There are two fundamental questions driving Carmelo Anthony’s free agency. The first is rather simple: Can you win a championship with Carmelo Anthony as your best player? So far, the overwhelming evidence suggests that no, you cannot win a championship with Anthony as your best player.
We’ve seen Anthony at the helm of two very different contenders. The first, in Denver, was built largely traditionally. Anthony and Nene were drafted by the Nuggets, Kenyon Martin signed with the team in 2004, J.R. Smith was acquired a few years later, and things finally came together when Allen Iverson was traded for Chauncey Billups. One star, solid supporting pieces all around, a good coach (George Karl), and really everything you’d think you’d need to win a one-star title.
That team played the solid—albeit somewhat underwhelming as champions go—Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals and lost. They never again made it past the first round. Anthony was gone 18 months later. If that team wasn’t going to win a championship, no other Anthony-led solo-star outfit is going to.
His second shot came with the 2012–13 Knicks, a team built in the far more modern star arms race style. Nearly the entire salary cap was devoted to Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. That team lost to the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs, and before you go crying, “But Sam, Amar’e was hurt, how can you blame any of this on Melo?” remember that we have quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Anthony could not play with Stoudemire to begin with.
The Knicks managed only two measly No. 7 seeds in Anthony’s first two years playing with Amar’e, and last year the Knicks didn’t even make the playoffs. In their only extended run, 2012–13, they needed six games to get past a Celtics team that was broken up only months later and were beaten by Indiana despite having home-court advantage.
Despite his injuries, Stoudemire isn’t a particularly difficult player to play with. There’s a reason he was capable of playing for those glorious seven seconds or less Phoenix teams of the mid-2000s. If you can’t play with Stoudemire, the onus is on you.
That’s the biggest reason you probably can’t win a championship with Anthony as your best player. He’s just so damn hard to play with. He has a very hard time subjugating his game to fit into the greater confines of a team, whether he has good teammates around him or not. Therefore, you’re probably best served taking a pass on Carmelo if you don’t already have a star in place. Sorry Phoenix, I know you fancy yourself a dark horse, but this just isn’t a fit.
The second, far more debatable question is this: does market matter anymore? The evidence here is conflicting. On the one hand, 10 of 12 highest paid players play in New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. However, contained within that group are two players (Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki) who have openly eschewed either bigger or more glamorous markets in favor of better basketball situations.
The same can be said of Oklahoma City’s top three (Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), San Antonio’s top three (Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili) and a variety of stars in other smaller markets who won’t be going anywhere mainly because they’re in position to win and don’t want to risk that by changing teams (most notably: LaMarcus Aldridge, Stephen Curry, and Paul George).
Despite all of the big market machinations of 2010, we’ve suddenly hit a point where there’s not only a startling lack of stars on the market, but the one who does seem available (Kevin Love) probably sees Cleveland as just as viable a destination as Los Angeles.
There’s a precedent for ditching a glamour market in pursuit of championships, and if that’s really Carmelo’s goal, he probably has to leave New York.
Remember those rumblings we kept hearing in the early 2000s about LeBron James's Nike contract doubling if he ever played in New York? Funny how we don’t hear those same rumblings about Kevin Durant. In fact, he seems to be doing just fine off the court. So does Damian Lillard, whose enormous deal with Adidas is believed to be well north of $150 million. Foot Locker runs ads with Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and James Harden (Houston).
Somewhere along the line, the market barrier was shattered and players from all over the league have managed to get in on the fun.
The most logical explanation? There’s no longer a barrier to watching players outside of your local market. Between NBA League Pass, illegal streaming sites, ESPN, and TNT, you could conceivably watch every single Lillard game just as easily from Portland as you could from Lewiston, Maine. More than that, any great game/dunk/play immediately goes viral. If you’re a great player, we’re going to know about it, and so are advertisers.
At this point, the only real advantages big markets have exist when they’re already good. Playing for the Lakers means your payroll could balloon well over $100 million. Your team has flexibility that Cleveland and Portland will just never have, but it doesn’t do much good if you don’t have a reason to spend that much. Payroll flexibility can take you from good to great or from great to champion, but it can’t get you off of the ground.
So really, the only major advantage teams like the Knicks and Lakers have anymore is that their names are the Knicks and the Lakers. They have to bank on a free agent being interested in winning New York’s first title in over 40 years or playing for a team that literally makes the Finals half of the time in the Lakers. Those advantages are purely abstract; in a concrete manner it really doesn’t matter where you play.
And that brings us back Carmelo Anthony. Five years ago, it seemed absurd that someone would actually leave New York to play basketball somewhere else, but we saw Dwight Howard do it in Los Angeles last year. There’s a precedent for ditching a glamour market in pursuit of championships, and if that’s really Carmelo’s goal, he probably has to leave New York.
The Lakers are going to make a bid, but they only really enter the fray if LeBron considers going there as well to team up with Carmelo and Kobe. This scenario is very possible, but in terms of Anthony alone, there are only really two teams that make sense.
The first is the team Howard left the Lakers for: the Rockets. For whatever reason, they seem eerily confident that they can move both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to open up the necessary cap space to sign Carmelo. With both Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverly locked up for six digits, they wouldn’t have to gut the rest of the team to get their third star. With Dwight Howard protecting the rim, you could live with Anthony’s defensive shortcomings.
It’s a very interesting fit on paper, one that makes even more sense when you remember the tax benefits of living in Texas (worth an extra $10 million or so over the life of the contract) and Anthony’s probable desire to play with at least one established star. The only issue is whether or not there would be enough shots to go around.
Such an issue does not exist with Anthony’s other primary suitor: Chicago. With Derrick Rose coming off of yet another knee injury, it’d probably be in everybody’s best interest if he deferred for a while and allowed someone else to carry the scoring load.
Meanwhile, playing for the Bulls would be Anthony’s best shot at ending the “Carmelo can’t play defense” narrative he’s spent his entire career proving correct, and we just watched Tom Thibodeau teams win a combined 93 games over the past two seasons despite having very little Derrick Rose and trading Luol Deng midway through last year. Just imagine what he could do with a healthy Rose and Anthony.
On paper, Chicago looks like the best of both worlds: a chance for Anthony to compete and satisfy his own vanity when it comes to market size. All the Bulls would need to do theoretically would be use the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer and they would be in position to make a run at him, and unless Phil Jackson somehow manages to pull Love out of his hat, Anthony feels like a lock to leave New York.
Prediction: Anthony signs with the Bulls, 4 years, $95 million.