Free Agent Stock Watch: Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony may be only No. 2 on the debut edition of the Hoops Rumors 2014 Free Agent Power Rankings, but no one’s summer plans have generated as much chatter as his have. Last year’s scoring champion touched off the conversation before the season when he declared he’d exercise his early termination option and hit the market after 2013/14. The refusal of LeBron James to discuss his own opportunity for free agency has combined with the New York media spotlight to put a sharp focus on Anthony ever since.

The Knicks star is no stranger to all the attention, having been at the center of “Melo-drama” as he pushed the Nuggets to trade him during the 2010/11 season, the last time he faced the prospect of unrestricted free agency the following summer. He signed an extension as part of the deal that brought him to New York, and he’s not putting nearly as much pressure on the Knicks as he put on Denver last time. He told reporters during the All-Star break that his priority is to remain with New York, and that he’d be willing to do so at a discount. At the same time, he said that he’d meet with Knicks management to discuss their plans to return the club to contention before making his final decision.

It’ll be hard for the Knicks to construct a convincing presentation for Anthony if he’s indeed focused on what the team can do this summer instead of 2015, as Tuesday night’s report from Frank Isola of the New York Daily News indicates. New York’s commitments for next season exceed the projected salary cap, and that doesn’t even take a new contract for Anthony into consideration. The team rejected an offer of a late first-round pick from the Thunder for Iman Shumpert before the deadline, demonstrating that while there are trade chips of at least moderate value on the Knicks roster, the team isn’t particularly anxious to use them. New York has little other assets capable of enticing a team to give up an intriguing player or draft pick in return. Tyson Chandler is questioning whether he’d want to re-sign with the Knicks in 2015, but if the team wants to get out ahead of the market and trade him this summer, it likely faces an uphill battle finding palatable offers for the 31-year-old who’s showing his age.

The Knicks appear stuck for 2014/15, capable of making only lateral moves, at best. That’s seemingly why so many New York-based writers have portrayed it as increasingly likely that Anthony would leave this summer with each successive loss this season, interpreting nearly every one of his postgame remarks as another hint at his intentions. When Anthony addressed the subject directly at the All-Star break, he made his affection for the Knicks clear. It’d be surprising if anything the Knicks do on the court between now and the end of the season influenced Anthony’s belief in the club’s long-term future. The concern is what happens once 2013/14 is in the books, and that’s cause for legitimate worry.

Anthony’s assertion that he’d take a discount to stay in New York suggests the financial advantage the Knicks have might not be as valuable as it would be if money were his chief concern. He can sign a five-year deal worth slightly more than $129MM if he stays with the Knicks, or a four-year contract worth nearly $95.9MM with another team, as Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors detailed earlier this season. Anthony could make up much of that more-than-$33MM difference in the first year of the contract that follows, but Anthony would still come out ahead financially if he took the max from the Knicks. He could be in line for even more money if he opts in for next season, when his contract calls for a salary higher than the one he’d make next year under a new deal, but Anthony has said multiple times he intends to hit free agency.

A recent report suggested the Knicks were the only team willing to make a max offer to the Leon Rose client, indicating that Anthony would have to give up quite a bundle of cash to pass on New York. I’d be surprised if a maximum-salary suitor doesn’t emerge at some point between now and July, even if there isn’t a team planning such an offer now. Still, some of the most appealing destinations might not be in play for the former No. 3 overall pick. The Lakers appear lukewarm, at best, on Anthony, and while he reportedly views a Chicago address as more tempting than L.A., the Bulls would have to unload key players via trade to clear room for a maximum-salary offer, making their pursuit unlikely. The Clippers would have to perform even more complicated salary cap gymnastics to accommodate a max deal for Anthony.

There are ways to acquire marquee free agents even for franchises that are capped out, as the Warriors demonstrated last season when they snagged Andre Iguodala via sign-and-trade. Such a move would require Anthony and at least two teams to come to an agreement, and other players and teams might have to get involved in the negotiations, too. Such an arrangement is hard to pull off, so Anthony will likely be limited to either re-signing with the Knicks or joining a team with cap space. There are plenty of intriguing clubs with a relatively easy path to clearing the room necessary to throw a max deal at Anthony, and perhaps the Heat could target him if Miami’s stars go their separate ways. Still, there’s been no legitimate suggestion from either the Heat or Anthony’s camp that any of them have seriously considered that.

Anthony won’t be without options. Just how many there will be for him likely depends on how much of a discount he’s willing to settle for. The future of the Knicks would look increasingly brighter with each dollar Anthony gives up, but that’s for 2015 and beyond. Anthony’s commitment to New York will likely be tested not just by his willingness to make a financial sacrifice, but also by his patience to play for a winner. He turns 30 on May 29th, a little more than a month before free agency begins. Whether he sees that milestone as just another day or as a warning that he’s on the backside of his career could be the most important question of the NBA’s summer ahead.

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