a free agent after next season, though any interested team has to sweat out the possibility of the Wolves trading Love to a place he’d like to stay long term.

That could also hinge on James, since the Cavaliers might have a contingency plan to acquire Love in the event they also sign LeBron, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo. LaMarcus Aldridge will be a free agent next summer, but he works in Melo’s midrange territory, and he has been open about wanting to re-sign in Portland. Maybe another star becomes disgruntled and available.

But maybe the Knicks miss again, and get the next version of Stoudemire. And the production they’ll need from that second star will only rise as Melo’s game declines.

Things could clearly change. The Knicks could salary-dump Jose Calderon, though they view him as a valuable triangle offense caretaker. They could hope J.R. Smith forgets he has a player option for 2015-16 and accidentally enters free agency next summer — or just opts out of it for fun. They could work the sign-and-trade market a year from now, when they’ll finally be under the tax and allowed to do it. We can obsess about the details of transactions till our eyes bleed, but the NBA is such a star-driven league that Jackson nabbing just one megastar could trump all these other concerns. They also play in the East, where rising from moribund cash toilet to conference semifinalist isn’t all that hard.

Losing a star for nothing hurts, and Melo is a star. Even playing hard ball with a four-year offer could be dangerous with the Lakers lurking. The Knicks without Melo next season are a tank job, and Jim Dolan does not tolerate (intentional) tank jobs.

There’s no great option here, which is kind of the point. The Knicks could have moved on from their LeBron miss in 2010, hoarded cap space, and come calling later for Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, James Harden, or someone else. They splurged on Stoudemire instead, and have been prohibited from amnestying him since using that bullet on Chauncey Billups — a cut they made mere weeks after guaranteeing Billups’s full $14 million deal for 2011-12, when they could have bought him out for just $3 million.

They wouldn’t even consider dealing Melo until it was too late — until his deal was expiring and the Knicks were sinking — and didn’t really consider it even then. There were other courses along the way, but the Knicks are boxed in now.

Hell, even adding a player today via the smaller midlevel exception for tax teams is going to prove a burden, should Anthony sign the full five-year max. The Knicks would be sitting on a payroll of around $88 million once Melo’s deal kicks in, slotting them $11 million over the tax line. The mini midlevel gives them $3.278 million to sign a guy, but that small contract would carry an additional tax hit of more than $8 million. The Knicks added three guaranteed contracts in the Chandler deal, and they may have to cut someone to fit that midlevel free agent.

New York is bereft of good triangle bigs, and you can bet Uncle Phil will try to lure his old friend Pau Gasol. But Gasol will have richer offers from better teams, including Oklahoma City and Chicago, and he might well prioritize rings over all else in his waning NBA years.

Jackson and his front office could build a nice team around Anthony. It’s easy to mock the Knicks, but they’ve long drafted well when they’ve actually had picks, and they have some smart minds working around Jackson. The early moves of Jackson’s tenure have been encouraging, and he’ll prize guys who share the ball, play with intelligence, and bring a well-rounded skill set. That’s a better approach than jumping at shiny objects.

But the Knicks don’t want to build a nice team. They want to build a champion. It’s hard to see that end game from here.

Filed Under: NBA, Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks, Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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