Holding Court: Melo may be staying, but LeBron may not
The first week of free agency hadn’t quite passed but many deals have already been struck between teams looking to improve their rosters or bring themselves over the hump. But the biggest deals involving the biggest names in this year’s free-agent crop – all because of the surprise opt-out they chose to make – have yet to be decided, and these players, Miami’s LeBron James and New York’s Carmelo Anthony, may just be leaning towards opposite directions.
Anthony at this point appears to be leaning towards returning to the Knicks. He has met with other teams – Chicago, Houston, Dallas and the LA Lakers – but after meeting with Knicks president Phil Jackson and newly-hired coach Derek Fisher last Friday (Manila time), he seemed convinced about how the Knicks intend to put up a winning team for him to contend for a championship.
In contrast, James appears to have put the burden on Heat president Pat Riley and the Heat of proving how they intend to build a better team around him after being beaten convincingly by San Antonio in last June’s finals.
Anthony’s primary motivation, of course, is the maximum contract that the Knicks can – and did finally – offer him during their meeting that also had GM Steve Mills in attendance. The Knicks offered him something no other team can give him under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement: $129 million for 5 years, which translates to $25.8 million per year. Other teams, meanwhile, can offer him a maximum of only $97 million for 4 years, which means $24.25 million per season.
While the annual difference may be minimal and something Melo can easily dismiss in exchange for a real shot at the title, the actual total disparity of $32 million may be too big, particularly for someone who has had his roots comfortably settled in New York.
The Lakers did offer Anthony, a seven-time All-Star and the league’s second-leading scorer last year, the maximum other teams are allowed to lure other teams’ free agents, but the combination of Anthony and Kobe Bryant both having maximum contracts would severely limit the Lakers’ financial flexibility to improve their roster, which badly needs a drastic upgrade. This need would be even more pronounced if Pau Gasol, their best player last year with Bryant out most of the campaign due to injury, leaves for another team, which looks like a distinct possibility (more on this later).
To be sure, the Bulls, whom the Knicks had earlier considered the biggest threat to prying away Melo before the Lakers stepped up their efforts, the Rockets and Mavericks would give Anthony a better chance of winning now if he so chooses to sign with any of them. The question, however, is how much of a championship guarantee would that give the 6-foot-8 forward in exchange for the security of the Big Apple and $32 million more in guaranteed money?
The Bulls have yet to see 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose fully back to his pre-injury form and there are questions if he will ever fully recover to be the player he was before the injury. Chicago has also amnestied power forward Carlos Boozer to make room for Anthony.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have also reduced their bench depth by trading Omer Asik and are likewise bent on unloading Jeremy Lin (whose No. 7 was put by the Rockets on Melo’s image in banners welcoming him in a move some say was done in poor taste) as well as Chandler Parsons in order to accommodate Melo, while the Mavericks are an aging team that doesn’t present all that iron-clad prospect for Anthony either (despite re-signing Dirk Nowitzki for less money).
The Rockets welcomed Carmelo Anthony with a Photoshopped image. One problem: that's Jeremy Lin's number. pic.twitter.com/4ia7EQl0yM— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 2, 2014
Insiders believe that Anthony’s initial misgivings with the Knicks stemmed from Jackson’s supposed preference for him to take less than a max contract, making him feel that he was not “completely” wanted in New York, and that the former Bulls and Lakers coach was playing it “too cool” in the pursuit of the Knicks’ 30-year-old star. That, of course, is in addition to an assurance he wanted that the Knicks will exhaust all means to build around him a title-contending team.
“He just wants to feel like he’s not all alone on the court,” an official involved in the recruiting process said.
But Anthony’s misgivings seem to have been allayed during his meeting with his mother team. Jackson reportedly made it clear to him that they need him on the roster to have a chance of attracting other star free agents. Jax reportedly sold Anthony on waiting for potentially franchise-altering free-agent signings in the next two years while adding some better role players on the ballclub.
Already, Jackson has gotten the wheels moving. Just before the draft, he traded center Tyson Chandler and guard Raymond Felton to Dallas for Mavs starters Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon along with Wayne Ellington, promising guard Shane Larkin and the rights to Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the 34th and 51st picks in this year’s draft, respectively. While Chandler is a good friend of Anthony, he had a down year last season and his salary and that of Felton have a combined total of $19.4 million. With Dalembert, Calderon, Ellington and Larkin making just a combined $15.3 million and Ellington in the last year of his contract, the trade gives the Knicks more flexibility as they retool their roster.
But the primary motivation for the trade is Calderon, a 6-foot-3 point guard whom Jackson feels is an excellent floor leader and would be a good fit for the triangle offense with his excellent outside shooting. The nine-year NBA veteran finished in the top five in three-point shooting last year at .449 and is not turnover-prone like Felton was.
The 6-foot-11 Dalembert can also approximate Chandler’s shot-blocking skills (“Samuel is a really good defender,” Jackson says) while Ellington can also shoot well from beyond the arc (.424 last season). A bonus in the deal is Shane Larkin, a former Miami All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year who was drafted 18th in 2013 but missed 34 games last season because of a broken ankle. Jax is, however, high on the 5-foot-11 playmaker, calling him “a change-of-pace guard.”
The trade represents what Jackson and the Knicks call a new direction as they try to convince Anthony that his future is with the Knicks. “I think what we saw what we wanted to get accomplished was that we had to change some of the chemistry on this team and to do that we felt it important to get some new personnel, start with some character guys that could carry us forward,” Jackson said.
“We wanted to send the message to our players that we’re on the move and we’re making changes and we’re making changes to move forward in a direction where we want to go.”
Even as this developed, reports say Anthony is now courting Gasol, a much-coveted commodity in the free-agent market whom Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami are likewise interested to add to their roster. The seven-foot Spaniard is seeking a contract in the $10 million annual range, something his old team, the Lakers, may be hard-pressed to afford considering the retooling they want to do, and the Thunder and Bulls seem to have the upper hand right now.
The Knicks, however, are hoping their taxpayer’s exception of $3.28 million annually, the only offer they can give now, will not deter them from convincing Gasol to go to New York because of his strong history with Jackson and Fisher, with whom he won two titles in LA, and especially Calderon, a teammate for many years on the Spanish national team that has won the FIBA World Championship and European Championship as well as the silver medal in two Olympic Games. If that exception is not enough, the Knicks may have to find a way to unload additional salaries in order to make room for Gasol.
Still, the fact that Anthony is making an effort to get through Gasol means he intends to stake it out in New York, something James has not given any signs of doing in Miami. Fact is, James has been non-committal about his entire free agency, and only his Cleveland-based agent, Rich Paul, has even spoken about it. His three teammates who also opted out of their existing contracts, presumably to take less money and enable the Heat to bring better talent around them – Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem – are themselves reportedly not aware of James’ intentions.
“There’s clearly a breakdown in communication between LeBron and (Wade and Bosh),” said one executive who participated in the meetings taking place between James’ agent at the Klutch Sports headquarters in Cleveland and teams interested in his services. “(James) is giving Riley time to go get players for them but if that doesn’t happen in the next few days… LeBron seems ready to explore the market.”
The problem is, Riley, who along with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra came to Los Angeles last week to meet with free agents Trevor Ariza of Washington and Gasol, cannot go farther than extolling the merits of playing in Miami in his sales pitch simply because the Heat have no idea how much they can afford to offer prospective players.
Bosh and Wade, who would have been owed $42.7 million and $41.6 million, respectively, in guaranteed money over the next two years had they not opted out of their contracts early, have yet to fully agree to lowered salaries and are said to be reluctant to take severe cuts in any new contracts they may sign to enable their club to put the necessary complementary talent around them and James. James, meanwhile, has reportedly expressed a desire to take a full maximum deal with a starting salary of $20.7 million, almost the same money he would have gotten had he not opted out.
This is perhaps the main disconnect among the three, who were reported to have met to discuss their free agent strategy shortly before their opt-out. While James wants a max deal, which can easily be justified owing to his stature as the acknowledged best player in the game, Bosh and Wade, while open to a pay cut, do not agree on how much that cut should be. The other two in Miami’s Big Three are decidedly not worth the max money anymore, and how low they are willing to go is probably the sore sticking point in this issue.
Meanwhile, the impasse has left Riley and the Heat behind in the chase for free agents that would best fit Miami’s dysfunctional lineup. Even if possibly adding a fourth main wheel to the Big Three has always been a long shot owing to Miami’s cap room that just has less than $10 million, going after the likes of Gasol has become an even harder proposition because of the uncertainty in the Big Three’s contract situation.
The Heat have thus seen a major target, point guard Kyle Lowry, get away from their reach after he agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $12 million a year to stay in Toronto. Marcin Gortat, another possible target at center, also reached an agreement for a similar deal with Washington. While Riley has also met with Luol Deng over the weekend, the former Chicago and Cleveland forward still wants upwards of $10 million per season despite reportedly finding the Heat top man “very charming.”
The bottomline is, as long as James, Wade and Bosh are not locked into deals, all that Miami could probably afford to do at this point is to sign cost-effective specialists like shooters Anthony Morrow and Marvin Williams, not exactly the kind of moves that could bring the significant upgrade that the team wants, and needs. And what could make this whole drama worse is if either Wade or Bosh, most likely Bosh, decides he can no longer wait for James to make a decision and explores his own options, making the original Big Three plan fall through completely.
Already, Bosh has been reported by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, as reliable an NBA writer as there is, to have made recent calls, through his representatives, to ascertain if maximum deals would be made available to him if he so decides to leave Miami, and the answer was affirmative. The Rockets have made no bones they will go after Bosh if they’re unable to collar Anthony, which is becoming more unlikely with Melo thinking of a New York return.
“Chris Bosh definitely has interest in Rockets and Mavs, source says,” FOX Sports’ Sam Amico tweeted. “And Bosh has ‘zero knowledge’ of what LeBron is going to do.” Woj, meanwhile, implied that Bosh still wants a max contract by tweeting, “Biggest issue for Miami could be this: How does it meet Bosh salary desires, and keep any real space for free agents? Crunch time for Riley.”
While these are all going on, James, through his agent Paul, has explored possible options in the event Riley fails to bring in the necessary pieces through meetings with other teams, whose belief that there’s at least an opportunity to snatch James has been fanned by the seeming standoff in South Beach. James and Paul have agreed they would handle the free-agent process differently from the way they did it in 2010, and that James would not be in the frontline of initial discussions that would be handled only by Paul.
So far, James’ home-state team Cleveland, with whom he had a controversial parting of ways four years ago, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas and the Lakers have all made their pitch to LeBron. While the talks have not gone beyond the presentation and feeling-out stage, the fact that James was even entertaining other suitors puts the Heat under extreme pressure to come up with a better alternative of putting together a winning lineup.
But it’s almost impossible under the circumstances, when your own main stars do not seem to be on the same page. It was not the way it was planned by the same three players in the first place, and it’s certainly far from the original union in 2010 that shook the basketball world.
Perhaps it’s just right that it ends this way, with a whimper rather than the reverberating blast that it did at that time. Who would have thought that the same stars, the same players that worked together behind the scenes (some say colluded even before their contracts with their original teams could expire), the same guys who, with remorseless hubris, declared they would win “not one or two, not five or six titles but more” would now put the man, Riley, who accommodated that union under the extreme duress of producing without any help from them?
In the final analysis, an all-too-human lesson may come out of all this drama in South Beach, if indeed it is the end: Winning is only as good as it lasts, and real character shines through when the going gets tough. What did Riley say when he spoke after the drubbing that the Heat got from the Spurs?
“I think everybody needs to get a grip,” he said. “You have to stay together and find the guts. You don’t find the (exit) door and run out of it.”
Unfortunately, he’s just about to see the best example of those gutless individuals in his three stars, or whoever among them runs out the door and bails out.
Forward Boris Diaw has reached an agreement on a three-year, $22 million deal to return to San Antonio, with a partial guarantee reportedly put on the third year.
Ex-Lakers guard Jordan Farmar has also agreed in principle to join the LA Clippers on a two-year contract using the bi-annual exception, which includes a player option in the second season. The Clippers had earlier reached agreement with 7-foot center Spencer Hawes on a four-year, $23 million contract. Hawes was reportedly determined to sign with a contender and his commitment to the Clippers over the weekend is a big coup for president and coach Doc Rivers. Hawes now has the chance to get into the playoffs after missing them in 5 of his 7 NBA seasons. He’ll back up 6-11 DeAndre Jordan in a monster combination at the slot.
Dallas has agreed to terms with franchise player Dirk Nowitzki. The deal, which obviously comes with a hometown discount, was for three years and $30 million, with a player option in the final season. The Mavericks are also bringing back point guard Devin Harris in a deal similar to last year’s three-year, $9 million contract, which was rescinded because of a toe injury suffered by Harris.
Free-agent center Chris Kaman has also reached a two-year agreement with Portland for $9.8 million. Kaman will back up Robin Lopez.
Atlanta has come to terms with Oklahoma City guard-forward Thabo Sefolosha on a three-year, $12 million deal. The deal came after the Hawks cleared more than $15 million in salary cap space by trading guard Lou Williams and the draft rights to center Lucas Nogueira to Toronto for forward John Salmons.
Boston has agreed to a four-year, $32 million extension with guard Avery Bradley, whom Celtics president Danny Ainge called part of the Celtics’ future.
Sacramento also agreed to terms on a three-year, fully guaranteed $15 million contract with free-agent point guard Darren Collison, who played backup to Chris Paul with the LA Clippers last season.
Toronto has agreed with point guard Kyle Lowry on a four-year, $48 million contract, ending hopes by other teams of signing him after a stellar season last year. The Raptors then struck a three-year, $18 million deal with forward Patrick Patterson.
Center Marcin Gortat agreed to a five-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $60 million with Washington, with neither a player nor a team option entering the final season.
Among the prominent free agents left unsigned are, of course, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol.
All free-agent deals can’t be officially signed until July 10, when the league moratorium on free agent signings is lifted. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash,Sports World, Basketball Weekly, and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk, and slept sports most of his life.