Where the Thunder stands with Carmelo Anthony and why the Rockets want him
Carmelo Anthony will be able to select his next team, and that process already is underway.
The Thunder has granted Anthony to speak with prospective teams, The Oklahoman confirmed on Tuesday. ESPN first reported the news, adding that Anthony had met with Houston and Miami in recent days in Las Vegas.
Anthony and the Thunder are working in conjunction to part ways. The Thunder has until Aug. 31 to waive Anthony and stretch the $27.9 million he's owed in the final season of his contract over three years.
Oklahoma City has until then to seek a trade with Anthony, and the Thunder is engaging in talks with teams.
Anthony is waiving his no-trade clause, with the understanding that if he's not sent to a team he approves, it'll buy him out and make him a free agent.
Assuming Anthony hits the free-agent market, Houston will be waiting.
The Rockets have lost two key perimeter players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, but it appears they're targeting Anthony as a replacement, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Houston is "determined to sign Carmelo Anthony once he becomes free in OKC," Wojnarowski reported Monday. On Tuesday, Wojnarowski wrote that the Thunder approved Anthony meeting with other teams, and that he met with Houston and Miami in Las Vegas in recent days.
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The Thunder could save close to $100 million in luxury tax by waiving Anthony, then stretching his remaining $27.9 million over three seasons (the Thunder has until Aug. 31 to stretch his contract). But the Thunder traditionally doesn't like to part with assets for nothing, thus making a trade the first priority in a mutual split between Anthony and the team.
The trade plan (and hurdle)
Anthony has a no-trade clause in which he can veto any potential trade destination. What could make a trade easier, however, is if Anthony and his representation knew he was going to immediately be waived by the team which traded for him, thus making him eligible to sign with Houston, or even Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers, who are also reportedly interested in the 15-year veteran.
Multiple teams are planning ahead for the summer of 2019 in which the free agent class will be stronger. Thus, Anthony's one-year, $27.9 million expiring contract could be enticing for a team looking to part with long-term contracts, even if the team can't fully carve out $27.9 million in space. Only a few teams like Chicago and Sacramento can realistically create the salary cap space necessary to completely absorb Anthony's salary without sending any players back to the Thunder.
The Thunder may be OK with paying a massive tax bill, so long as OKC gets players back that fit how it wants to play, or receives assets (draft picks, young players) that it can parlay into another player of value. That's if the Thunder can find a willing trade partner ... and a trade worth doing that's better than saving $100 million. Remember, the Thunder still has until the end of the season to shave down a tax bill approaching $150 million.
Miami could be looking to move long-term salaries like James Johnson or Dion Waiters, but like Houston, don't benefit by trading for Anthony directly and giving up assets. Those teams are both over the salary cap and will likely wait for Anthony to be traded to another team, then waived, so he can then be signed to the veteran's minimum or the $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception.
The potential OKC backfire
As for Houston, by signing Anthony as a free agent when waived, it stands to get a bargain scorer the Thunder failed to fully unlock last season. Despite his defensive limitations, Anthony shot 37.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in his lone season with the Thunder, and made a career-high 169 3-pointers. He'd likely improve on those numbers playing in Mike D'Antoni's 3-point heavy, floor spacing offensive system alongside elite passers and off-the-dribble shooters in Chris Paul and James Harden.
Paul and Harden set the table for six Rockets in primarily catch-and-shoot roles to shoot 35 percent or better from 3-point range last season. Those six Rockets, excluding Paul and Harden, all shot better than Anthony's 35.7 percent overall from 3 last season.
For all their ball dominance, Paul and Harden can get away with it in today's NBA because they are 38 percent 3-point shooters on pull-ups (one or more dribble). For all of his offensive gifts, Russell Westbrook shot 28 percent from 3-point range on pull-up jumpers last season. That equates to less space for Anthony or any other Thunder player to shoot because defenses won't honor Westbrook from that range.
Anthony finding success in Houston or elsewhere wouldn't look good on Billy Donovan or Westbrook or the Thunder. It would again cast light on the Thunder's inability to maximize offensive talent in the post-Kevin Durant Era, particularly if Anthony willingly accepts a scaled-back role with D'Antoni, a coach he notoriously clashed with in New York. In his postseason exit interview, Anthony expressed unwillingness to reprise the role he played for OKC this season.
Anthony is still one of the top shot creators in the NBA, still averaging 16.2 points per game last season for the Thunder despite shooting a career-low 40.4 percent from the field. When thinking of Anthony's game, one thinks it could have come in handy as the Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3-point attempts against the Warriors in a Game 7 Western Conference finals loss — not because Anthony would have been a guaranteed end to that anomaly, but because he could have at least slowed the game down and manufactured something in the mid-range with the Rockets missing the injured Paul.
But the biggest question for Anthony is still on defense. Last season, Anthony was targeted defensively in pick-and-roll — isolated continuously by, yes, the Rockets — and had to make way for Jerami Grant in the postseason.
Even with Anthony on the court, the Thunder was able to field one of the strongest lineups in the league, outscoring opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Paul George on the floor. Houston probably isn't done adding reinforcements, but it appears confident enough to take a step back from having a Top 6 defense with Ariza and Mbah a Moute by papering over any defensive issues presented by Anthony, just as the Thunder was willing to test.
The Thunder did it in the regular season, however, surrounding Anthony with three elite defenders in Roberson, Adams and George. It didn't work so well with Roberson hurt in the postseason. The Rockets must figure they can do it better.