New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is leaning toward leaving in pursuit of immediate championship contention, and awaits the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign him in free agency, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
As re-signing with the Knicks continues to fade as his priority, Chicago and Houston have emerged as the clear frontrunners to acquire Anthony, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Anthony's meeting with Knicks officials on Friday night had little impact on his state of mind, league sources said, because there remain too many uncertainties about how quickly president Phil Jackson can reshape the team into a championship contender.
Chicago and Houston front-office executives are working diligently on contingencies to clear the space to sign Anthony outright – or engage sign-and-trade scenarios with New York, sources said.
"His heart is in New York," one source familiar with Anthony's thinking told Yahoo Sports, "but he wants a chance to win now."
Jackson has turned off Anthony with his public proclamations of wanting the seven-time All-Star forward to take less money to stay with New York, league sources said.
Around Anthony and the NBA, there's some doubt about whether Jackson truly wants to keep him on a five-year, $120 million-plus extension, or simply is giving the appearance for public relations' sake. Jackson has been somewhat cavalier in his public declarations of wanting Anthony to stay, and it's been noticed.
Anthony has said he's willing to take less than the maximum-allowable contract, but league sources said that involves situations where he can be shown how his financial concessions can result in the immediate acquisition or retention of talent. Anthony hasn't expressed interest in taking less for hypothetical signings in 2015 or '16, as New York wants him to do, sources said.
Anthony isn't as concerned over a novice head coach in Derek Fisher as he is a roster barren of assets and talent to move toward contention.
Anthony, 30, has been intrigued with the chance to join the Bulls for several months, but Houston has gathered significant momentum as a preferred destination for him, league sources said.
For Chicago to make its bid for Anthony, it will need to amnesty the contract of Carlos Boozer and unload forward Taj Gibson and at least one more player. The Bulls could enjoy an easier path to the NBA Finals than Houston, which competes in the much stronger Western Conference. Anthony has an affinity for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, but ultimately Anthony must also weigh in his decision the future health of guard Derrick Rose.
Houston has Dwight Howard and James Harden prepared to recruit Anthony as the third star in a championship chase. The Rockets need to shed the contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to clear most of the space to sign Anthony to a max contract. Because those players are moving into the expiring year of their contracts, they could potentially appeal to New York in sign-and-trade scenarios that would deliver Anthony his full max contract of four years, $90 million-plus.
In trade talks, New York has told teams it doesn't want to take on contracts beyond the summer of 2015, although Asik, a center, could ultimately be a player the Knicks would want to sign long-term. There's a market for Asik to be traded into salary-cap space elsewhere for draft considerations, but Houston may have to package a draft pick to move Lin.
The Rockets have the flexibility to sell Anthony on a full-max contract in the range of $22 million-$23 million per year, or can offer him the chance to keep teammates like Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones on the roster by accepting less money on the deal. Nevertheless, most scenarios that would hold the Rockets' nucleus together would still find Anthony with a starting annually salary in the range of $19 million, league sources said.
Anthony plans to opt out of the final year of his contract – which would've paid him $23 million for next season – and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He averaged 27.4 points and 8.1 rebounds on 45 percent shooting for the Knicks last season.