How a couple free agent signings impact the entire landscape of the NBA
By: Joe Mags
The entire basketball universe is waiting for two men to decide where they will be playing next season. Meanwhile, every other free agent and most other basketball business is on hold. I took the time this weekend – well, it was less about me taking the time and more attempting to sanely sort out my intense hoops reverie – to break down what each reasonable scenario of the decisions coming from LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony would look like. (This spilled out over three parts. You can check out Part Two here and Part Three here.)
Complete long shot scenarios:
James and Anthony both sign with Phoenix.
Phoenix is perfect for LeBron and Carmelo as a pairing: the warm weather; Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe; it’s an uptempo team with shooters and athletes; Jeff Hornacek is one of the best young head coaches in the league; and there is their unbelievable training staff that will take care of each player well into their 30s.
The “Why Would A Superstar Want To Play In A Smaller Market Like Phoenix?” argument is outdated. The entire NBA is making gobs of money, league revenue and the salary cap continue to rise, and market size simply does not impact who plays nationally televised games as much as winning does anymore.
So why won’t LeBron and Carmelo team up in Phoenix? The same reason why there’s an 80 percent chance both players are going to play in the Eastern Conference again next season: NOBODY WANTS TO SIGN UP FOR THE WESTERN CONFERENCE GAUNTLET, ARE YOU NUTS???
In the same universe that the Washington Wizards might make the Eastern Conference finals next season, West teams are playing one of the most brutal schedules we’ve ever seen. James and Anthony are not volunteering to leave the East to play San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Houston, Portland, Golden State, Memphis and Dallas more often.
(Sidebar: The sneaky Eastern Conference team that would benefit from LeBron and Carmelo leaving? Toronto. Re-signing Kyle Lowry to a fair deal is another superb decision by Masai Ujiri, and the taste of winning culture this spring has obviously left a big impact on that young roster, hungry city and the most famous Raptors fan in the world.)
It would take an elite roster (enter: Golden State or Clippers) or the most unique situation in basketball (enter: Lakers) to pry one of these superstars from the JV conference over to the strongest West in over a decade.
With that said, the what-ifs in this scenario are outstanding. Pau Gasol joins the Suns on a discount, meaning Phoenix’s opening day starting lineup is Dragic/Bledsoe/James/Anthony/Gasol with the Morris twins, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren coming off the bench. You smell that? It’s championships.
Other cool ripple effect moves: Bosh flees Miami for Houston; Wade possibly runs to Chicago; the Bulls become the favorite to add Kevin Love before the February trade deadline; and 9 teams in the West could win 50 games or more, meaning a 50-win team misses the playoffs, and the conversation about changing the NBA’s playoff format rages on.
Golden State finalizes the trade for Kevin Love and trades Andre Iguodala OR the Los Angeles Clippers make significant cap space; James signs with Warriors or Clippers; Anthony signs with Chicago.
It continues to befuddle me why Golden State hasn’t pounced on their opportunity to pair the best shooter we’ve ever seen from the point guard position with the love child (pun intended) of Wes Unseld and Dirk Nowitzki. At this point, it might be fair to assume all things Love are on hold until after LeBron and Carmelo sign their next contracts. But if you’re Golden State, if you ever were going to trade for Love, isn’t now the time to get something done, right before the greatest player on Earth – a player who would TOTALLY CONSIDER COMING TO YOUR TEAM – signs a contract that could last the duration of his prime?
Here’s how simple it could be: (1) the Warriors send Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and David Lee to Minnesota for Kevin Love, Kevin Martin and a future first round pick; (2) they trade Iguodala (a redundant player with LeBron on board) to a contender with cap space for as cheap a return as possible OR a center. They could even trade Andrew Bogut for a cheap return to make additional cap room.
This can happen and shouldn’t it?
LeBron James, Kevin Love and Stephen Curry would be the most fun team in basketball; it creates an inter-conference rivalry between James and Kevin Durant; it elevates an already really good team in the West; and I couldn’t think of two better upgrades positionally then Curry over Wade and Love over Bosh.
This scenario won’t happen because Golden State is a bit too conservative of a spender to swing for a home run (trading for Love) without the guarantee of a home run (LeBron signing); in recent history, they are much more comfortable swinging for doubles (the Bogut trade, the Iguodala singing) which occasionally yields a triple (Curry’s insanely valuable contract).
And yet, the Warriors are basically capped out just to be a middle seed in the West, and their nucleus is aging quicker than the age of its two best players suggest. I don’t know how pursuing Love and James wasn’t Golden State’s No. 1 goal entering the summer, and it might already be too late to get all of the moves in order to make a serious play at LeBron James.
As an aside, Anthony has to go to Chicago in any scenario where LeBron moves West. In the vacant parking lot of the LeBron-less East, the Bulls + Carmelo are a super-team; they’d win MINIMUM 58 games each year Rose/Anthony/Noah/Thibodeau were together and healthy – and making the NBA Finals would be a cake walk. Sure, Anthony could take more money in New York, wait a season for the roster to improve under Phil Jackson’s supervision, and the Knicks might become a top team in a bad conference. But the Bulls are a SURE THING. They can even hide Anthony’s historically “ehhhh” defense and pair him with an elite scoring threat that takes the pressure off him to score 30 points every night.
This is my favorite scenario in large part because of the additional what-ifs: the Warriors are the most talented team in basketball for the better part of a decade; it sets up a potential Spurs/Warriors Western Conference Finals – another LeBron verse the Spurs series; the Bulls win 10-12 more games than the No. 2 seed in the East and sweep the first three rounds of the playoffs; and Bulls against Warriors becomes the most watched NBA Finals of all-time; PLUS Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals would become America’s new pastime.
Any scenario where (1) Anthony signs with Houston or Dallas or (2) James signs long-term in Miami.
The wind seems to be knocked out of the sails for “Anthony to Dallas” or even “Anthony to Houston.” The two Texas teams fail to offer Anthony (1) the money the Knicks can offer, (2) the market-size of New York and Los Angeles or (3) being the “Only Good Team in the Entire Eastern Conference” scenario in Chicago – which also happens to be the nation’s third-largest television market.
I never really saw Dallas as a great fit for Anthony, not because he and Dirk play the same position, which would actually be quite lethal offensively, but because nobody on the team could guard the other team’s best player – a death sentence in the West.
Houston, on the other hand, is a really interesting basketball fit for Anthony, and he could be the greatest teammate in terms of matching style Dwight Howard has ever had; imagine supplanting Rashard Lewis on the 2009 Orlando Magic with Carmelo Anthony, dear Lord.
Houston seems okay with “losing” the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes if it means claiming Bosh from the sinking ship in Miami. In many ways, Bosh is an even better fit in Houston than Anthony, and a starting lineup of Patrick Beverly/James Harden/Chandler Parsons/Bosh/Howard figures to be a Top 5 offense and defense. Houston would probably need to offer Bosh the max to get him, but there might not be any long-term consequence to ending up with Bosh over Anthony.
Also, don’t count on James taking a long-term deal in Miami. Particularly with (A) the Spurs running it back one more year, (B) Love remaining in a Timberwolves uniform until further notice, and (C) the Thunder still filling out their roster with rookies and washed-up veterans – or a fascinating combination of them both (Mitch McGary) – the only real test in Miami’s way of making a fifth-straight trip to the NBA Finals is Chicago. But only if the Bulls are 100 percent healthy, and only if they can prove their offense is capable of scoring points in the intense possession-by-possession environment of the NBA playoffs.
James, Wade and Bosh could all return to Miami for one more year with whatever limited role players they can string together – Anthony Morrow, Marvin Williams, maybe Pau Gasol on a huge discount, etc. – and make a fifth run at the NBA Finals. Win or lose next June, if this Big Three era in Miami goes down as “The Only Basketball Team Post-Russell to Play in Five Straight NBA Finals” it would stand as one of the special modern-day basketball accomplishments of all-time.
Part Two: What the Lakers could do that would change the entire league.