Carmelo Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder are headed for a split, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young reported Friday, which will most likely result in Anthony becoming a free agent later this summer. So where will Melo land?
Wojnarowski further indicated that the most likely possibilities would land Anthony with one of his fellow Banana Boaters: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers), Chris Paul (Houston Rockets) or Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat). Let's explore how Anthony would fit in each location.
Possible Ariza replacement in Houston
No team reportedly did more to acquire Anthony via trade last summer than the Rockets, who got such a deal to the 1-yard line metaphorically before the New York Knicks' unwillingness to take back Ryan Anderson's contract scuttled a possible deal.
Although Anthony wasn't as effective as hoped in a similar role for the Thunder in 2017-18, if anything, Houston has greater need for him now. The Rockets lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza, who agreed to a reported one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns in the opening hours of free agency.
Because Houston's total salary is nearing the luxury tax even before the team re-signs starting center Clint Capela, the Rockets are limited to the $5.3 million taxpayer midlevel exception to replace Ariza with a player making more than the veteran's minimum. That makes Anthony, whose salary will be supplemented by whatever he makes from Oklahoma City after a possible buyout, an attractive option. As compared to Houston's realistic alternatives for the midlevel exception, Anthony is far more accomplished, and if he comes for the minimum, all the better.
The downside is that Anthony isn't really a small forward at this stage of his career. Per analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats, Anthony played only 250 minutes last season as a small forward. Though Ariza occasionally played power forward in smaller Rockets lineups, particularly against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, for the most part he played on the wing.
On the plus side, Houston's defense is predicated less on individual matchups and more on the ability to defend on the team's frequent switches. Always fond of switching rather than fighting through screens, Anthony was actually reasonably effective in this regard last season. The Thunder gave up 0.9 points per chance on picks where Anthony switched on the ball handler, according to Second Spectrum tracking, a rate that ranked 11th best among the 28 players who did so at least 200 times.
During the playoffs, the Utah Jazz were able to have more success targeting Anthony on switches. In that series, they averaged an even point per chance when he switched on the ball handler, 10th worst of the 36 players who did so at least 25 times in the playoffs.
Offensively, Anthony's role with the Rockets would probably be similar to how he played for the Thunder last season, which was already a source of frustration. In fact, Anthony would probably see less of the ball playing with Paul and James Harden than he did in Oklahoma City. Per Second Spectrum, Ariza held the ball just 7.4 percent of the time he was on offense, barely half as often as Anthony (13.8 percent).
Lakers' frontcourt rotation already looks crowded
After getting an agreement from James to come to L.A. last Sunday, the Lakers are surprisingly deep at the forward spots. Presumably, coach Luke Walton will start James at power forward with former No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram at small forward and All-Rookie first-team pick Kyle Kuzma backing up both forward spots.
As difficult as it might be for Anthony to hear, he's perhaps not as good as Kuzma at this stage of their respective careers. Kuzma used a similar share of the Lakers' play last season with a far better true shooting percentage (.549) than Anthony with the Thunder (.503). Anthony did still manage a better impact rating in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), but at 34, he's trending in the wrong direction whereas the 22-year-old Kuzma figures to improve.
Given Kuzma's importance to the Lakers' future, reducing his minutes in favor of an aging Anthony would make little sense. And given the Lakers are also deep in the backcourt, where newcomers Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson have joined holdovers Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart, the only other realistic way for Walton to find more time for Anthony would probably be playing James at center.
Moreover, Anthony doesn't seem to fit the way the Lakers have looked to build around James, as articulated by Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst in a piece earlier this week. They highlighted L.A.'s desire to put playmaking perimeter players and strong defenders around James to avoid the shortcomings that plagued his Cleveland teams. (Whether the Lakers have actually accomplished this is a topic for another day.)
Throughout his career, Anthony has primarily looked to create his own shot rather than for teammates. Only in 2015-16, playing in a triangle-based offense, has Anthony handed out more than four assists per 36 minutes. And much as with the Lakers' other additions, Anthony's ability to switch far exceeds his overall defensive contributions. He projects 2 points per 100 possessions worse than an average defender by RPM.
The Lakers can offer Anthony the $5.5 million or so in cap space they have remaining after completing their other reported deals. Given Anthony's relationship with James, that might well happen. However, the Lakers would probably be better off seeking to invest that remaining cap space in a younger player, preferably another option at center.
Heat could get creative with Melo matchups
Miami would be an interesting landing spot for Anthony because of the Heat's defensive versatility. In James Johnson, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, Miami has a number of defenders capable of guarding multiple positions, making it easier for Erik Spoelstra to hide Anthony on the opposition's weakest offensive player.
The question for the Heat is whether that effort would be worth it, given Anthony would either displace one of those superior defenders or a better offensive option. Kelly Olynyk frequently played that role for Miami last season, and is a far more efficient scorer than Anthony. So too is Wayne Ellington, who made a team-high 227 3-pointers last season.
If signing Anthony is a pretext for not re-signing Ellington, whom I rate the top unrestricted free agent left on the market, that's a significant downgrade for Miami -- which could offer the taxpayer midlevel exception but is pushing the tax already. As is, the Heat have all those players at shooting guard and forward plus Dion Waiters and potentially Wade, presuming he decides to postpone retirement. So it's hard to see the need for Anthony or where his minutes might come.
None of the potential Anthony destinations is an ideal fit, something that probably no longer exists for him in his current, declining state. But of the three most likely choices, Anthony looks as if he makes most sense in Houston.
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