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“Tanking” Just Isn’t a Big Deal

Nate Duncan explains why the NBA’s alleged “tanking” epidemic is overblown and changing the system is a bad idea.

Nate Duncan

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One cannot turn a page on the basketball internet this season without encountering a discussion of “tanking.” The implication is that the league has a massive problem with teams intentionally losing games to better their draft picks. It is totally understandable that these pieces proliferate; they are funny.* Moreover, it is fun to try to come up with solutions to this theoretical problem.  It is quite amusing to overstate the problem–until the dialogue begins to potentially effect real change that could remove hope from downtrodden teams.

*My personal favorite is Power Tankings.

The “Tanking” Epidemic is Overblown

Make no mistake: the problem is massively overstated. For example, take one recent column in which the Bucks, Magic, Lakers and Pistons were described as “tanking.” This designation simply is not accurate, especially since it alleges “[t]he team’s front office has deliberately weakened the team in an attempt to lose as many games as possible.” The “tanking” Bucks made a number of middling veteran signings last summer in an effort to compete, and have improved their net rating by about five points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. The “tanking” Magic just beat West contender Portland while improving their performance post-break despite a Western road trip. The “tanking” Lakers recently beat the Thunder and absolutely destroyed the Knicks. The “tanking” Pistons spent boatloads of cash on Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in what is looking like a misguided attempt to make the playoffs and save Joe Dumars’ job.*

*The Pistons do have a massive incentive to lose now because their draft pick owed to the Bobcats is top-eight protected. Tanking to protect protected picks is a separate problem that absolutely does occur, with the most notable examples being the 2012 Warriors and the Wolves for about five years after they acquired Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell and a top-10 protected first rounder in 2005. However, this sort of tanking could be eliminated by simply allowing only lottery protection on traded first rounders.

Other bad teams are not intentionally losing either. New Orleans owes a top-five protected pick to Philadelphia, yet recently had a five-game winning streak as Anthony Davis has blown up and played through a few minor maladies to boot. Tyrone Corbin has played veterans like Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams plenty of minutes in an effort to save his job, and the Jazz played .500 ball for a solid stretch this season. And don’t forget the Suns, a “tanking” team projected to have the second-worst record in the league that instead could win 50 games.

Season-Long Tanking Has Not Been A Problem in the Lottery Era

There seems little evidence that tanking, aside from being fun to joke about, actually hurts the league’s bottom line. Bad teams in this allegedly tanktastic year are no worse than usual, with all but two teams having already won at least 20 games. Many eras in league history, including the mid-to-late 1990s, saw a much larger proportion of great and terrible teams.*

*This may have been related to expansion that added the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors (who actually beat the 72-win Bulls that year) in 1995-96.

Injuries, poor management and the natural rhythms of the success cycle mean there are always going to be bad teams. Moreover, teams that are hopelessly out of contention at the end of an 82-game slog naturally have less urgency than those gearing up for the playoffs. Bad basketball has always existed, and it will continue to exist regardless of the incentives provided by the draft. This year’s Sixers have been extremely clear about not trying to compete this season, but subjectively, I cannot recall any other team in the lottery era nearly so egregious.* Making massive changes to the system to address the play of one team in one season seems like a massive overreaction, especially when we do not know whether any team will follow the Sixers’ lead to such an extent, or that this strategy will even work for them.

*The Sacramento Kings of the late Maloof era do come to mind, but that was more a function of their dire straits financially than a concerted strategy to tank for draft picks. Bryan Colangelo admitted to “tanking” with the 2012 Raptors, but then went on to describe completely legitimate goals of development and evaluation of young talent rather than intentional losing of games. That team ranked 14th in defense, not exactly the hallmark of intentional losing.

The Sixers Have Made the Right Moves Regardless of Their Own Draft Incentives

For context, it is worth reviewing the Sixers’ offseason. They traded borderline All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected pick in the 2014 draft, a move that was instantly proclaimed a great value by the majority of informed commentators. They also waited to hire head coach Brett Brown until well into the offseason, spawning numerous jokes but ultimately making no difference for their competitiveness this year. The Sixers let all of their (mediocre) free agents walk and signed no one of note, electing to keep their cap space open to facilitate trades later in the year and starting the year below the salary floor.

Although the overall non-compete this year was rather shocking, these moves make sense individually and in the aggregate. Signing some long-term free agents would not have been smart, as they would have had to massively overpay for a player who did not fit their success curve. And would signing short-term free agents really have helped much? It certainly is difficult to think of players who signed one-year contracts who would have been available and willing to sign with the Sixers during the off-season that would have moved the needle much. Had the Sixers signed and kept such players all year, would winning another five games with that provisional crew have been any less abhorrent to Philly fans? In fact, it is very likely that many fans would have complained about wasting playing time on rent-a-players instead of developing the youngsters or getting what they could for the veterans.

Perhaps the real problem is the fact that teams do have some incentive to lose games over the course of the season, which even Adam Silver acknowledged in his Q&A at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. But rebuilding/tanking may well represent the rational course of action even in the absence of an incentive to raise the position of their own draft pick. The Sixers’ trades of Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner are a big part of the reason why they have been historically awful rather than really bad over the last month and a half. But those players were free agents who did not fit the organization’s timetable and would have cost far too much to retain. The Sixers absolutely did the right thing in nabbing whatever assets they could for those players, even if they were mere second round picks. And those trades were further facilitated by the extra cap room the Sixers had preserved.

Similarly, the Sixers should not have drafted, say, Ben McLemore instead of Noel simply because he was due to miss much of the year. Noel was considered a possible number one overall pick, and may well have been a steal at number six.

The Sixers made the right moves, and these moves were probably correct even without the lure of a higher draft pick from losing games this year. Look at baseball, a sport in which “tanking” has never been discussed and the importance of draft position has only recently become readily acknowledged. Baseball teams have long traded away free-agents-to-be for future assets, avoided signing mediocre veterans and opened up time for younger players.  This allows the organization to evaluate what part of the future these assets can play even knowing it could lead to more losses in the short-term. The nature of sport, and perhaps of life, is that short-term pain is often necessary to secure long-term gain. This is true regardless of draft incentives.

Hopelessness Is a Far Greater Evil Than Tanking

One of the big arguments behind the rush to curb “tanking” is that it is bad for the bottom line. Fans of downtrodden teams pay darn good money for these tickets, and it is a crying shame they have to watch an inferior product! But the actual decline in win percentage of lottery teams in their last 30 games is almost imperceptible.  And nobody has ever complained that baseball has long increased the size of its rosters in September and let non-major leaguers play many of the innings that month. By definition this decreases the quality of play, and teams that play minor leaguers in these situations cannot be trying their hardest to win, yet nobody seems to have the slightest issue with this developmental tool. Still, NBA tanking decriers need a moral justification, and ostensible decline in quality of play provides it. But the quality of play argument really is a red herring.

Nonetheless, accept for the sake of argument that the quality of play does decline a bit because teams are not trying as hard to win. One of the ideas that has supposedly gotten traction with the NBA is the wheel idea proposed by Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren. In this system, each team would get a top-six pick every five years, and know what pick it would have for the next 30 years regardless of record.  Let’s say the wheel were implemented, and due to the fact it would curb “tanking” a team like the Sixers tries harder to win and alienates its fans a bit less. They sign a couple of one-year free agents, hold onto them all year and win 25 games instead of 17.*

*I do not buy that fans would be any more interested to see a 25-win team with veterans who definitely won’t be on the team next year as opposed to a 17-win team with players who at least could be on the team next year, but again for the sake of argument I’ll accept the premise.

Now imagine the Sixers had the 25th, 23rd, 14th and 11th picks in the next four drafts. The wheel has resulted in an incremental retention of fan support over one year, but the Sixers now have no top-10 pick coming. This hypothetical Sixers team sure seems pretty unlikely to compete anytime soon. Making it much harder to improve over the long-term (and moreover, to sell at least the possibility of improvement) is far worse for bad teams’ bottom line than the dubious proposition that they may alienate fans by not trying their absolute hardest to win individual games in a lost season.

*Draft picks are even more important to bad small-market teams now that the new CBA has changed the cost and impact of the luxury tax on all NBA teams.

Any Changes Should Be Limited

On a macro level, the NBA’s system works to create cycles of success as teams compete and then rebuild. This cycle is what separates American professional sports from their counterparts in other countries, where the richest teams invariably rule the roost year after year.* The draft is a key part of providing hope for the worst franchises in the league and ensuring that only the most mismanaged remain in the doldrums for too long.

*Consider European soccer or basketball. With few exceptions, the same few teams are in competition every year unless a rich new owner becomes involved.

Major changes to prevent the tanking “problem” may work to that limited end, but they would likely create far more problems than they would solve.  As Mark Cuban said, “The law of unintended consequences never stays silent.” If teams continue to do what the Sixers did this year, and if it is truly deemed a problem, a number of far simpler solutions exist. The league could slightly re-weight the lottery, or perhaps decree that teams finishing below a certain win total are ineligible for the number one pick to encourage at least a baseline level of competition. But a massive change that failed to preserve a reasonable relationship between losing and high draft picks would create far more problems then it would solve.

Nate’s Notes

  • One of the more amusing trends this year has been the evolution of more corpulent older wings as stretch fours. Hedo Turkoglu, Caron Butler, Paul Pierce and Marvin Williams have taken on this role despite the fact they are not particularly impressive rebounders at this stage.  Honorary inclusion goes to Omri Casspi, who despite his youth has put on a few pounds since he entered the league.
  • I noted over the weekend that coming out early from college isn’t so much about the second NBA contract as it is the third.  A player who comes out at 19 gets his second contract at 23 and can get a third contract while still in his prime at 27 or 28.  A 22-year-old gets his second contract at 26, and may be done with major long-term contracts by the time he is again a free agent at 29 or 30.  Stu Jackson informed me that NBA players are well aware of this fact:

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the end of the Jimmy Butler saga official, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Tom Thibodeau is next, and that could mark the end of the coach as lead executive run in the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the Timberwolves trade of Jimmy Butler finally complete, the next shoe to drop in Minnesota will be the fate of Tom Thibodeau, not only as a head coach, but as a lead decision maker.

Thibodeau and Spurs head coach Greg Popovich are the last remaining coaches with contractual control over their roster. However, Popovich stays fairly hands off on the Spurs roster leaving the day of work and planning to longtime executive RC Buford.

The NBA for years has been a copy-cat league, and the run of giving high profile-named coaches the team president title seems to have run its course with rather brutal results.

There have already been reports that ownership in Minnesota gave strong consideration to firing Thibodeau and his front office this past summer, but opted to stay the course.

It is believed that unless something special happens this season, Thibodeau is likely out at season’s end and the Wolves will look to re-tool their entire front office.

The issue that continues to come up with coaches as lead decision maker is the short-term, game-to-game thinking coaches need to have versus the long-term vision front offices need to have to be prepared for the future.

In most of the situations where the coach was the lead decision maker, not only were massively silly contracts issues, but draft picks and future draft positioning was often sacrificed for win-now transactions.

Much of the Jimmy Butler saga was tied to Thibodeau’s belief that waiting out the market would drum up better offers, and that even with an unhappy Butler he could win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt, ignoring the toxic culture that was bubbling up around the situation.

It has become fairly clear in NBA circles that the skill sets needed to be an effective general manager do not typically align with the skills needed to be a good coach. There have been a few successes in the dual role, but most have ended pretty badly.

A Big Free Agent Class

Not only will a possible 14 NBA teams have significant salary cap space this upcoming summer, almost half of the NBA is eligible for some level of free agency. Here are all of them.

The latest projections from the NBA peg the 2019-2020 salary cap to be just around $109 million, with the luxury tax line being roughly $132 million.

The cap jump won’t be anything close to what the NBA experienced in 2016 when the NBA saw a $24 million year over year jump, but there will be a solid increase from the $101.8 million cap this season.

With that increase, combined with a lot of the bad decisions made in 2016 expiring, many teams will have the flexibility to be players.

Current cap projections peg Dallas, the Clippers, Brooklyn, Chicago, Sacramento, Utah, Atlanta, the Lakers and Knicks as having the ability to pursue max level players in 2019 NBA free agency, with more than half of that list having enough space for a max offer and another non-max high dollar player.

Combine the expected availability of so much free agency cash with what’s shaping up to be an impressive 2019 NBA draft class, and this upcoming summer could be one for the ages in terms of teams being able to instantly reinvent themselves.

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NBA Daily: The Jimmy Butler Saga Is Over

Spencer Davies analyzes the effects of the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers.

Spencer Davies

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The trade call is complete and the deal has been made.

Jimmy Butler is officially headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. Former first-round pick Justin Patton is coming with him.

The Minnesota Timberwolves pieced together a package for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a future second-round draft pick in return for the four-time All-Star forward.

The Sixers have assembled a brand new big three for the season early, while Minnesota nipped what could have been a potential yearlong distraction in the bud.

All in all, this could be a transaction that is doubly beneficial in the present and the future. Only time will tell who gets the better end, but we can take a look at the effects of the trade for both sides.

Timberwolves

At first glance, failing to acquire a first or second option in return for Butler isn’t the best exchange for a player of his caliber. Coming up short of prying a first-round pick out of Philadelphia is visibly even worse, especially when the Houston Rockets reportedly came calling with four of those on the table.

What we do have to remember, though, is that—for now—Butler’s contract expires after the season is over. Scott Layden and Tom Thibodeau weren’t able to ask for a king’s ransom back because of that, yet they still did a solid job with what they could do.

Covington brings a mixed bag as far as his skill set is concerned. As one of the most unheralded team players in the NBA, the 27-year-old is a hound on the defensive end that has grown more confident as he’s gained experience. His extremely bothersome length allows him to disrupt ball-handlers and play the passing lanes to get out into transition.

Offensively the usage is low, but he’s a more-than-capable tertiary option who can catch fire from deep on any night, backed by his career-best 39 percent three-point percentage on this young season. Covington will space the floor and add a versatility and toughness that is tailor-made for Thibodeau to coach up.

Off to a less than ideal start to the year, Saric should welcome a change of scenery with open arms. Some have speculated that playing with the Croatian national team may have led to heavy legs from the outset, as he was in a glaringly obvious cold spell. In the first 10 games, his true shooting percentage was 43.6.

The last three have been quite the opposite, however. Saric is averaging over 16 points and six rebounds per game during the stretch with a 67.1 true shooting percentage. Maybe the move to Minnesota will add even more fuel to the fire as extra motivation.

Considering Thibodeau leans toward veterans, it could be possible that the 24-year-old may not start. It’s not farfetched to think Anthony Tolliver could slide into the starting five at the small forward position knowing the coach’s tendencies. With that said, Saric might just be the perfect fit for the Wolves to start utilizing their bench.

Remember what Nemanja Bjelica did for Thibodeau the last few years as both a starter and second unit guy? Stretching out the half court game to allow others to penetrate is when Saric is at his most dangerous—especially when he’s a threat to knock down shots. There are certainly similarities between the two, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Croatian big man used in almost the same exact way.

Bayless has been around the block a few times, to say the least. The Wolves will be his eighth team in 10 seasons. It’s been difficult for him to stay healthy, as he’s only played 94 games since the 2014-15 campaign. He’s already dealing with a knee injury to start this current year off, too.

Once he does battle back from that, it’s possible Bayless could see some playing time. Again, going back to the veteran thing, Thibodeau loves to have experience out on the floor. And even if he doesn’t see too much action, he’ll be a great mentor and an influence in the locker room.

Looking at the contract details of these three players, Minnesota has a chance to control its own destiny. Covington is only in year two of the long-term deal he signed last fall. Saric’s team option exercised through 2020 means he’ll stick around for this season and next at the minimum. As for Bayless, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the year’s end.

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins signed for the next five years, the Wolves are working towards some stability. It is impossible to replace the talent Butler has, but, from where things began in October, this is automatically a healthier situation. Now it’s up to the organization to get the best out of their stars and rack up wins on a consistent basis.

76ers

We don’t need to go through the statistics to tell you how gifted of a basketball player Butler is. His reputation precedes itself—an in-your-face competitor on both ends, a specialist in the clutch, a master of mind games. Quite honestly, there’s no one else in the league like him.

That’s why new Sixers general manager Elton Brand went out and made the effort to get him. Up until this point, the team needed some kind of jolt. It wasn’t out of desperation, per se, but there’s been a clear regression from a season ago. In a division as competitive as the Atlantic, along with an Eastern Conference up for grabs, Butler could provide that extra boost to vault them to the top.

By landing a superstar and hanging onto his first-round draft picks, Brand successfully addressed the present and preserved the future—which also includes Patton, the 16th overall selection in 2017.

So how does Butler fit in Philadelphia? When an All-Star comes to town, somebody is going to have to sacrifice. It’s happened in Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston, among some others. At one point or another, there are going to be bumps in the road. Whether it’s lack of touches, debates over who’s taking the last shot or something of the sort—it’s bound to happen.

It’s plainly obvious that Butler is a go-to guy. Joel Embiid is playing that role currently as it stands today.

We know Embiid hangs out on the perimeter at times, but Brett Brown positions him in the post early and often. Meanwhile, Butler thrives on getting to the rim on penetration and cuts as a slasher, predominantly.

Ben Simmons is the master of drive-and-kick, drive-and-finish in his own right. Does this mean Butler will be spotting up primarily as a three-baller in Covington’s space? They’ll definitely need somebody to take those shots and make them because the two guys they just traded put up the second and third-most threes on the team.

Wilson Chandler staying healthy is going to be a big factor moving forward. He’s still getting his legs under him, though the veteran seems to be getting back in the swing of things slowly, but surely. Mike Muscala’s role is going to quickly expand as well.

Veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick is the obvious candidate to pick up the slack, as could rookie point guard Landry Shamet. At the end of the day, the responsibility of spotting up is for role players. Butler will do it multiple times throughout games. However, he needs to be touching the ball much more outside of that.

And you can bet he will. The Sixers are razor thin at the wing. They have Butler, Chandler, Furkan Korkmaz and maybe two-way rookie Shake Milton—provided he’s used at the three. Rest assured, Brand will leave no stone unturned in the search for depth and shooting in the coming weeks.

There have already been reports surfacing of Philadelphia targeting Kyle Korver from the Cleveland Cavaliers, which could ultimately be the best fit possible. According to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, a number of players on the Washington Wizards might be a fit.

That’s a separate conversation entirely. Speaking on this deal, the Sixers went for the big fish in the pond and reeled in an enormous catch.

How it will go from here—who knows? Evidently, Butler is open to inking a long-term contract with the franchise, but we don’t know the value of those words until pen hits paper. Regardless of what happens in the future, this is a great job by the front office and should pay dividends soon.

As you can see, both teams may end up winners in the case of this trade. The Jimmy Butler saga is over and everyone is moving on.

It’s about time.

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Is This Carmelo Anthony’s Swan Song?

Carmelo Anthony’s days of contributing for a winning team are done, but Matt John explains why he could make one last impactful stop before he calls it a career.

Matt John

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Well, that didn’t take long.

After only 10 games into the season, the Houston Rockets appear to have had enough of Carmelo Anthony. This is preceded by an abysmal performance in which the former 10-time All-Star made just one of 11 shots – and misfires on six attempts from distance – in a blow-out loss at the hands of his previous team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Shortly after the game, word had it that Carmelo’s days as a Rocket may have been numbered. Though the Rockets denied that they were waiving him, recent reports say that those within organization believe that this is the end for him.

A few months back, this writer detailed how Houston was basically Carmelo’s last chance to prove he could be a contributor for a winning team. His impending release confirms a sad, but not all that shocking, reality: the 34-year-old is finished.

While his basic statistics in Houston were not dreadfully bad – 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds are solid numbers – a closer look will reveal that Carmelo was not making things any better.

His scoring numbers come off of 40 percent shooting from the floor, including almost 33 percent from distance. That’s not great considering that he was added to improve the offense. It gets worse when you take a look at his on/off numbers. The Rockets were 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Carmelo on the floor, good for second-worst on the team behind Michael Carter-Williams.

Though it’s clear that Carmelo was not a good fit, he should not be made into the scapegoat because Houston’s problems as a team go well beyond just him. Their drop-off on both sides of the ball are a result of the resources they lack to surround James Harden and Chris Paul.

Getting back to Carmelo, with him going back on the market this early on in the season, many wonder where his next stop should be – if he has one at this point.

One possibility is going overseas, maybe to the Chinese Basketball Association, where Carmelo could become another Stephon Marbury-like icon. Another one is joining the Lakers, where he could join Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and be another one of the various boisterous personalities in that locker room. A third option would be to hang it up. Retire before he could potentially get ousted by another team.

This writer believes there is a fourth option for Carmelo, which would be the ideal one for him at this point.

While Carmelo can’t be a contributor anymore for a winner, there is still a place for him in the NBA. Primarily, what he would be brought in for at this point would be more for sentimental value than anything else. In this case, that would be returning to the New York Knicks.

Think of Carmelo’s situation to be similar to former teammate Allen Iverson’s back in 2009. After a briefly disastrous stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, Iverson shortly opted to return to his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was washed up, but Philadelphia wasn’t going anywhere – with or without him. Bringing him back gave the city some nostalgia for one of the franchise’s all-time greats, which made the season memorable,  even though “The Answer” only played in 25 games.

Carmelo didn’t start his career with the Knicks, nor did he spend nearly as much time or experience as much success with the Knicks as Iverson did with the Sixers. However, Carmelo spent a good chunk of his prime in the Big Apple and stuck through the thick and thin with the team. He may have had his problems with certain coaches and players over the years, but when he was at the top of his game, Carmelo loved being a New York Knickerbocker and wanted to do his best for the franchise.

With all the history he has in New York, Carmelo could end his career playing for the team he always felt an emotional attachment to. It would be a suitable send off for his career. Plus, he wouldn’t have to deal with Phil Jackson this time, he could play for a solid coach in David Fizdale and even be a mentor to some of the Knicks’ young talent. Carmelo wouldn’t be helping a winning team, but at least the veteran could do something worthwhile for the team he always wanted to leave his mark with.

For the Knicks, bringing in Carmelo wouldn’t do much to help the team win, but New York currently doesn’t have much to lose as it is. The team currently stands at 4-10, and no one knows exactly what the timetable is for Kristaps Porzingis’ return. Even with their bad record, the Knicks still have a feisty young team that is willing to compete with anyone despite the odds being against them. Bringing in Carmelo would bring back some good memories that would make them more appealing to watch. This season’s probably not going to be remembered for much anyway, so what’s the harm in bringing your last franchise player back for the nostalgia?

It’s true that Carmelo was on the Knicks as recently as a little over a year ago, and he requested a trade out of there. Remember, though, that Iverson similarly also requested a trade out of Philadelphia in 2006, and found himself back on the team just three years later after it was granted. In Carmelo’s case, perhaps both sides can let the past be the past so they can kiss and make up.

This, of course, is all just an idea. For all we know, Carmelo still believes that he can help someone who is legitimately trying to win. The man still has a reputation as a scorer in this league, warts and all. New York may also want to focus more on getting the kids more burn than bringing back a washed-up star who won them only one playoff series.

If New York’s not interested, then maybe his hometown Brooklyn could add him. If Carmelo wants both to win and go somewhere for nostalgia, then Denver would technically be an option. Considering that relationship didn’t end well and Denver appears comfortable with their team, that doesn’t appear likely.

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