"Anthony is a terrific player, one of the true elite scorers of his era. Any team would be fortunate to have him. But at what price? That’s the conundrum of free agency."
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The Carmelo Anthony conundrum

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By Sam Smith | 12.17.2014 | 11:38 p.m. CT

Much of the story when the Bulls host the New York Knicks Thursday in the national TNT game will be Carmelo Anthony’s free agency last summer and whether Anthony, now hauling around a 5-22 record with his Knicks, either made a mistake not signing with the Bulls, regrets his decision or simply could not look at another piece of deep dish pizza.

“What's done is done," Anthony told reporters in New York Wednesday before the Knicks left for Chicago. "I kind of don't look at it; I kind of don't think about it anymore. That's in the past for me. It's just a situation I had to deal with that I went through this last offseason. As far as now and thinking about that situation, that don't even come close to me thinking about that."

The national consensus, of course, with the Knicks’ disastrous start, suggests Anthony threw away a chance at winning.

But did he?

And what would have occurred if the Bulls did pull off the summer coup? Would they have been better off than they are now, fourth in the Eastern Conference and leading the Central Division at 15-9? Or could they have been worse and headed down?

But would the mistake have been Anthony’s leaving New York? Or could it have been a ruinous mistake for the Bulls by taking on a 30-year-old veteran to a long term deal and maybe with his best years past?

For now, Bulls players after practice Wednesday said they were happy with their teammates and the team they have.

So what else were they supposed to say? Though I don’t believe anyone honestly felt otherwise. It’s a very tight and well connected group.

Although the Bulls believed Anthony was serious about the Bulls and Anthony said he was, I never believed he was. None of us had the sort of information that is coming out now. But Anthony did. It seems likely now a major reason Anthony was destined to return to New York was his growing list of injuries. Anthony already has missed time with back problems and reports in New York are of knee problems and a likely surgery.

It’s not unusual for a player with more than 30,000 minutes in the NBA, like Anthony. It’s also not career threatening. But it is bank account threatening.

Anthony elected to resign with the Knicks for five years and $124 million. But the main point to all that is 2018-19, when Anthony will make $28 million.

The Bulls and any other team in free agency could “only” offer Anthony four years, through 2017-18. The Bulls with some financial gymnastics might have put together a package to get Anthony around $90 million. Yes, how much does anyone need? Though it’s easier to say when you are talking about someone else’s money.

But given Anthony’s physical condition, it’s highly unlikely four years from now any team was going to offer him a maximum contract. Heading toward 35 years old and who knows what surgeries Anthony would need in the next four years, it’s possible Anthony could be a little more than a veteran worth an exception by then. It is asking a lot for someone to give up perhaps $25 million.

But there’s a good chance Anthony also looked and decided it wasn’t a championship team in Chicago because of him. Or what they’d have to do to get him.

The Bulls literally had dozens of scenarios to acquire Anthony, and the conventional wisdom around the NBA was it was the ultimate and appropriate move. But it does raise a serious question about major free agents not named LeBron James and eventually Kevin Durant. The Knicks produced a decimated team by going all in for Anthony already, and that may have happened with the Bulls and there’s a chance that occurred to Anthony.

The key to the Bulls hopes for acquiring Anthony and maintaining a strong team was a sign and trade involving Carlos Boozer. But that was a total non starter for the Knicks. They wanted no part of Boozer even with an expiring deal as they have plenty of those, anyway, and knowing they were going to be bad this season—much like the Lakers with the Kobe Bryant deal—had to have someone for the (extraordinarily high) paying customers. Plus, how do you justify making it easy for a conference contender to perhaps get to a title with your best player? Phil Jackson was never entertaining that thought; plus he likes Anthony for the triangle offense for Anthony’s shooting. He wanted to retain Anthony.

Yes, the Bulls could have gotten to around $90 million for four years. But it might no longer look like a potential champion, and especially with Joakim Noah having summer knee surgery, which has been more troublesome than expected.

Obviously, there would have been no offer for Pau Gasol, who was the fallback when Anthony resigned. Gasol is having a career year and seems certain to return to All-Star status. But consider where the Bulls would have been without Gasol and Noah in and out of the lineup, though Noah said he expects to play Thursday against the Knicks.

The Bulls went into last summer with only about $11 million in available salary cap room.

With Rose, Noah and Jimmy Butler, that was $33 million. The salary cap was about $63 million.

It’s possible the Bulls could have kept Taj Gibson, but there was no guarantee.

The Bulls would have had to drop Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell, which probably would cost them their draft picks and thus no addition of Doug McDermott. Also in their position, they would not have been able to make Nikola Mirotic an offer that would have been worth it for him to pursue his buyout. So he would have stayed in Europe.

So there certainly would have been no Gasol, Dunleavy, Mirotic, Snell and McDermott, clearly putting the Bulls in a win now and no future position, as well as nothing left to add Kirk Hinrich.

And now you have Rose returning from injury with minutes restrictions, Noah similarly in and out with minute restrictions, no youth to come off the bench and be in position for the future, and Anthony with his own injury issues. And then it would have been left to Noah and Gibson, the latter listed as questionable for Thursday with his ankle problems. So even assuming the Bulls were able to hold onto Gibson, he and Noah would have barely any backup and would have been in position where they would have had to be 40-minute men all season. They’ve yet to be up to that.

Perhaps Anthony saw all this in addition to the financial situation. Maybe the Bulls did. We don’t really know what went on those final discussions.

Anthony is a terrific player, one of the true elite scorers of his era. Any team would be fortunate to have him. But at what price?

That’s the conundrum of free agency.

If you can acquire a player who rises above everyone else in the league and has a resume of success, like James, you do it and never look back. There aren’t many like him, if really any. Maybe Durant. Maybe eventually Anthony Davis, but he’s still having trouble getting his team into the playoffs. The lesson may be in future free agency around the NBA.

Perhaps a veteran talent like Gasol added to a solid core you built and developed makes a lot more sense than chasing publicity and fantasy league satisfaction. The Bulls had the best personnel summer they could have and maybe the best all around even with Cleveland’s acquisition of James and Kevin Love. Anthony’s summer had a lot more question marks than he probably realized.