By Sean Highkin
The Miami Heat are in the midst of defending two straight titles, but that hasn't stopped the speculation about their summer plans, which could be as monumental as they were in 2010. Reports this week from ESPN and USA Today indicate that the Heat are already in the planning stages of an attempt to lure Carmelo Anthony to south Florida to team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All four can become free agents this summer, and a lot would have to break right for this to happen, but the possibility is very real, and its impact would be felt in every corner of the NBA.
First, the logistics. All four superstars would all have to opt out of their current deals and take significant pay cuts. If Miami's big three become free agents, that leaves backup point guard Norris Cole's fourth-year salary (just over $2 million) and player options for Udonis Haslem ($4.6 million) and Chris Andersen ($1.4 million) as the only guaranteed money on their books. They have the 26th pick in the upcoming draft, whose salary will start at $958,000. They could sell that pick if absolutely necessary, but given that the rest of their roster will have to be built around minimum contracts, the wise move would be to hang onto cheap, young talent wherever they can get it.
Haslem, Cole, Andersen and their draft pick add up to $8.9 million, which leaves them with $54 million to play with, based on the latest projections for the salary cap, which won't be finalized until July. If James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony all get paid the same, they could each sign for $13.5 million per year. There's a possibility they could split the pie up a different way, with Melo being offered more money as an incentive to leave the Knicks and one of the Heat incumbents (probably James) taking less. After that, they'd have the $2.5 million "room" exception and some minimum-salary slots to fill out the rest of the roster. The Knicks can offer Anthony a five-year, $129 million contract, so $54 million for four years is not an insignificant sacrifice to make, even for someone who's made as much as he has. Convincing him to take that leap is the biggest hurdle to making this pipe dream a reality, but given his close relationship with LeBron and the Heat's track record as a model organization in an extremely attractive city, it's not impossible by any means.
So, let's pretend all the chips fall perfectly for Pat Riley and the big three becomes a big four. It would be a game-changer not only on the court, but impacting nearly every facet of the future of the NBA.
Wade's health has been the focus of nearly every question about the Heat's longevity this season. Erik Spoelstra has managed his minutes about as well as anybody can, but this has meant an even greater burden on James. At 29, LeBron has played not only 11 seasons in the NBA, but 156 playoff games (almost two full extra seasons' worth, and an extra 6,638 minutes) and three Olympics. He hasn't shown any signs of slowing down yet, but that could become a concern in the coming years, and adding Anthony, another high-volume scorer who commands a double-team, will go a long way in extending James' prime and easing the physical demands of his job. It could also allow Wade to slowly transition into a sixth-man role as he continues to decline physically.
It's easy to ask how Anthony would affect the team's chemistry, but I'm not inclined to think there would be issues there. By turning almost $80 million to go to Miami, Melo would be sending the message that he's willing to do whatever it takes to win a title, and that includes buying into Spoelstra's system and falling in line behind LeBron in the hierarchy. After The Decision, there was widespread skepticism as to whether James and Wade could coexist, and they figured it out. Melo is close friends with both, and there's no reason to believe he wouldn't be willing to work within the system as well. Anyone who's watched the United States' last two Olympic gold-medal teams has seen Anthony thrive in a system with other superstar scorers, playing power forward and knocking down open spot-up jumpers. There would be more shots to divide up between the stars, but Melo would be rewarded for his sacrifices with better shots than he's ever had.
The Heat have made a living surrounding James with shooters, the addition of another deadly spot-up threat like Anthony (he scored 1.078 points per possession in spot-ups this season, according to Synergy's scouting service) who can also take anybody off the dribble and get to the rim at will is a terrifying thought for the other 29 teams. The Heat's offense would be literally unguardable, and James might average a triple-double with the extra assist opportunities.
Beyond basketball, the media firestorm caused by a Melo-to-South Beach scenario would be impressive. Think about the backlash LeBron faced for bolting Cleveland in 2010, the (asinine) contention that he teamed up with his superstar buddies because he couldn't win a title on his own. Now, picture that, but with the star bolting the New York Knicks, who play in the biggest media market in the country and have a massive worldwide fanbase, a team that hasn't won a title in over 40 years and has a legendarily unforgiving media corps. A team that spent several years clearing cap space to make a run at James, Wade and Bosh only to lose out on all three. A team that gave up nearly every asset it had to trade for Anthony in 2011 even after he let it be known that he wouldn't sign an extension with any other team, forcing his way to New York because he wanted out of Denver. If, after all that, he left for Miami, well, folks in the Big Apple wouldn't be very happy.
Not that Anthony could be blamed for joining the Heat. If his ultimate goal is to win a championship, and he's willing to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to do it, it only makes sense to make this move. The idea that a title he wins in Miami would be less legitimate because he played with three other Hall of Famers is just as silly as the argument that James' own two titles with the Heat were "taking the easy way out." The 2004 Pistons are the exception that proves the rule, but winning a championship in the NBA, let alone multiple championships, can't be done without multiple stars. The 1980s Celtics teams that are celebrated by the same fans who dock LeBron for going to Miami were six deep with Hall of Famers. Jordan had Pippen and Rodman. Shaq and Kobe had each other. The "cheating" argument would be there, but it would be just as stupid.
The Knicks are in the midst of a rebuild led by newly-minted team president Phil Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher. The loss of Anthony would be a blow in the short term, but with Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani coming off the books in 2015, the Knicks would have a clean slate for Jackson to shape the team in his image. The free-agent crop that year includes names like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, and Tony Parker. Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard follow in 2016. Fisher and Jackson are saying all the right things about wanting Melo to stick around, but losing him might be the better outcome in the long run if the Zen Master can lure other players to the Knicks.
The most intriguing (and unfortunate) side effect of Melo joining the Heat would be its impact on the next collective bargaining negotiations. In the 2011 lockout that took place a year after The Decision, the league preached competitive balance, cutting player salaries and imposing stiff penalties on teams that went over the luxury tax. The new rules were designed to stop the forming of superteams like the Heat, and they haven't had much success. Howard and James Harden are teammates in Houston (after Howard forced his way to the Lakers to team with three other stars). Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers to team with Blake Griffin (after a Lakers trade was blocked by the league). Love will probably end up in Chicago, Golden State, or Boston before the summer is up.
Players have more power than ever to control where they play, which is a good thing, but many of the league's owners don't see it that way. There's nothing they could do to stop Anthony from teaming up with James, Wade and Bosh in Miami if all four of them were willing to take pay cuts to make the salary-cap math work, but it absolutely would influence the next round of CBA negotiations in 2017.
Anthony has until June 23 to tell the Knicks whether he's going to opt out. All indications are that he will. He can't become a free agent until July 1, but after that, the fun begins. Pairing Melo with the Heat's big three is a long shot, but so was their original 2010 team-up. And if anyone can pull it off, it's Pat Riley.
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.