On the Houston Rockets’ pursuit of Carmelo Anthony: Part 2

I did not think in June 2013 that the Houston Rockets would acquire Dwight Howard; today, the possibility of signing Carmelo Anthony is very real.

The big takeaways from Adrian Wojnarowski’s Saturday report are as follows:

  1. Obviously, the title: Anthony is leaning towards leaving the Knicks, with Houston and the Bulls as the leading destinations.
  2. Phil Jackson has turned off Anthony with his public implications that Anthony take less money.  This is huge and possibly the biggest domino: the major incentive to stay in New York was the money.  If even that isn’t there, there really isn’t much incentive to stay put for any athlete with any sort of competitive drive.
  3. At least according to the report, the possibility of a sign&trade with New York is still on the table.  Since Anthony-to-Houston had become a thing, I had been speculating that a sign&trade might be possible given the Knicks’ potential interest in Jeremy Lin (as opposed to any other team).  As the weeks have passed, reports seemed to indicate that Houston would need to trade Asik and Lin separately as the only scenario by which to make an Anthony play.  It’s comforting to know that at least from Wojnarowski’s source, whichever party that may be, there is belief that a sign&trade may still be palatable.  Why?  Because not only could Anthony realize his full max but in that scenario, the Rockets may have a better chance at keeping their roster intact.  Though its anyone’s guess at this point, unloading Lin separately might require Houston attaching more in the package than New York would demand if they actually deem him desirable (or acceptable).  It’s anyone’s guess.
  4. This is a continuation from above, but so significant that it requires its own bullet point: if the Rockets remain over the cap and acquire Anthony via a sign&trade, they would retain their salary exceptions through which they could add depth to the roster.  This option is not there if dropping below the cap to sign Anthony outright.  While I have my doubts whether Les Alexander would spend to such a degree, the option in such a scenario would be there.
  5. Even from the most conservative estimates, Houston would have the flexibility to pay Anthony $19million annually.  Nothing new, but the point must be underscored: $19million is quite the step up from the estimated $10million/year the Heat would be able to pay Anthony if receiving a pay cut from all its stars.

The Field

I don’t think the prospect of James, Wade, Bosh, and Anthony all taking severe pay cuts to join forces is as outlandish as some have made it seem.  Still, this Finals helps Houston’s chances.  Had the Heat barely lost, or at least gone down in respectable fashion, the logical extension might have been that bringing in the cavalry in the form of Anthony would push them back over the top.  But with the way Miami was so categorically outclassed by the Spurs in this series, they need more than Anthony: by extension, taking such a pay cut when it might not even be enough seems much less desirable.

The Bulls are tailor-made for Anthony.  They have defense and coaching, the two things Houston does not have, and they could plug Anthony directly into their lineup to fill their scoring needs.  But can anyone depend on the health of Derrick Rose at this point?  I’d actually venture to say that even without Rose, with just Anthony, the Bulls would have enough to seriously contend in the East.  I think that highly of their coaching.  But its a star-centric league where stars view success through the prism of other stars.  While the reality might be that Chicago’s defense and scheme might be enough, Anthony may not be of that opinion, instead interpreting the situation as yet another where he’d be alone in carrying the load.

While my allegiances are transparent, I think Houston is the logical frontrunner.  Anthony would be flanked by James Harden and Dwight Howard and its unlikely he and his handlers are aware of how great a mess this team’s coaching situation has been.

Why Anthony?

Since the story broke, and in the weeks previous, I’ve seen maddening arguments against the acquisition of Anthony, several characterized by severe failures in logic.  Foremost among these charges is that Houston’s primary need is defense and that adding yet another offensively oriented player will do nothing in aiding toward that goal.  By extension, thus, the thinking goes that Anthony is an unworthy target.

First, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who more vocally criticized the Houston defense in last month’s epic collapse against the Blazers.  When you say that Houston needs defense, you are preaching to the choir.  But defense (and coaching, another on the list of cited “bigger problems”) and personnel upgrade are not mutually exclusive events.  It’s not some either/or where you can only choose one and moreover, just because an acquisition doesn’t fit both needs doesn’t mean its not worth attaining.  As I said on Twitter, this would be like suggesting that someone who is both homely and obese should not aspire towards weight loss because they would be ugly regardless.  You try to improve yourself in any way that you can.

But furthermore, is there seriously a sentiment that the Houston defense would actually deteriorate with Anthony replacing Terrence Jones in the lineup?  Terrence Jones.  Anthony is not by any stretch of the imagination a good defender.  But apart from shot-blocking, he is not inferior to Terrence Jones on the defensive end.

There is also something to the thinking that sometimes, offense can serve as defense.  Let’s put it this way: Omer Asik and Dwight Howard are widely regarded as two of the top interior defenders in all of basketball.  Those two were collectively destroyed by LaMarcus Aldridge and I’d guess that some of that had to do with the fact that Aldridge did not need to expend any energy in guarding Asik and Terrence Jones at the other end.  While Anthony may not be able to stop Aldridge, the latter cannot guard the former at the other end, at least requiring that Aldridge exert some effort on both sides of the court.

Realize that I am not arguing that defense is not a concern.  It is and Morey will need to put a coaching staff in place that can address the team’s disastrous scheme and indiscipline.  But acquiring Anthony is not counter to that goal.  If this team is going to improve its defense, it is going to have to be through better coaching.  Serge Ibaka isn’t on the market.  Get Anthony and then implement a better scheme.

On constant change

A common argument is that “Houston will never win with the constant tinkering.  There’s no continuity.”

I wholeheartedly agree.  Morey should have just stayed pat with the Lowry/Brooks/Ariza triumvirate.  We would have won the title by now.

On ball sharing

There is also the argument that acquiring Anthony would be disastrous with the presence of James Harden already on the roster.  That very well could be true.  But I envision Anthony playing as he did in the Olympics, operating as a stretch ‘4’, who can catch and shoot and capitalize without needing to create off his own dribble.  When defenses tighten in the fourth quarter, I envision Anthony, boasting the best mid-range arsenal in basketball, carrying the load of the anemic Houston offense.

It may not work.  There’s reason to think that the ego of James Harden is prohibitive in such a divvying of spotlight.  And of course, Houston’s biggest need is better coaching and a better scheme.  Until they address that, they won’t do anything.  Even with Anthony, until there is indication that the coaching staff has implemented a coherent strategy on both ends of the floor, I would not even list Houston as among the serious class-A contenders in the West.

But none of that is sufficient reason to rule out pursuing Anthony.

Houston has other severe problems, but they could use a talent upgrade as well.  Ultimately, the notion of fans of a team that just got ousted in the first round, yet again, turning their nose up at a top-15 player is…well, preposterous.

As it stands, the Western Conference is an arms race and Houston is lagging severely behind.  The gap between the Rockets and Thunder/Clippers is quite monumental.  This does not include the Spurs who still have not gone away.  Unfortunately, the Rockets are not yet at the point where they can focus merely on incremental improvements.  They need to solidify their core talent and Anthony represents that need.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of www.Red94.net.

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