Oddly enough, I first seriously considered this conundrum while responding to a fictional trade request from Blog-a-Bull in the SB Nation NBA Mock Draft. Ricky O'Donnell wants the Bulls to acquire Carmelo Anthony, and he was prepared to "trade" me some "picks" to "get" him. Ricky kinda low-balled me, offering just Chicago's 2014 picks and Carlos Boozer with the added threat that if I didn't deal with him, he would just use the picks to pawn Boozer's contract and some other stuff off on other bloggers, then use the open space to sign Melo outright when he becomes UFA. Of course, it's just a mock draft and it doesn't continue into mock free agency, so I rejected all deals and won at general management via imminent oblivion. But that deal had problems anyway.
In real life, the world is unlikely to end before Melo becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Nick Cannon wouldn't have scheduled School Dance to come out July 2 if the apocalypse was coming. And we are going to assume in this post that Melo will opt out of his contract before June 23 to indeed become a UFA because everyone has told us to assume that.
Immediately after Melo opts out, he will, for practical purposes, be neither a Knick nor a free agent. Just some guy floating on the fringes of existence. On July 1, he can sign with the Knicks, head to another team with space, or agree to a sign-and-trade. Between those two dates, the draft will happen, and at least one team could be busy making Melo-minded moves out of the Knicks' reach:
Chicago is aggressively trying to move its two first-round picks, according to rival executives. The Bulls are believed to be looking for either a veteran scorer or the chance to move up in the draft to select a young wing player with scoring potential.
Source: The Bulls may trade both of their first-rounders (#16 and #19) for future firsts, to free up cap space for Carmelo Anthony pursuit.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 19, 2014
There's a decent chance Melo wants to join the Bulls, in which case my instinct is to read those rumors and say "okay, let's just cut out the middleman and get those picks over to New York in exchange for Melo! Give us Boozer to make the salaries match, give us Taj Gibson because I like hi-- No? Okay, then give us some other little salaries and a bunch more picks and let's do this." And then I remember the Knicks can't do that because an opted-out Melo won't be tradeable on or before draft night.
This perplexed me, so I dug around Larry Coon's CBA FAQ and consulted a smart friend for potential loopholes. In short: no dice. I can only think of one rule-dodging scenario and it's extremely shady. It's basically:
Melo (whispering): I want to be on the Bulls.
Bulls (whispering): We want Melo to be on us.
Knicks (whispering): Okay, let's trade. But we want your 2014 picks among the other things in that deal.
Bulls: We can't give you those in advance, but if you tell us who you want to pick, we can get those guys and hold on to them for you until July 1.
Knicks (whispering sharply): Why aren't you whispering?
Bulls (whispering): Sorry.
Knicks (whispering): Okay, we want F. Agamemnon Agarbarblovivic and Tabasco Sneakings with those picks.
Bulls (whispering): Okay we'll pick them. See you in July. And you, too, handsome.
There's surely some tampering/collusion in there, plus a level of complexity and trust you wouldn't expect out of an unnecessary NBA trade. And I can't find any precedent for it.
So, the Knicks will have to wait if they want to trade Melo to the Bulls. Or anyone. And in the meantime, the Bulls (or anyone) can make moves that don't benefit the Knicks but do create enough space to sign Melo outright (Great explanation of those options here. The Rockets are in a somewhat similar position, as far as I can tell). And it's NOT FAIR. The good news to remember here is:
1. Melo gets to choose where he goes, so creating cap space is just a first step for any non-Knicks team. (That said, I doubt Chicago would make moves with him in mind if they didn't believe he was interested.)
2. As much as I would love for the Knicks to get picks and/or good players and/or friendly little contracts in exchange for Melo, open space is pretty cool, too.
3. Picks and/or good players and/or friendly little contracts can be acquired otherwise if New York wants them. The Knicks have a few players-- Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert, for instance ... even Tim Hardaway Jr.-- for whom teams might like to trade. If the Knicks are into it.
I feel good about the Knicks' situation with Melo. Phil Jackson has said things to make me feel confident that he won't overpay Melo, and the worst-case scenario in which Melo leaves (a straight-up departure without any trade) doesn't seem that bad to me. It'd be really nice, though, for the Knicks to get some assets out of all this. The timing of things might complicate that goal.