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Carmelo Anthony's free agent tour is over: Now what?

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie
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Carmelo Anthony lines up his options (Getty Images)

The tour, one that Carmelo Anthony understandably appeared to “relish,” is over. Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago, the free agent forward met with all matter of suitors in the first unrestricted go-round of his career, attempting to find a partner that both suits his needs as a guy that wants to play until June, and a guy that wants to take in copious amounts of cash.

He hasn’t made a decision yet, understandable for a player that is settling in to make the biggest decision of his professional lifetime, though the rest of the league would really, truly like him to make his mind up soon. He’s not the first domino on the table, LeBron James will always represent the NBA’s highest tipping point, but quite a bit will start to fly around once Melo gives his word.

It’s probably not wrong to guess that Carmelo wasn’t fully swayed by the services offered by Chicago, Houston, Dallas, the Lakers and New York. Anthony obviously wasn’t fully in it for the attention, he didn’t ask several competing teams to come to him as LeBron demanded in 2010, and it genuinely is understandable that Anthony wants to triple-check all his options before leaning into a deal. Because there are options. Players need to be moved. Teammates need to be recruited. Futures need to be secured.

Los Angeles is the only team that can sign Anthony to what is technically a maximum contract, offering him four years and nearly $97 million to play alongside an aging Kobe Bryant, a retiring Steve Nash, and who knows whatever other brand of teammates Laker general manager Mitch Kupchak can scrounge together to fill out that top-heavy payroll. Presumably, Pau Gasol would have to return to Los Angeles to make Anthony’s life easier, but even with a surprising return to health from Bryant and Nash and an approximation of Gasol and (especially) Anthony’s fantastic 2013-14 returns doesn’t exactly guarantee a playoff berth, much less championship contention.

That massive contract Anthony could ink with Los Angeles pales in comparison to what New York could offer Carmelo – five years and almost $130 million. That’s assuming Knick president Phil Jackson will offer Anthony that much money, ensuring that Carmelo would be the league’s highest-paid player at age 35, and ensuring that New York would have to serve more as a destination spot for future free agents, as opposed to more of a lucrative landing space.

Dating back decades, to the time of Gulf and Western’s ownership of the team and the implementation of the salary cap, various Knicks bosses have hoped the allure of New York City would be enough to secure a winner, and they’ve been wrong in their estimation. The best Knick teams of the last 30 years were built via draft (Patrick Ewing), trade (Charles Oakley), and shrewd scouting (John Starks). The biggest Knick free agents to hit over the last 30 years were either brought in because the team had honest to goodness cap space (Allan Houston, Tyson Chandler), via extension (Houston, again, and Anthony), or a combination of cap space and no other suitors offering nearly as much (Amar’e Stoudemire).

Stoudemire, Houston, and even Chandler were eventually looked upon as financial millstones. Jackson isn’t so much aware of this as he is general basketball arcing. Anthony has showed no signs of slowing down and he’s luckily run a mostly injury-free career. His game figures to age well, especially if he can develop a flat-footed three-point touch as those 30s roll on. “Starting over” in 2015, though, with Anthony, Jose Calderon, and possibly Pau Gasol already making $37 million combined in their early 30s is not the stuff of bright lights, big city legend. Phil Jackson is working with Red Holzman’s ghost leering at every move he makes, and he doesn’t want to blow this by being too eager with Anthony, even if he is working with someone else’s cash.

Luckily for Phil, he’ll have some help. Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Dallas may have impressed Anthony, but their presentation, to date, certainly wasn’t enough.

If Anthony goes anywhere, it will be to Chicago. The Bulls stand out as a professional, communicative squad in spite of Derrick Rose’s shyness, with players that were openly admitting to court Anthony even months before he opted out of his contract.

Taj Gibson’s presence at Tuesday’s meeting with Anthony was just about the most telling move of the summer. It was Chicago’s best way of telling Carmelo that if he was truly all about winning, he would have to take less money to join the Bulls. Chicago could deal Gibson, in his prime and coming off of a killer year, to free up even more cash for Anthony, but it would also rob the Bulls of a player that is often the best defender and best finisher on the squad – and that’s a squad featuring the Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, and perhaps the best point guard finisher, pre-injury, of all time in Derrick Rose.

Noah has been vocal about his hope that Anthony come join Chicago, and Rose did reach out to the swingman, but Gibson is the kicker here. Though Phil Jackson probably respects his gifts (Jackson’s first New York hire, scout Clarence Gaines Jr., was one of Gibson’s most ardent supporters coming out of Taj’s college turn at USC), his rebuilding squad probably doesn’t want to work a sign and trade for a player just 11 months younger than Anthony, already on his second contract. Chicago would have to deal him for, at best, a trade exception and conditional second round pick to another team.

Which would leave Chicago woefully thin up front despite Noah and Anthony’s presence, and even the possible appearance of the legend that is Nikola Mirotic. It would give Anthony more money, to be sure, but still not as much as the Lakers or Knicks could offer. The Lakers and Knicks didn’t make the playoffs last season, Chicago will counter, and in Derrick Rose’s last two healthy seasons, Chicago had or tied for the best record in the NBA. “If you want to win, come here,” Chicago will posit. If Anthony wants to play for money, then there are flashier teams to cling to.

Houston is attempting to work as some amalgamation between the two sides. If rumors about an easy-peasy Jeremy Lin deal are to be believed, they too can offer a package similar to what Chicago could send out, while pointing to the fact that they are legitimate championship contenders even in the vaunted Western Conference last season, and have all the reason in the world to believe that they have title aspirations in spite of the team’s wicked Western schedule.

The team’s motives were obvious even before they needlessly dissed Lin in order to work up a flashy afternoon graphic. Houston used its draft pick on a player they won’t have to pay for a few years, and it dumped the league’s best backup center in Omer Asik on New Orleans for a future draft pick. The team is apparently ready to deal Lin and it is letting the market decide what it wants to pay restricted free agent Chandler Parsons. “The market” will only pounce on Parsons once Anthony makes up his mind, but because Houston owns his restricted free agent rights and Chandler’s cap hold is so ridiculously miniscule, the Rockets aren’t worried about his salary cap restraints impeding things, or Parsons getting away.

They’d have to pair Anthony with James Harden, perhaps the worst defender of any of the NBA’s superstars, but Carmelo’s issues with defense are overblown at this point. Yes, he takes possessions off, and is often left wanting away from the ball (he’s actually pretty damn good once the floor clears and all eyes are on his offensive counterpart), but this is par for the course with most players that are expected to rack up 25 points a night. A screen and roll with Harden and Anthony would be an absolute killer, and in a lot of ways Houston looks like Carmelo’s best free agent option.

Save for that part about playing in the Western Conference, which puts Dallas’ chances at grabbing Anthony at just about nil. Carmelo would have to truly love the idea of re-pairing with Tyson Chandler, something that nobody has indicated is a needle-shifting relationship thus far, and even Dirk Nowitkzi’s recent hometown discount contract won’t put the Mavericks in the same overpay mode as Los Angeles or New York. We respect owner Mark Cuban’s indifference to the showier side of things – there were no Jumbotron-lit Photoshop jobs awaiting Anthony when he rolled into Big D – but it appears as if the Mavs will whiff on yet another whopper of a free agent. Again.

Which leaves New York. Anthony always has autumn in New York to fall back on. Lucky him.

He was always going to have an excuse with this team. Phil Jackson’s wingspan is keeping James Dolan away. Derek Fisher is a respected basketball mind worth growing with. There will be genuine cap space in 2015 even if Jackson gives in and hands Anthony as much as he’s allowed to. The free agent summer of 2015 is always going to be full of hypothetical free agent names, and though a pairing of Samuel Dalembert, Pau Gasol, Anthony and Jose Calderon is hardly going to give the Heat, Pacers, or even the Bulls fits … 2015, man.

(And, oh, yeah … a ton of money.)

In this scenario, in Anthony’s head at least, he’ll get to have his cake and eat it too. He can sign for less than the maximum, but still far, far more than Chicago, Houston, or even Los Angeles can toss at him, and for a year longer as well. He can point to his team’s improvement at point guard with Jose Calderon at the helm in attempts to explain away what will probably be another playoff-less year in 2014-15, and talk about how excited he is about a Knick future that starts just a little over 12 months from now.

He’ll get paid, and he’ll have the pretense of working for a winner. An eventual winner, he hopes.

If Carmelo Anthony truly values winning above all, he’ll go to Chicago or Houston. He knew that going into their sales pitches, and the basketball angel on his shoulder will be shouting as much as he stands from the table to reach over and shake Phil Jackson’s hand.

Even if Jackson doesn’t give him as much cash as possible, that’s still a lot of money for Carmelo Anthony to turn down. When the stakes are this high, and when the numbers are this large, it is too tough to not value money above all. We get it.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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