Why the Bulls need Carmelo Anthony more than the Rockets do
Two of the biggest suitors for Carmelo Anthony appear to be the Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets are said to be willing to trade "almost anything" to get Melo, although the exact trade package cited thereafter includes only the names of two backups. Chicago meanwhile always play their cards close to their chest, yet even for them, rumors about their plans to acquire Anthony this summer are seeping out.
Acquiring Anthony could theoretically be done via free agency or by trade. Melo has an early termination option after this season - whilst not identical to a player option, it functions as one for the purposes of this discussion, and is exactly what the name suggests it is. If he exercises his option to terminate, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. If he does not, he remains under contract to the Knicks for one more season.
Chicago theoretically are equipped for both avenues. If they were to try the free agency route, Chicago could begin by amnestying one of the last 10 players in the league still amnesty-eligible - Carlos Boozer. Boozer is a player whose Indian summer came to an end this season with a relatively listless campaign that will see him merit roughly a quarter of the $16.8 million he is owed next summer. That, plus waiving the unguaranteed contracts of Mike James, Ronnie Brewer and Lou Amundson, would leave the team with committed salaries (once the cap holds for the still-unsigned Nikola Mirotic and the two 2014 draft picks are taken into account) of $52,476,631, creating cap space of $10,723,369 assuming a $63.2 million cap.
If the $3,326,235 salary of Mike Dunleavy Jr. is traded out, the amount of cap space after roster charges that Chicago has to offer Anthony or indeed any combination of free agents increases to $13,542,268, assuming a $63.2 million cap. Dunleavy would be easy enough to trade - at that price and with his skills, he retains plenty of value around the league, not least of which is to Chicago, a team desperately in need of what he provides. This is not enough to offer Melo a maximum contract, which for him would start at 105 percent of his previous season's salary of $21,388,954 ($22,458,402). But it is half the battle. Should they wish to decimate their salary picture further - which, practically, could only involve a separate trade of Taj Gibson - they could pretty much create enough cap room for Melo's max.
More realistic, though, is the trade route. In trade terms, only Joakim Noah is off-limits, while Gibson is ideally off-limits, mainly because Noah demand him be so. Yet everyone else is fair game. The draft rights to Nikola Mirotic in particular should be considered extremely valuable - added to that, Chicago also has one of the best defenders in the league in Jimmy Butler, two first round picks in 2014, every single one of their future draft picks, as well as some from other teams. They could also swallow theirs and Noah's pride and trade Gibson, either using Boozer's contract to match the salaries, or (more likely, and certainly more palatably for the Knicks) amnestying him and using the cap room it opens up to absorb the extra salary.
Meanwhile, the Rockets cannot realistically create the cap space to go the free agency route. They have already committed nearly $63 million next year, $32 million of which is going to Dwight Howard and James Harden alone, who are not going anywhere. To even match salaries to acquire Anthony via trade would require at least one of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to be included, or almost certainly both. The duo, while both decent, would cost the Knicks $29,787,876 in salary alone next season, and almost certainly a comparable amount in luxury tax payments (payments which would be calculated based on the pair's $8,374,646 salary cap numbers, but which due to the amount New York is over the tax would likely put them in the $2.50-$1 luxury tax rate, if not the $3.25-$1 one).
Asik and Lin are decent players and expiring contracts, but that is an enormous commitment to two merely decent starting calibre players, one of whom would almost certainly be a backup. The sweeteners will have to be really, really sweet for this to be the best deal for New York.
That said, the Rockets never lack for commitment, and never shy away from roster turnover. If they can reduce the financial impact for the Knicks by also taking back the contract of Raymond Felton, include the quality player that is Terrence Jones, potentially add in Donatas Motiejunas should New York see anything in his potential, potentially offer up the draft rights to any of Houston's unsigned draftees (most likely Sergio Llull and Kostas Papanikolaou), and include an appropriate package of draft picks, they may be able to compete with a Chicago trade offer.
They could also conceivably decline the team option on Chandler Parsons and use him in a sign-and-trade, especially since he is set to lose his starting spot and minutes to an incoming Anthony anyway. It would be a scramble to create a desirable trade package, yet if they are prepared to empty the cupboard, they can do it.
Both teams could potentially be in the running for Carmelo if they want to be, then. And it seems that both want to be. The more pressing concerns, though, should be whether they want to be. Essentially, as good as Carmelo is, does he actually fit?
When paying a heavy price to acquire someone, as both teams would be here, you need to be very sure that the player concerned will fit optimally and be the centerpiece going forward that you are paying for them to be. Even if that incoming player is better than the incumbent players on your roster, you still need to be sure that they will fit alongside them, as one player never doth a full team make.
Chicago needs an offensive creator, badly. The reason Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin have performed so strongly in the past two years is because they have had the entirety of the ball and as many minutes as they can handle. They were the best two creative options on the team, but they are not two elite creative options. The Bulls' team is built to rely on the point guard dominating the ball and the scoring flanked by athletes and defenders, yet in Derrick Rose's two year absence, there has been no such creator, save for the cheap imitation versions Augustin and Robinson laid on. Tom Thibodeau's attempts to build a playbook around Noah instead only offset a small amount of this - without anyone who could consistently permeate the first line of the defense or consistently shoot over it, they have been sorely wanting.
Anthony would certainly provide that. As he has been proving in his time with the Knicks, he is a man you can consistently turn to to get a basket in half-court situations, a prodigious scorer who does not even need to create a decent look for a shot to be able to hit one. He would become the best shot maker on the Bulls, in theory joined by another elite scorer in Derrick Rose, should he ever be able to return to somewhat near his best. Between the two, Chicago's perpetual struggles in the half-court offense would be immediately alleviated.
The Bulls would still need a shooting guard to pair alongside this new Rose/Anthony lineup, and potentially another small forward in small ball lineups featuring Anthony at power forward (If Mirotic is dealt in a trade for Anthony, or at least not signed next summer due to needing the money for Melo, this may happen a fair bit.) The frontcourt pairing of Gibson and Noah has no outside shooting - this, combined with the streaky and mediocre outside shooting of Rose, makes for floor spacing and inefficiency problems that threaten to negate the abilities Rose and Anthony would bring in the halfcourt. Nevertheless, they stand to cure their biggest problems while retaining the core of their strengths.
Houston, meanwhile, does not have nearly the same needs. They have James Harden. They have their primary offensive creator, one so catered to that he is paired with a point guard who cannot create consistently in the half court so that Harden can. They have Howard at center, the excellent Chandler Parsons at small forward, and the excellent Terrence Jones at power forward. All of them are good offensive players that have created a good offensive team.
What they need is perimeter defense, a deeper and more consistent bench, and for James Harden to take the next leap. Carmelo Anthony is none of those things. Indeed, Carmelo Anthony further enhances those problems.
Chicago need to reconcile what it will cost to get Anthony with how much they will get from him. They need to gauge whether the impact he will have is worth the cost of acquiring him, the cost of retaining him, the cost of the diminishing returns they will yield from the already 30-year-old Anthony, and all of these costs in comparison with the other options available to them. It is not Melo or bust, and thus they must not go for broke. But if they target him specifically and are prepared to pay the cost it will take to acquire and complement him, they are primed to win any bidding war.
Houston, meanwhile, should find such a reconciliation easy. They need something, but a high usage ball-stopping isolation scorer with defensive concerns hurtling towards 30 years of age and a $30 million salary is not it. Let's hope they recognize this soon.