The Knicks appear to be moving closer to a breakup with star forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is interested in competing for an NBA title as soon as possible, and it would be difficult for the Knicks to convince him that he can do so in New York. He is opting out of the final year of his contract, as expected, and will become a free agent on July 1st. Anthony was likely to opt out even if he intended on staying in New York, but there is a very real risk that he spurns the Knicks' advances and signs with another franchise. The Knicks can offer more money than anyone else (about $129 million over five years versus about $96 million over four), but appear to be least capable of fielding a competitive team. The only way for the Knicks to get compensation for Anthony's departure is to sign-and-trade him to another team and pry loose some assets to grease the wheels on a rebuild.
So. What exactly is a sign-and-trade, and why might teams want to do it? Essentially, it's a clause added to contracts obligating a player's incumbent team to trade that player; this means a team can't simply say they'll trade a player and change their mind after they re-sign him. It's part of the contract. The motives for chasing a sign-and-trade are fairly clear.
The Knicks, as the team with the desired free agent, are looking to get assets back for losing him. These can include veteran players to make the salaries fit in the trade, young prospects to possibly add to the team's core, or draft picks, either in the 2014 draft or beyond.
The receiving team wants Anthony and is either unwilling or unable to simply sign him outright as a free agent. This is important: It rarely makes sense for a team to take a desired free agent in a sign-and-trade if they can simply sign him without surrendering assets. For example: The Lakers are likely interested in acquiring Anthony this summer, but are probably not interested in executing a sign-and-trade because they have the cap space to offer him a max deal. There is no need for them to sacrifice anything of value other than cap space.
The final agent in any possible sign-and-trade deal is, of course, Carmelo Anthony himself. Anthony must sign the contract stipulating his trade to another team, so he must be willing to play for the franchise he's traded to. The Knicks can't trade him just anywhere. Given what we know about his desires it's safe to assume Carmelo is willing to play for a franchise in an attractive market, with a strong roster and the ability to pay him something close to a maximum offer. A maximum free agency offer for Anthony is about $96 million over four years. If he is to target any teams in a sign-and-trade situation, they would certainly need to offer all three of those.
The Knicks have a little bit of time to secure a trade if they so choose. Anthony will be a free agent on July 1st but he won't be able to officially sign any offers until July 9th, the end of the free agency moratorium. It's unlikely that the Knicks have more than a handful of sign-and-trade options available by then, but they only need one team to buy in. Let's take a look at some possible trade options for Anthony and the Knicks. These aren't rumors, but they serve as example of the return we might expect in any deal and the teams able to join in the Melo hunt. Note that for these trades I'm assuming Anthony accepts a starting salary of about $19 million, which is a realistic pay cut in my estimation. I'm also assuming the salary cap and luxury tax line rise to ~$63.2 million and $77 million respectively. Which reminds me: Huge thanks to Mark Deeks and Larry Coon for their work explaining the intricacies of the CBA at their sites. Seriously, those guys are math with this stuff.
Option 1 - The Houston Rockets
The Knicks get a decent return back for Melo here. Lin is a well-rounded, starting-caliber guard. Linsanity was probably the happiest stretch of time in my Knicks' fandom. Seth co-wrote a book about it! Lin's return would help right a clear wrong. Omer Asik is more of a prize. The massive center has been a measurably fantastic defender for years, and remains one of the best rebounders in the league. Lin and Asik are due $15 million each for next season, which may give the Knicks pause here. Motiejunas is a young Lithuanian forward/center still searching for his place in the NBA. He hasn't done much in the States, but he's talented and could find new life in the triangle. New York also gets someone from the 2014 draft with Houston's late-first and by reacquiring their own second rounder. This deal would obviously have to take place after the draft, so hopefully Daryl Morey picks out something nice for us.
Houston gets Carmelo Anthony, likely without sacrificing Chandler Parsons. They also get to shed the contracts of Lin and Asik in the poison pill year, which saves them a lot of money.
If Houston can trade Lin, Asik, and their first rounder elsewhere without taking back any salary they can offer Carmelo a starting salary somewhere in the $16-17 million range. $17 million means that Anthony's contract would pay him something like $72.6 million total, which is a big drop from his max but may be an option for him. If Melo is unwilling to accept a salary that low, Houston may have no choice but to sign-and-trade for him.
I know you want Parsons. I do too. It's probably not happening. Parsons is going to get paid this summer, probably to the tune of ~45 million over four years, so he'll be making too much to include. Sigh.
Option 2 - The Chicago Bulls
This one's a three-team deal. It's technically possible for the Knicks to execute a trade with Chicago without including a middleman, but it gets dicier. The Knicks could trade Melo straight up for Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, the draft rights to Nikola Mirotic and whoever Chicago takes at #16, and the 2015 1st from Sacramento. That trade takes New York way above the luxury tax line, though, and probably keeps them from bringing Mirotic over to the U.S. this summer. I would imagine it'd be tough to sell Knicks fans on the only immediate haul from the Melo trade being Boozer, Dunleavy, and like P.J. Hairston. Euroleague stud Mirotic represents hope, and Knicks fans could certainly use some of that. This is how the deal breaks down if Orlando joins in the fun.
The Knicks get some interesting prizes here. Boozer and Dunleavy are necessary to make the deal work, and both are on expiring contracts. Neither would be expected to figure into New York's future plans in any significance. The next three pieces are the real gold:
1. Andrea Bargnani is traded for Jameer Nelson's partially-guaranteed contract. Nelson is a good player, and might be the best guard on the Knicks. Still, his contract is only guaranteed for $2 million, and the cap relief New York would gain by waiving him gets them more flexibility this summer. Bummer, though. I kind of like Jameer.
2. The Knicks get to add whichever rookie the Bulls picked at 16.
3. The Knicks also obtain the rights to Nikola Mirotic, a stud Montenegrin forward and one of the best players in the best league in Europe. Mirotic was drafted in 2011, but his difficult buyout situation has kept him out of the NBA for the past three seasons. He's fairly well-known at this point as the youngest MVP in Liga ACB history at only 23 years old. Want.
Chicago gives up a large quantity of assets here, but few of particularly high value when compared to an NBA superstar. The Bulls essentially trade Boozer, Dunleavy, and three first rounders outside of the top 10 for Carmelo Anthony. They snag Melo without having to lose Taj Gibson, whom Chicago would almost certainly need to trade to sign Anthony outright as a free agent. The Bulls may very well be under the salary cap after this trade, giving them plenty of flexibility to surround their new Rose-Butler-Anthony-Gibson-Noah core with talent.
Orlando is the straw that stirs this trade's drink. In exchange for trading Jameer Nelson and taking on Bargnani's expiring contract, the Magic get another first rounder in the 2015 draft. There is no chance the Magic are competitive next season, so they don't need to worry overmuch about Bargnani's impact on the win column. Jameer is an iconic member of Magic history, but a late-lottery pick is a pretty nice return for him at this stage in his career.
The variety in these trades illustrate the range of options available for Carmelo and the Knicks. It seems like Melo will indeed be asked to take less than a maximum contract regardless of his destination, but he says that he is more concerned with competing for a championship. It is up to his pursuing franchises to sell him on that dream in their city. There are a few teams not listed here that are absolutely willing and able to chase Melo; the Lakers, Heat, Hawks, and Mavericks chief among them. None of these teams seem in a position to trade for Anthony, but retain the ability to sign him as a free agent if he believes he can win a title there. Ultimately, we can only try to understand Melo's desires as a free agent. He may not even know where he wants to go yet. Let me know in the comments what other trade possibilities you guys can see for Melo. Melo to the Pacers? To the Juneau Frost Donkeys for Olive?!