By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: Where will Carmelo land?
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Carmelo Anthony Freedom Tour ’14 is off and running.
If the high-scoring superstar can stomach leaving tens of millions of dollars in New York, this whirlwind wine-and-dine is bound to end where it starts: Chicago.
Anthony, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, is in the Windy City today meeting with the Bulls, including emphatic center and franchise backbone Joakim Noah, whose seemingly been in ‘Melo’s ear since around the All-Star break. On Wednesday, he’ll do a two-step through income-tax-free Texas. First to Houston to meet with the always scheming Rockets where general manager Daryl Morey has plotted a super team since he assumed office. Later in the day, he’ll trek north to Dallas where the Bank of Cuban is open for business. Owner Mark Cuban is swinging for the fences for a third summer, but this time he believes he’s got the roster to go with the cap space (albeit not max cap space).
On Thursday, the coach-less Los Angeles Lakers will make their pitch. And finally, Phil Jackson and his 11 championship rings as coach of the Bulls and Lakers will get in the final word for the incumbent Knicks.
Even then there’s theories floating about that maybe Jackson really isn’t all that keen on bringing ‘Melo back, evidence being the way he keeps needling Anthony to re-sign at a discounted rate, a notion Anthony first broached during All-Star weekend; that perhaps Jackson and rookie coach Derek Fisher would be better off without the pressure of expectation in Year 1; better off without a max (or near-max) deal gobbling up valuable cap space when New York will finally have it in abundance to go star chasing in the summer of ’15.
But then there’s the curious trade last week between the Knicks and Mavs, in which both teams trumpeted the deal as a move to motivate ‘Melo to sign with them. Dallas reacquired beloved center Tyson Chandler, their fiery leader and defensive task master on the 2011 championship team. To get Chandler, they also had to take on sinking point guard Raymond Felton.
The Knicks received four players and two starters off the Mavs’ 49-win team, including steady veteran point guard Jose Calderon and erratic center Samuel Dalembert. Jackson said he thinks ‘Melo would relish playing with the sharp-shooting and fundamental wiz Calderon.
But Jackson also spoke of “chemistry” reasons for shipping out Chandler. Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson cheered it as a move that makes Dallas more desirable for a big-fish free agent. In the days following the trade, Chandler, speaking on a Dallas-area sports radio talk show, described his relationship with Anthony as “professional.” He said off the court they stay out of each other’s way, and on it they respect each other.
Whether Jackson wants to offer Anthony a max contract — five-years for about $129 million — he holds the power to offer the 2012-13 scoring champ many more millions than any other team. The Bulls, Rockets and Mavs all have work to do to clear the cap space necessary to offer Anthony the maximum they can — four years for about $96 million.
Dallas, for one, won’t get to that number, and will seek to sell Anthony on taking less to partner with a still very capable Dirk Nowitzki at 36, a reformed volume shooter in Monta Ellis and his former teammate Chandler as a premiere rim protector. Cuban will sell the genius of coach Rick Carlisle, who challenged Gregg Popovich and the Spurs to seven games in the first round, and above all else a front office that has operated aggressively and creatively enough to remain contenders to various degrees for more than a decade.
Houston will tout James Harden and Dwight Howard, but signing Anthony will shuffle Chandler Parsons out the door. And there’s concern, at least on the outside, how Harden, Howard and Anthony will share one basketball. In Los Angeles, where Anthony spends much of his offseason anyway, a tag-team with Kobe Bryant (and cap space in 2016 when Bryant comes off the books) will be the hard sell.
So back to Chicago where the Bulls haven’t played for a championship since Michael Jordan hung ’em up for a second time after the 1998 season. The formula seems ready-made for Anthony to drop in, take off and potentially take over a droopy Eastern Conference that has far fewer contenders than out West.
Coach Tom Thibodeau‘s defensive philosophy is entrenched in the Bulls’ DNA. Anthony’s scoring would instantly boost the Bulls’ offense that reached dreadful depths without Derrick Rose. Rose’s knees are a major question mark, and his salary — $18.9 million this season and up to $21.3 million in 2016-17 — can be fatal for long-term success if he can’t stay healthy. Then again, Rose could play the next 10 years injury-free.
With a roster that includes Noah patrolling the back line, two-way, youthful talent Jimmy Butler at shooting guard and Taj Gibson at power forward (assuming he’s not shipped out in an eventual sign-and-trade with New York) and Thibodeau at the controls, the Bulls and Anthony seem the preferable match.
Anthony turned 30 in May and is heading into his 12th season. A New York native, he loves playing on the Madison Square Garden stage. But transforming that stage into a championship parade will take patience beyond this year, a quality Anthony has acknowledged is in short supply at this crossroads of his career.
He’s earned more than $135 million in salary and made a small fortune from endorsement deals.
If Anthony can make peace with leaving tens of millions more in the city in which he grew up, then his Freedom Tour will likely end where it started today, in Chicago.