NBA 2017/18: The Carmelo Conundrum

The Thunder licking their wounds, knocked out of the playoffs earlier than we thought seven months ago when they traded for Carmelo… so what do they do with him?

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When the Oklahoma City Thunder announced they’d acquired Carmelo Anthony, the NBA League Office just about started warming up the engraving machine, everyone was that sure they’d be carving “Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder” into the GM of the Year Trophy at season’s end. Earlier, he’d already added Paul George for just Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis; the Carmelo Anthony deal confirmed his status as an all-time heist man. Was he going to be offered a role in Ocean’s Fourteen? You never know.

In the months since, the widely praised Presti-casino heist of 2017 now appears little more than bet gone wrong, as the Thunder slashed and iso’d and bricked their way to a hugely disappointing but somewhat foreseeable ending.   A first-round exit with the “big 3” of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony would have been classed as unforgivable when this basketball Avengers squad was assembled, but the idea they were destined for success seems laughable now. Oh yeah, Carmelo is iso-heavy, inefficient, aging and poor on defense; I guess Paul George is kind of not-very-clutch in the playoffs; Russell Westbrook is, well, Russell Westbrook… Put him next to other stars, and suddenly it’s worth far less than the sum of their parts.

For all the poorly thought-out enthusiasm that Thunder fans were filled with seven months ago, the idea of the squad disbanding doesn’t evoke any tears. We’ve seen it’s relatively low ceiling, and besides, the Thunder have Westbrook under contract for another five seasons. That’s five more chances to create a squad that might one day take them to the promised land, or least let fans pretend they’re living the days of old, where Kevin Durant’s presence made them a perennial contender.

The Paul George situation was always a rental–he’ll saunter off to California and pop up next season in purple and gold… or whatever colors the Clippers wear. The goodbyes will be amicable; like past midnight at a bar, when eyes meet across the dance floor after a few too many drinks, while the pain of an old break-up still lingers – both sides knew what this was. But the Carmelo Anthony situation is more complicated

Carmelo’s contract

Anthony’s contract is a huge sticking point that will be a nightmare to get off their books. He has a player option for the next year of his contract, worth nearly $28 million. For Carmelo, it would be a monumentally poor decision to reject that extra year; coming to the end of his tenure as an NBA player, he only has so long to make that sort of money, and no GM in their right mind would offer him anything close to that amount.

Contracts signed before the cap spike in 2016 are usually thought of as more valuable as the going rates for comparative players are so much lower. However, the contract Anthony signed was a bad contract for the Knicks when he signed it, nowadays he’s a bench player or a below average starter, and $28 million is a ridiculous amount to pay someone in that role.

For comparison, last year Otto Porter signed a contract worth $26 million per year, Gordon Hayward signed one worth $32 million per year, Paul Millsap signed one worth $30million. Anthony isn’t in the same league as these players anymore, and this year will be an especially lean one for free agents – most teams’ cap space is taken up by bad contracts signed in 2016.

So what are players at Carmelo’s level worth? He was used mostly as a spot-up shooter this season and his effective field goal percentage was 47.6%, ranked 372nd out of 540 players. Players with a similar eFG% include Terrence Ross, Justice Winslow, and Raymond Felton–they’d be offered maybe $4 million in this years market. His PER was 12.7, the same as Brandon Jennings and Tony Parker. His Box Plus-Minus was -3.8, the same as Solomon Hill and Joe Johnson. Nobody is giving Carmelo anything close to $28 million–expect him to accept his player option as soon as he can.

The Thunder’s Problem

If we work off the assumption that Carmelo is accepting his player option (he is), then it doesn’t leave them a lot of options if Paul George decides to leave OKC as expected. Excluding George’s player option, the Thunder have committed to $116 million of salary next year, $15 million over the cap, and that’s only for Westbrook, Adams, Anthony, Roberson, Abrines, Patterson, Singler, Ferguson, Johnson. They’ll have to work via trades and signing minimum players–that will hardly help this team advance.

Even if George came back, they’d be committed to $140+ million for next year, and we’ve seen this year that the current roster doesn’t take you very far in the playoffs. Would the owners commit to that payroll for another first round exit? They’d also be committing to a lot of money down the line between George’s max contract, Steven Adams’ $24 million per year and Westbrook’s supermax, leaving them little flexibility.

There’s just no easy fix unless they trade Carmelo, however, that’s equally unlikely to happen. Carmelo still has that pesky No-Trade Clause in his contract, he’d have to agree to any trade, which was a difficult process last year when he refused to budge from New York for a great period of time. Even if Carmelo agreed to be traded, would OKC be able to find a franchise that even wanted him after watching his performances this season?

Back to the drawing board

There’s just not a lot to be excited about if you’re a Thunder fan–if things plan out as expected, Carmelo is going to still be there next year, while George isn’t. You’d probably prefer it the other way around The problems they’ve experienced have come down to a lot of things that are Anthony and Westbrook based; their offense has been ugly and stagnant.

For the team to grow, they will depend heavily on internal growth from players like Alex Abrines, Andre Roberson or Terrance Ferguson–they might be nice players, but it’s likely that none of them ever turn out to be difference makers.

It does, however, lead the mind to wonder what the conductor of this orchestra might plot next–where does Presti go from here? Even if the trades from last year haven’t worked out, they were risks worth taking. He’s consistently shown an ability to turn rage into perceived riches.

It will take an all-time heist, though, as the situation is dire. No space, no good contracts, no high picks–there’s not a lot for him to work with. Let’s see how he gets out of this one.

(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Reuters/Russ Isabella)