The more we all as human beings sit and look at the numbers that have been placed in front of Carmelo Anthony over the course of the last week, the more we all start coming to the realization that it’s going to be really hard for him to pass up the max deal that Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are reportedly very open to tendering him.
Assuming he does end up back in New York, there are going to be four very sad teams that must immediately change course and begin working on their Plan Bs. The following are the likely next steps for the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and L.A. Lakers should they ultimately strike out on Anthony:
Chicago Bulls’ Plan B:
Of all the Anthony suitors, Chicago appears to have done the most tangible leg work in securing other players should he return to the Knicks.
The big news Friday was that 2011 first-round draft pick and former Spanish League MVP Nikola Mirotic was absolutely ready to leave Real Madrid, pay his buyout with the club and head to the States to play for the Bulls. Nate Duncan has already spent a whole lot of time and energy explaining the logistics of bringing Mirotic over, but the big question comes down to whether they can get him to take the mid-level exception or whether he’ll be more expensive and therefore require some of Chicago’s hard-earned cap space.
The Bulls can pay $600,000 of Mirotic’s pricy buyout (believed to be over $3 million) without it counting against the cap, but anything else they pay would count against the cap as a signing bonus. If Mirotic can spread his buyout with Real Madrid over a couple of years, the MLE might be a little easier pill for him to swallow, and that in turn would give Chicago some more money to play with in free agency this month.
As to who, exactly, the Bulls would purchase with that cap space remains to be seen. Chicago has been linked to a ton of different free agents, so nailing down a few specifics could prove to be challenging. The most notable, however, has been big man Pau Gasol, with whom Bulls’ brass and Joakim Noah met earlier this week. Gasol could join any of a number of teams, depending on how much money he’s willing to accept, but the Bulls have reportedly offered him a starting role and will have enough cap space to offer him something reasonable.
Some have mentioned Lance Stephenson as a possibility, but he really doesn’t fit the Bulls’ locker room culture, and his volatile demeanor and occasional on-court immaturity are hard to see working under Tom Thibodeau.
In truth, all of this is “Plan C,” however, as the Bulls are expected to turn their attention to a trade for Kevin Love if/when Anthony makes up his mind. Any deal Chicago makes will likely center around Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Mirotic and some draft picks, but knowing how much Minnesota values Klay Thompson, it’s hard to believe they’d settle for Chicago’s deal, especially as Flip Saunders continues to insist he’d like to hold off on a Love trade.
That means the Bulls are likely headed toward an offseason that focuses primarily on depth, keeping most of their current core together (minus Carlos Boozer), then adding Mirotic, a backup point guard and possibly Gasol.
Houston Rockets’ Plan B:
With plenty of cap space and a strong desire to put together a Big Three this summer, the Houston Rockets are expected to shift their attention to free agent HEAT big man Chris Bosh should Anthony choose another team. They will have to wait not only on Anthony but also on LeBron James before having a real opportunity at this. Bosh could actually have a better shot at another title by leaving LeBron and Miami and playing back in his home state.
Houston was a frontrunner for Bosh’s services back in 2010 before Miami stepped in, and they still have a strong desire for an elite stretch four, which is exactly what Bosh would be for them. In fact, it’s pretty easy to argue that he’d be a better fit for them than Anthony would. Trading away Jeremy Lin, which Daryl Morey has already said he’d be able to do, would give them enough money to make an attractive offer to Bosh, so this isn’t the most unlikely scenario in the world right now.
Most believe, however, that Pat Riley will ultimately corral his own Big Three back together before everything is all said and done. But with LeBron apparently open to hearing other teams’ offers, it would be irresponsible to count out the possibility that Bosh plays somewhere other than South Beach this year.
After Houston has used up whatever cap space they ultimately end up with, their attention will turn to re-signing restricted free agent Chandler Parsons. There is a lot of interest in him league-wide, but the Rockets are likely to match nearly anything reasonable that he’s offered, particularly if they don’t end up with Anthony or Bosh.
Dallas Mavericks’ Plan B:
There are two ways that the Dallas Mavericks could go should they strike out on Anthony, and one of those ways would lead to the formation of a team that looks a whole lot like the one they trotted out last season.
In that scenario, they would spend the money to keep Shawn Marion, Devin Harris and Vince Carter in Dallas, then look for another rotation player and possibly use their cap-room exception ($2.7 million a season for one to two years) to fill out the roster. In other words, one way to approach next season is to field a roster that’s as deep as possible.
With Tyson Chandler in and Jose Calderon out, there already has been some significant turnover in the starting lineup, but not enough to transform Dallas dramatically enough to keep them competitive in the hellacious Western Conference.
The other option is to spend $10-14 million of their projected cap space to bring in a higher-profile starting small forward. While there would be interest in restricted free agents Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, Utah and Houston have vowed to match nearly any offer sheet those kids might sign, and Dallas may have to exceed what is reasonable in order to pry them away. In other words, neither player is a likely fit with the Mavs.
That leaves Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng, two very different players that could each brings a measure of respectability to the Mavericks’ starting lineup. Neither is nearly as good as Carmelo, but Ariza would add three-point shooting and Deng would add a solid two-way game for a winning team that has thrived in recent years on the abilities of underrated veterans much like him.
Going this route would mean Marion is gone, and it would make it nearly impossible to bring back both Harris and Carter, but there’s a good opportunity for them to find a solid starting small forward, even if they don’t get Anthony.
And hey, there’s always LeBron, right?
L.A. Lakers’ Plan B:
Of the four non-New-York teams throwing money at Anthony, only the Lakers have been reported to have put a max contract in front of him, but that’s a testament to how badly the Lakers want to put together a winner around Kobe Bryant in what are likely to be his final couple of seasons in the league.
Obviously LeBron is the big target for the Lakers, who met with his agent in Cleveland on Friday, but LeBron is looking for talent, and the Lakers neither have it nor will be able to afford it if they pay James max money, as he has requested.
So what’s next for the Lakers if they miss out on Anthony? The rumblings over the course of the last week haven’t been particularly concerting. Pau Gasol would consider a return under the right financial and competitive circumstances. Nick Young calls a return to the Lakers his “first choice.” L.A. apparently has expressed interest in bringing back Steve Blake after shipping him to Golden State at the deadline. Kent Bazemore returning to L.A. is possible as well, as they have been in contact with his camp.
The problem with all these names is that they were all at least partially responsible for last season’s unforgettably awful year.
The Lakers need to set their sights higher, perhaps on pricing Detroit out of Greg Monroe, taking a shot at former Laker Trevor Ariza or gambling on Indiana’s Lance Stephenson. They don’t want to build a roster around Kobe these last two years that can’t even make the playoffs, let alone compete for a title. Getting Stephenson and/or Monroe, added to rookie Julius Randle and perhaps the other rumored additions mentioned above, is about the best L.A. can hope for if Carmelo and LeBron choose other teams, as expected.
The theme with all of these teams, in case it wasn’t clear, is that Plan B isn’t particularly pretty. Were Bosh to land in Houston they would be just fine, but we know that’s not likely. We also know that the best restricted free agents this summer will be very hard to pry away, and once you get past them there just aren’t a lot of great (or even really, really good) players left to sign.
But that’s the way the ball bounces in NBA free agency. They can’t all be winners, kids, as much as fans would love them to be.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.