So, what do you want, Carmelo Anthony?
You’re going to be a free agent again, on the market for the second time in four years, though this won’t be like 2014. There will be no multi-city tour, no billboards in Houston, no images of you on buildings in Chicago. Back then, you were one of the NBA’s most sought-after free agents. Soon, you will just be a free agent.
The Oklahoma City Thunder dumped you, and admittedly, that had as much to do with your contract as your play. The Thunder shave $73 million off the books on this deal, per ESPN, a combination of salary savings and a reduced luxury tax bill that would have approached $150 million. Oklahoma City is ready to be a taxpayer, but that’s a pretty steep price to pay.
Still — would they have paid it if you had been a little more flexible? You made a lot of sacrifices last season, Carmelo, from shifting to power forward — something you resisted mightily in New York — to accepting a constantly changing role in an evolving offense, and you did it without complaint. But you drew the line at coming off the bench. Asked at your exit interview if you would accept a move to the second unit, you were unequivocal.
“That’s out of the question,” you said.
That’s a problem, Carmelo, because the number of teams that consider you a starter has dwindled. Houston is considered the frontrunner to sign you, and the Rockets will probably plug you into the starting lineup. This has been a brutal offseason for Houston, which watched its conference peer, Golden State, sign DeMarcus Cousins, while seeing key pieces of its own defensive identity (Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute) go out the door. Signing you feels a little like an act of desperation, a gamble that you, James Harden and your longtime pal Chris Paul can cobble together some chemistry in one season.
In Houston you would be reunited with Mike D’Antoni, and can we take a minute to digest how bat-bleep freaking crazy that would be? The season-plus you spent working under D’Antoni in New York was a disaster. You refused to play power forward to accommodate a Jeremy Lin-fueled up-tempo offense and chafed when D’Antoni pleaded with you to move the ball. D’Antoni has repeatedly cited you as the reason he left New York, and told The Vertical Podcast in 2016 that he “had one vision that I wanted him to play one way. He wanted to go the other way. I couldn’t get to my way.”
Back then, Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren seemed more likely to get back together.
But you have changed since then; D’Antoni, too. The architect of Phoenix’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense is now overseeing one that could be dubbed “20 Seconds or More.” The man that hated isolation ball has embraced it, adapting to a roster headlined by Harden, an unstoppable one-on-one player. You didn’t fit with how D’Antoni wanted to play in New York. You do with how he is playing in Houston.
But what happens after next season? Because everyone knows you aren’t thinking about retirement anytime soon. You’re 34 and coming off the worst shooting season (40.4 percent) of your professional career. You have never been a great defender, and in six playoff games with Oklahoma City, you were a minus-58 — worst on the team. Even if the Thunder brought you back, you weren’t going to play in fourth quarters. Those minutes are earmarked for Jerami Grant, a younger, more athletic player who defends at a higher level. If you go to Houston, James Ennis could play that role.
But what you can do is score, and that remains a valuable commodity. You can still cook second-unit defenders, and your defensive limitations aren’t as glaring in those matchups. You declare a willingness to be a sixth man, to spend the final chapter of your career as a modern-day Vinnie Johnson, and teams won’t just be calling to talk to you — they will be lining up.
So what do you want to be, Carmelo? Because your legacy is secure. You are one of the great scorers of this generation and arguably the greatest USA Basketball player of all time. You have made more than a quarter of a billion dollars in on-the-court earnings, and tens — probably hundreds — of millions off it. Becoming a role player can’t be easy — your entire life you were one of the best players, if not the best, whenever you stepped on the floor. But Father Time has been chasing you for a few years now, and he is getting closer to your front door.
The offers will come in the next few days, Carmelo. Houston, Miami, maybe Portland, too. You can probably squeeze out another season as a starter. After that, it’s up to you.
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