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Phil Jackson on the Hook for Carmelo’s Massive Contract

Why didn’t Phil Jackson play hardball with Carmelo Anthony? The Knicks didn’t have to give Anthony seemingly everything he asked for in negotiations.

Tommy Beer

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“As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me… My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level. […] Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, I’d do it. I told people all the time, always say, if it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying, ‘Take my money and let’s build something strong over here.’” – Carmelo Anthony, February 13, 2014

“Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams it’s really hard to have one or two top stars or max players, and to put together a team with enough talent, you’ve got to have people making sacrifices financially. So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word and we understand what it’s going to take, and we will present that to him at that time.” – Phil Jackson, April 23, 2014

 

Earlier this week, when it was officially announced that the Knicks had re-signed star forward Carmelo Anthony, the responses were wide-ranging and varied.

It seemed the majority of Knicks fans were both exceptionally excited and relieved when they learned the franchise’s best player since Patrick Ewing would spend the remaining prime years of his career in New York City.

However, some pundits, after factoring in the long-term impact of the massive contract and recognizing that salary cap space is such a precious commodity, panned Melo for his unwillingness to give the Knicks a more significant discount.

Over the last few months, I have used this space to express my opinion. As detailed in numerous columns, my belief was that New York would be best served to sign Anthony only if he was amenable to a contract that paid far less than the maximum; and ideally move Melo in a sign-and-trade to kick start a rebuilding process if he demanded anything close to the max.

Now, we know the full details of the Carmelo contract. Per ESPN’s Marc Stein, Anthony’s annual salary is as follows:
2014-15 season: $22,458,401 million
2015-16: $22,875,000 million
2016-17: $24,559,380 million
2017-18: $26,243,760 million
2018-19: $27,928,140 million

This sums to a grand total of $124,064,681 million.

While not the full max of $129 million, the ‘hometown discount’ Anthony accepted from the Knicks was far, far less of a pay cut than most expected, especially after Anthony went on record at the All-Star Break, loudly proclaiming his willingness to take less in order to build a championship-level team in New York.

Nonetheless, I find it difficult to be overly critical of Carmelo. Should he really be blamed for accepting an offer presented to him?

He did what so many of us would do (Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade among the notable exceptions); he accepted an extraordinary offer from his employer to continue working in a location he loves.

Would it have been a noble gesture to leave money on the table in order to facilitate the building of a more balanced roster? Sure. If Anthony took less, would the Knicks be in a much better position to snag a stud free agent in 2015 or 2016? Absolutely. Yet, one of the reasons for his greatness is that Anthony, like many illustrious athletes, possesses an unbending belief in himself and his abilities. He likely wholeheartedly believes he can put even a decent team on his back and carry that team to a title. Anthony even alluded to this concept during his discourse at the All-Star Break: “I always look at what’s going on and always feel naively I could change it and turn it around, put it on my shoulders.”

So Melo figures, ‘I’ll take the money and Phil will somehow figure out a way to get players who are good enough to keep us competitive and I’ll take us over the top.’ Although that thinking may be misguided, based on what we know of the NBA’s salary structure demanding a team’s best player’s sacrifice salary, it is commonplace among elite athletes. Thus, it’s a rational and understandable reaction to take the massive payday and assume everything else will get worked out at a later date.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe he would have received over-the-top appreciation from the fan base. Many fans don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the minutia of the salary cap and project the implications a 7.5 percent increase versus a 7.5 percent decrease. In actuality, a few extra million that could be offered to prospective free agents is a huge sum. For instance, it’s the difference between signing a player that’s worth a starting salary of $6 million, versus a player worth $9 million. Or $16 million vs. $19 million. For instance, what if the Bulls had an extra $3.5 million under the cap this summer? Would Anthony be a Bull right now?

But future hypothetical scenarios and salary scarifies are often lost on the average fan. Look at what happened with LeBron James. When he signed with the Miami HEAT back in 2010, he took far, far less money than he could have and signed a deal that paid him a starting annual salary of just $14.5 million (or roughly $8 million less than Melo’s starting salary). LeBron was still intensely vilified. Granted, the nonsense of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. But, even after the uproar of ‘The Decision’ died down, it was rarely even mentioned that The King made significant financial sacrifices in hopes of capturing the crown. Despite making winning a priority over a pay day, LeBron was lampooned as a loser who joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh because he needed help to win a ring

Thus, at the end of the day, I have a tough time heaping blame on Anthony.

However, on the flip side of the coin, I have been genuinely surprised at how little flack Phil Jackson has received. Even in those published pieces knocking Melo for making a cash grab, Jackson has escaped unscathed. As the newly installed President of Basketball of Operations, Jackson’s first big decision was incredibly important. He held the reins as the Knicks approached a franchise-altering fork in the road.

Personally, I find more far more fault in Jackson’s decision-making process than Anthony’s. Carmelo simply accepted an offer that was presented to him.

But why did Jackson feel he needed to present Anthony a $124-million offer?

And not only did Anthony get north of $124 million, he also got a no-trade clause in the contract, a player option for the fifth and final season and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Anthony got nearly everything he could have hoped for. Did Jackson and Dolan draw a line in the sand anywhere?

In the months, weeks and days leading up to this franchise-defining moment, Jackson said all the right things.

“When I take his word, he’s the one who opened that up, that it wasn’t about the money… So I challenged him on that, because I wanted our fans to see he’s a team player, that he was going to do what’s best to get our team ahead farther and faster,” Jackson proclaimed to reporters back in June.

“I’m all about moving forward,” Jackson said of the Anthony situation shortly after the season ended. “Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ If it’s not in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ We’re going forward anyway.”

He referenced the consistent success of Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and cited the recent example of James, Wade and Bosh taking less to play together in Miami.

Moreover, it seemed he was cognizant of both the ‘pros’ of retaining the team’s best player, and the ‘cons’ of agreeing to a contract that could very well become an albatross a few years down the line.

According to Jackson’s own stated logic, there was no need to give in to Anthony if he wasn’t willing to make substantial sacrifices and meet the Knicks halfway.

Thus, when the details of the contract were announced, it was somewhat shocking.

In the end, it seems Jackson, owner Jim Dolan and the Knicks’ front office completely caved and gave in at nearly every turn. When reports surfaced last week that New York had presented multiple offers to Melo, one of which was an offer at the full max, it seemed implausible. However, that report certainly looks accurate now.

The question I keep coming back to is this: What prevented Jackson from playing hardball with Anthony?

A crucial component to this whole conversation is acknowledging the fact that the Knicks had no serious competition for Carmelo, as no team could offer anything close in terms of financial compensation. Because they possessed his ‘Bird Rights,’ the Knicks were in the driver’s seat all along.

The Lakers supposedly piqued Melo’s interest, but the most they could offer was $95.9 million over four seasons.

The Bulls were considered prohibitive favorites at one point, as adding Anthony would likely have vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, due to cap constraints, the maximum amount of money they could have presented to Anthony would have been approximately $73 million.

Just because the Knicks were able to pay him $33 million dollars more than any other team in the NBA, doesn’t mean they were required to offer him $28 million more than any other team.

Clearly, New York had the upper hand in negations, but they never seemed to play that hand.

Why not offer Anthony a four-year, $98 million contract?

In an open letter to Knicks fans on his website shortly after announcing he returned to the Knicks, Anthony explained he intended to return to NYC along, that his “heart never wavered” and that he is a “New York Knick at heart.”

Why not challenge Anthony to have his actions match his words?

If Jackson offered $98 million over four years, that would still be over $2 million more than any other team in the NBA could submit, and $15 million more than the Bulls could bid.

Thus, if Melo was truly dead set on returning to New York, he would have the option of doing so and still receiving a very fair wage (nearly $100 million over four years would ensure he remained one of the NBA’s highest paid players). Additionally, this would allow New York to maintain flexibility and cap space, which would have enabled Jackson to continue building a balanced roster around his superstar.

If Anthony insisted on securing a five-year deal, then Jackson could have offered $110 million over five seasons. Again, it’s far more guaranteed money than Melo could have received anywhere else.

You’d think that, at the very least, Jackson could have said: “Okay Melo, we are willing to pay you nearly $30 million more than anyone else can, but we need you give us some concessions in regards to a trade kicker and a no-trade clause.”

Who were the Knicks bidding against? Why give in to Anthony’s demands? Carmelo claims to love New York; make him prove it. (Ironically, signing at a substantial discount would also likely be beneficial to his legacy, as the team would be able to build a better supporting cast around him. And creating a lasting legacy by constructing a winner in NYC would produce incredible ancillary and financial benefits…)

Again, the ‘worst case scenario’ wasn’t actually all that bad. If Anthony left, all was NOT lost. In fact, it could be argued that while the Knicks would have had to take a gigantic step back in the short-term if Anthony signed elsewhere, it might actually put New York on a path that ultimately proved more successful over time. In other words, losing Melo for nothing might be favorable to signing a deal that would guarantee nearly $28 million to a 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony in 2018-19. The Knicks would have had to suffer through next season, but would then enter the summer of 2015 armed with a lottery pick and oodles of cap space to spend on a free agent crop flush with stars.

For those that argue the Knicks wouldn’t be able to attract free agents without a stud like Anthony already in the fold, in a counter-argument I’d present the Lakers’ inability to land any notable free agents this summer as ‘Exhibit A.’ The Lakers are one of the most well-respected organizations in all of sports, with a nearly unparalleled track record of success. In addition, they have one of the greatest guards in NBA history, Kobe Bryant, under contract for the next two seasons. Kobe is obviously a question mark as he works his way back from a major injury, but no one would be all that surprised if Bryant is among the league’s leading scorers next season. Still, every big name free agent steered clear of L.A., despite the fact they had plenty of cap space and could offer max contracts. Instead, the Lakers ended up settling and spending nearly $40 million to re-sign Nick Young and Jordan Hill.

I’d contend that although fellow great players undoubtedly respect Kobe as an all-time great, the fact that Kobe is making $48.5 million over the next two seasons deterred other stars from joining him in Hollywood. Players today are well aware of the ramifications of limited cap space. If Kobe had re-signed for a more reasonable amount, other players would be more eager to accept a max deal from the Lakers. It’s not just great players that attract free agents; it’s great talent and cap-friendly contracts.

Circling back to New York, based on his comments last month, it appeared Jackson had come to a similar, logical conclusion: If we get Carmelo to sign for a fair contract, then it benefits us to keep him as our franchise cornerstone going forward. However, if Anthony demands more than we are comfortable offering, then we can let him walk and we’ll still be in fine shape going forward.

Even from a public relations standpoint, I’d argue it’s safe to assume most Knicks fans wouldn’t be furious at Jackson and the Knicks if Anthony did leave under such conditions. Even if most fans wanted New York to keep Carmelo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to appreciate the fact Jackson had operated with the best intentions of the organization in mind. Jackson has been open and honest with the public his entire career and he could plainly explain his rationale through forthright conversation with the media. The myth that New York fans wouldn’t embrace rebuilding is patently false. The Knicks were terrible for most of the 2000s and Madison Square Garden was still sold out on a regular basis. The Knicks were terrible last season (with Melo) and MSG still played to over 95 percent capacity. In my opinion, Knicks fans would embrace a rebuilding effort if they saw that a concrete and sensible plan was in place.

As I have posited previously, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable prior to Jackson arrival. However, with Phil calling the shots (instead of Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency would likely be decreased.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they got. Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

When Phil was brought to New York, Knicks fans looked forward to future decisions being made based strictly on what’s best for the long-term success of the franchise, as opposed to bringing in big names to sell tickets and jerseys. Knicks fans were hoping that Jackson would sanitize away the stink of previous regimes. In year’s past, there were rumors around the league that the Creative Artists Agency was running the Knicks. Ironically, the way the Anthony contract negations (or lack thereof) played out, it ends up looking like a sweetheart deal for one of CAA’s biggest clients.

Just as Anthony demanding $124 million and all the added incentives makes sense, so does Dolan wanting to keep Melo regardless of his ultimate price tag. Dolan desperately wanted Anthony back in 2011, and pulled the trigger on the trade that brought him here. As long as Anthony is in a New York uniform, the Knicks will likely remain competitive every year he is on the roster. He’s that good. A healthy Melo means consistently solid TV ratings on the MSG network, along with tickets and jersey sales spiking.

Keeping Carmelo is definitely the safer play, but does it cap the Knicks’ ultimate upside. That is the tough question Jackson had to answer.

It’s possible, given his advanced age and relative inexperience, that Jackson had no interest in undertaking a challenging and precarious rebuilding project.

Either way, what his motivations were, the die has been cast. Eventually we will find out if Jackson made the correct call.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions

Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.

Matt John

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Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.

Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.

Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.

At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.

Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.

That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.

San Antonio Spurs

With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.

San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.

Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.

It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.

Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.

Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.

That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.

Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.

Boston Celtics

At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.

Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.

What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.

Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.

Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.

Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.

Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.

Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.

Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.

As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.

Memphis Grizzlies

They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?

They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.

It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.

There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.

It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.

Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.

Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.

Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.

The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.

Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.

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