The complicated path to Carmelo Anthony

Buried in Adrian Wojnarowski’s plea for New York Knicks owner James Dolan to go away and never come back was official word from the NBA’s most diligent reporter that the Houston Rockets and Carmelo Anthony share a mutual interest.

Several rumors have popped up over the past few weeks, and it’s only logical to assume a fidgety general manager like Daryl Morey would see an available superstar and do everything in his power to adopt him, but in my opinion Wojnarowski’s report finally allows worthwhile speculation to begin.

A lot can happen over the next few months, but a roadmap attempting today to figure out how Houston can sign Anthony this summer won’t hurt anybody, will it? So many freaking things needs to go one way in order for this to actually happen, but these are the three easiest to write about.

1) New York misses the playoffs

The Knicks are 28-40. If the season ended today they’d be a No.9 seed without a lottery pick—the very worst position for an NBA team to be in. The pesky Atlanta Hawks are up four games with 14 to go, and John Hollinger’s playoff predictions place the odds at a seismic 6% that New York passes them.

Despite Phil Jackson’s influence (a factor that shouldn’t be dismissed) and aside from $$$, why would Anthony stay in New York? The Knicks could either be as bad or worse next season, and they definitely won’t win the title until Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, and Tyson Chandler come off the books, which probably won’t happen until next summer (Bargnani and Stoudemire have player options next year, but it’s doubtful they douse gasoline on their combined $30+ million and opt out…unless Jackson brainwashes them into thinking it’s a good idea, which is entirely possible).

In essence, Anthony signing a five-year max with New York would be the equivalent of strapping plastic explosive to his prime then pounding it with a sledge hammer. He turns 30 on May 29, and would probably miss the playoffs for a second straight season while playing inside a bubble for an emotionally starved fan base. The city would be miserable. He would be more miserable.

How could making the playoffs this year matter? Well, given the incredibly low odds of it actually happening, qualifying would be miraculous and an inspiration. That’s why. It’d supply irrational hope for the future and substantiate the organization’s positive momentum. If the Knicks make the playoffs, they could argue this entire regular season was a comedy of awful, impossible-to-repeat-themselves-ever-again blunders.

“Chandler, Bargnani, and Stoudemire will be healthy next year!”

“We’ll get even more production from the still-developing Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.!”

“Think Felton’s washed up? So do we! Let’s trade for a brand new point guard!”

“Sayonara, J.R. Smith!”

“Sayonara, Mike Woodson!”

“Hello, Steve Kerr!”

“Nice to meet you, triangle offense!”

It’s obviously wishful thinking, but nobody knows the future. And when you can throw an extra $30+ million at Anthony, a dot of brightness is all you really need. The Knicks are a capsizing ship that just spent 18 months repeatedly ramming itself into the same iceberg. An incredible playoff push will persuade everyone to look towards the heavens and think happy thoughts about the future…right as the boat cracks in half behind them.

If New York misses the playoffs none of that spin can be spun. Vultures (Houston, Chicago, Boston, Charlotte, the Lakers) will circle a little lower. It’s exactly what happened to L.A. and Dwight Howard. Nobody wants to go through a painful losing season in the prime of their career, especially if it can be avoided. Smart people will tell Anthony he’ll have to experience this all over again for at least one more year if he sticks around, and that pill might be too tough to swallow.

2) The Rockets need to win a playoff series

As an alluring player destination that’s relatively fresh, it’d be a terrible look for Houston to get bounced in the first round. Kevin McHale would be fired—giving rise to the possibility that a less fun system is implemented by a new coach—and most of the team’s pleasant chemistry vibes would shake at the core.

If Houston loses early, and winning a title is truly Anthony’s number one objective (over pride, ego, money, statistics, and his wife’s indefatigable television career), to sway free agency’s breeze towards 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, Jackson would calmly relay the obvious: Good luck getting out of the west, Melo!

Oklahoma City, San Antonio (not going anywhere for at least 20 more years), Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, Phoenix, Portland, and Dallas are all very good now, and could be much better in the short-term future. (Also, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis are in the conference, and we haven’t even said the word “Lakers” yet.)

Anthony could easily make the Rockets a perennial powerhouse that looks up to zero of those teams, but it’d be a little risky unless he’s willing to take even less money than the four-year max. Those three max deals are a huge cost, and the margins to add complimentary pieces would be difficult though not impossible. Hanging over all this is the Chicago Bulls, who present an intriguing destination in their own right.

3) Houston needs to gut its roster

Yay, financial talk! Pending player options, team options, non-guaranteed contracts, and draft picks, Houston has between $60.9 and $63.2 million on their books next season, when the expected cap number will rise to approximately $61.2 million. Thus, they can’t sign Anthony to a four-year, $95.89 million maximum contract. Can they get low enough?

First, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik have to go. That’s $16.7 million off the top right there. Then, Greg Smith needs to be renounced, Francisco Garcia would be kidnapped, Omri Casspi gets cut, and Chandler Parsons, Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, and Patrick Beverley would all be bought out or have their options declined.

This…still wouldn’t give Houston the necessary $22.8 million worth of necessary space. (They’d be roughly $4.5 million over.) So, unless Anthony is willing to take even less money (LeBron did it!), an outright signing is unlikely.

The more probable option is a sign-and-trade done with New York ONLY AFTER Anthony makes it clear he wants to play in Houston. Notice how complicated all this is? The Rockets could package Lin and Asik along with their 2014 first-round pick then call it a day. Or work in some other pieces like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, if that’s what it takes.

Is all this worth the trouble? In short: yes. As the Knicks bumble along as a laughing stock, Anthony is quietly having a brilliant season, posting career-highs in PER and True Shooting percentage. He also leads the league in minutes per game and usage rate while averaging 28 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Three-pointers are splashing through the net, his mid-range game is diabolical, and behind Kevin Durant, arguably no better scorer lives on Planet Earth. Acquiring him at any cost short of Howard and Harden is an absolute no-brainer.

But so much about this process is complicated and/or out of Houston’s control, and unless you’re Morey, none of it’s worth losing any sleep over. Instead: sit back, relax, and wait for Carmelo’s future to unfold.

 

Michael Pina covers the NBA  for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, Sports On Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, and The Classical. Find more of his writing here, and follow him @MichaelVPina.

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