Are Houston Rockets Now the Leaders to Sign Carmelo Anthony in Free Agency?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

Carmelo Anthony has a not-so-secret admirer in the Houston Rockets.

Perhaps a new home, too. 

Adrian Wojnaorwski of Yahoo Sports previously reported that Anthony was leaning toward leaving the New York Knicks in free agency for either the Rockets or Chicago Bulls. Though neither team has the cap space to sign him outright, the Rockets have moved a step closer to changing that by trading Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans, per Wojnarowski.

In trimming salary from their ledger, the Rockets have, once again, positioned themselves to make an offseason splash. 

There was James Harden in 2012 and Dwight Howard in 2013. Another superstar could follow in 2014.

That superstar could be Anthony.


LeBron's Elephant

League-wide interest in Anthony is not unconditional. 

After all is said and done and the dust settles, the team that lands him will say otherwise. Teammates, players and coaches will talk about him being their top priority, their only priority.

They will be lying.

Like every other free agent, Anthony's future is tied to LeBron James. He is no exception. Not here.

Before the Rockets dumped Asik, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck said they planned on making an "all-out push" for James. And why not? If you're going to try clearing the necessary cap space for Anthony, you might as well go after the NBA's best player first.

Plans won't change, after all. The Rockets still need to dump salary and convince a superstar to leave his current team. The sales pitches to Anthony and James are interchangeable. 

Come play with James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Or each other.

According to's Chris Broussard (subscription required), Houston's pursuits of James and Anthony may not be mutually exclusive:

A lot has been made about the possibility of James teaming up with Anthony, and few teams in the league have a better chance of pulling that off than Houston. ...

In any event, assuming the Rockets obtain the cap room to sign James or Anthony, the next step would be to give up star guard James Harden in a sign-and-trade for whichever superstar (James or Anthony) they don't sign as a free agent. Faced with the prospect of losing their superstars, both New York and Miami would be open to accepting Harden in a sign-and-trade.

To recap, the Rockets can sell Anthony on being the backup plan to a failed James endeavor while playing alongside Howard, Harden and possibly Chandler Parsons, or they can offer him the opportunity to play with Howard and James himself.

Sounds convincing.

Is it too good to be plausible?


Dollar, Dollar Bills, Y'all

Grabbing both James and Anthony seems far-fetched, but it's not that ridiculous. It all hinges on the Rockets being able to sign the first one.

If they sign James, it's their decision whether to flip Harden in a sign-and-trade for Anthony. Phil Jackson and the Knicks aren't saying no to Harden, who is basically Kobe Bryant—an unabashed scorer, ball-dominator, decent playmaker, crazy explosive—but sans a defensive conscious and a with little more facial hair.

So it all comes down to affording one superstar. That keeps the dream of landing Anthony and James alive while ensuring the Rockets can sign Melo alone if the latest pipe dream bends to reality.

Affording that one superstar isn't going to be easy. Creating more cap space will be rather simple, but a pay cut likely still needs to be involved.

Jeremy Lin will follow Asik out the door if the Rockets are hell-bent on chasing another star. His contract isn't ideal—he's owed somewhere around $15 million in 2014-15—but it is expiring and only $8.4 million of it counts against the cap.

Unloading Lin would make things interesting, but it doesn't create enough room for the Rockets to offer Anthony or anyone else a max contract.

Feast on an earlier analysis yours truly provided of Houston's cap situation:

Before the Asik deal, the Rockets' all-inclusive cap-commitment total checked in at $65,947,315 after factoring in Chandler Parsons' increased cap hold ($2,875,130).

If we remove the salaries of Asik and Lin ($8,374,646 apiece), Josh Powell ($1,310,286), Omri Casspi ($1,063,384), Francisco Garcia ($1,316,809), and Robert Covington and Troy Daniels ($816,482 each), they're left with $43,874,580 devoted to seven players—James Harden, Dwight Howard, Isaiah Canaan, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Parsons.

The Rockets will inevitably have an eighth player on their books. They own the No. 25 pick in this year's draft. Reggie Bullock was selected there by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013 and went on to earn $1,149,000 last season. If we use that as our launching point, it leaves the Rockets with $45,023,580 committed to eight players.

Three minimum cap holds worth approximately $500,000 would then be placed against their ledger, upping their salary obligations to $46,523,580 shared between 11 players. With the salary cap projected to top out at $63.2 million for 2014-15, the Rockets have $16,676,420 to lay in front of Anthony.

Now, that number is fluid and varies depending on who you're talking to. John Schuhmann (via Fran Blinebury) of said the Rockets would have $17.7 million in cap room by this stage of the game. It's unclear whether he was including their draft pick, though.

Regardless of which number you want to roll with, it falls well short of Anthony's financial ceiling. He can earn more than $22.4 million in the first year of a new deal, according to Larry Coon, author of the CBA FAQ.

Dangling $16.7 million—or even $17.7 million—demands that Anthony accept $5-plus million annually below his market value. Can he come to terms with that, knowing the Knicks could have given him a fifth year, thus guaranteeing he earned tens of millions of dollars more even if he took a pay cut for them?

Although there are moves the Rockets can make to increase their best offer, they remain limited if the plan is to not only retain Parsons, but to let him explore restricted free agency.

Pawning Donatas Motiejunas off on another team opens almost another $1 million in cap space—his $1,483,920 salary, minus the $500,000 cap hold that would replace him. Dumping Terrence Jones ($1,551,840) would create yet another $1 million. Trading whomever they draft would result in an uptick exceeding $500,000. 

Could a starting offer falling in the range of $18.7-$19.7 million do the trick? Possibly. But if the Rockets are trying to give Anthony the max, they'll have to consider picking up Parsons' $964,750 team option and allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer—or just trade him—to enter the ballpark. And even then, that might not be enough.

"I think he'll take a little less money," Anthony's college coach, Jim Boeheim, said, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "I don't think that's that big of an issue."

The Rockets can only hope his comments are a window into Anthony's soul, otherwise signing him dictates they burgle their roster of valuable depth.


As Good As It Gets?

Accepting less money will have to be a matter of fact if Anthony wishes to leave the Knicks. 

There doesn't appear to be another team out there ready to offer him a max contract. Most big markets don't have maximum cap space to begin with. Look at what the Rockets must do just to enter the Anthony conversation.

This all comes down to potential fits if Anthony decides to leave New York. He'll weigh every offer, factor in every pitch, consider every scenario. Teammates will matter. Money will, too. It's all about presentation.

Houston has competition in that regard, per Broussard:

Carmelo Anthony has decided to visit the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls once teams are allowed to meet with free agents on July 1, according to league sources.

The meetings have not been set up because the teams are not yet allowed to contact free agents. But Anthony has decided he will give those three teams a chance to recruit him when they are able to. Anthony's camp informed the Knicks of his decision to visit the three teams.

Beyond the Dallas Mavericks and Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat cannot be ruled out. Broussard said Bryant has plans to recruit Anthony, and's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst named the Heat as one club that's expected to make a run at him.

A team like the Lakers can give Anthony more money than the Rockets. Fit-wise, though, in terms of balancing his payday with surrounding talent, the Bulls and Rockets look to be the biggest players. 

The Rockets have an inherent edge over Chicago in talent. Howard and Harden are two durable superstars; Derrick Rose, meanwhile, has appeared in 50 games—regular season and playoffs—since 2011-12. 

Both teams are at a disadvantage when it comes to depth. The Bulls must purge their roster of valuable talent before making a legitimate play for Anthony as well. And if his semi-recent comments to Vice Sports (via James Herbert of CBS Sports) are symptomatic of his priorities, role players are important:

You can't create a bond with somebody who's not going to fit in with you or not going to be there when you need him the most and don't understand the game and how to win and situations in the game and things like that. As much as it has to do with having the top guys on your team, superstars per se, you need the rest of your soldiers. You need the guys that are going to go out their and put their life on the line for you because it's a war, it's a battle.

Will Anthony value superstars over depth? Accept the necessary pay cut? Leave New York behind?

Perfect situations don't exist. Not in New York, not in Houston, not in Chicago. There is always something to pick apart, to detract from a team's appeal.

Abandoning the Knicks, the organization he willed his way to, will be difficult enough. Prying star free agents out of big markets is challenging business. But if there was ever a team that could convince Anthony to leave the Knicks for less money and a promising yet shallow supporting cast, it's the always-aggressive, absurdly ambitious Rockets.

Once they're done inquiring about LeBron, of course.


*Salary information via ShamSports.


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