The Thunder have been among the busier teams at the hectic start of the 2018 postseason. It kicked off for them early with an expected and financially sound decision by Carmelo Anthony, who picked up his $27.9 million player option, putting a huge dent on any financial flexibility the Thunder might have hoped for this season.
While that move was completely out of his hands, Sam Presti came through in the clutch several days later and shed light on a seemingly bleak situation. The Thunder fans were ecstatic to learn that the flickering hope of keeping the Russell Westbrook and Paul George duo in Oklahoma City for the length of their primes will turn into reality.
Convincing George to resist the lure of LeBron James and Los Angeles and commit to a smaller market is definitely a big and an unexpected triumph for the Thunder front office. The subsequent signing of Jerami Grant on a three-year $27 million contract further emphasized the intention to compete and provide top quality basketball at the Chesapake Energy Arena for years to come.
Those bold but necessary moves, combined with Anthony’s extension, inevitably put the Thunder deep into luxury tax hell. With 12 players currently on the roster, the ownership is set to pay a staggering $150 million in taxes as repeat tax offenders. That is, of course, the largest tax bill in NBA history, and it puts the total cost of the team in the vicinity of $300 million.
For reference, the Seattle SuperSonics franchise was bought for $350 million back in 2008.
The insane amount will surely nudge Clay Bennett, the head of the Thunder investment group, and George Kaiser, one of the 100 richest men in the world, into looking for any possible means of reducing their expenditure. The logical asset to target in this context is Anthony’s hefty contract.
Trading Anthony is likely off the table due to his diminished perceived value, the attached no trade clause, tight salary cap situation across the league and lack of other assets that would make trading for one year of Anthony’s services an enticing move. The Thunder would, therefore, have to utilize another method of alleviating the damage Anthony’s contract is bound to inflict in the 2018-19 season – the stretch provision.
Buying out Anthony’s contract and dividing the $27.9 million into portions of ~$9 million over each of the next three years would save the Thunder an enormous amount of over $90 million in tax money. Even for some of the richest owners in the world, that is a figure that absolutely calls for careful deliberation.
The Thunder fans definitely wouldn’t be left in tears watching Anthony leave after his disappointing 2017-18 campaign. It was not just his consistently poor play that was the source of frustration; his unfaltering ego and unwillingness to adjust his role to better suit the needs of Billy Donovan’s team quickly cooled down the initial thrill of acquiring a future Hall of Famer.
Considering the financial figures and Anthony’s failure to positively impact the Thunder chances of competing for the NBA title, parting of ways before the start of the season seems like a pretty realistic scenario.
Below are several teams that would certainly look into acquiring a player of Anthony’s caliber should he become available off the waivers at a discounted price.
With the second coming of LeBron James in Cleveland coming to an unfortunate end and rumors of Kevin Love following in his footsteps, the position of the Cavs alpha-dog will likely become vacant. Since Anthony clearly feels he still has what it takes to be a great scoring contributor playing starter minutes, he might feel inclined to take up that spot.
The Cavs focus will now surely shift towards developing young talent they have in Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. As exciting as their potential might be, those are not household names that draw much attention. By adding Anthony on a minimum risk deal, Cavs could retain the interest of their fanbase after James’ departure and have someone able to teach the youngins the ropes.
Moving to Cleveland surely wouldn’t do wonders for Anthony’s legacy. Even with his addition, that team would primarily be focused on rebuilding and acquiring another top pick rather than actually competing. However, it would give him a solid opportunity to prove that he still has the ability to lead an NBA team, and that the season with the Thunder might have just been a fluke on the career path of an all-time great scorer.
Players entering the twilights of their careers frequently consider getting back to places where their NBA journeys began. Anthony, who was drafted with the Nuggets’ third pick in the legendary 2003 draft, could make an attempt at resurrecting his career with his original team. After all, he played his most successful basketball in the Mile-High City, making the playoffs in each season of his 7-year tenure.
The Nuggets aren’t in an ideal spot cap-wise even after sending Wilson Chandler to the Sixers without taking any salary in return. They could, however, use one of the exceptions at that disposal, and sign Anthony to shorter term deal. That also shouldn’t pose much of a problem for Anthony since he would still remain on the Thunder payroll.
In an ideal situation, Anthony would jump right into Chandler’s spot and serve as a mentor to Michael Porter Jr., who the Nuggets surprisingly snatched with the 14th pick. If Porter Jr. manages to shut down the injury concerns that have been following him for the past year, he could take over the torch from Anthony and claim the starting small forward spot as the season progresses.
For Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets system that doesn’t put much emphasis on defense provides a perfect environment to try and get his game back on track. While he likely wouldn’t have a guarantee of a starting spot throughout the entire season, playing on a playoff-bound team in a city that still has lots of respect for him could easily make him reconsider his individual agenda.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers missed out on complementing James with Paul George, and the current situation with the potential acquisition of Kawhi Leonard doesn’t seem too promising. If Magic Johnson fails to secure another big name for James’ inaugural season, they might be looking to settle for players like Anthony to appease the growing appetites of their fans.
The first rendition of the Banana Boat pairing with James and Dwyane Wade came to a premature end. It has shown us, however, that James is willing to use his influence to attract players he has a tight relationship with. Seeing Anthony and James sharing the court 15 years after they were drafted two spots apart wouldn’t come as a surprise, especially since it wouldn’t pose too high of a risk for the Lakers’ long-term flexibility.
Outside of James, the Lakers have a noticeable lack of proven scorers on their roster. Rejuvenated Anthony in a changed scenery that obviously better suits his lifestyle would certainly help in that regard.
Golden State Warriors
Just when it seemed that the league parity reached an all-time low, DeMarcus Cousins decided to shatter it into pieces by signing a laughable one-year deal with the Warriors. It is clear that the Bay Area will once again be the most popular landing spot for veteran free agents with their legacies at stake.
With all the formidable moves the Warriors front office managed to complete in the past couple of seasons, a Woj Bomb announcing that Anthony signed a one-year minimum deal with Golden State wouldn’t come as much of a shock. After 15 fruitless seasons in the league, he clearly wouldn’t be immune to a surefire opportunity to adorn his career with a missing piece of jewelry.
Such a decision on Anthony’s part would directly contradict the attitude he developed since he would have to take a greatly reduced role on the Warriors stacked roster. However, we have seen that the players are willing to sacrifice much more than their egos to add an NBA title to the list of their career achievements. Of course, the eventual ring would be accompanied by an asterisk of decent size, but at the end of the day, it has always been about the destination and not the journey in this context.