There's a narrative in NBA free agency that top-tier players must choose between one of two options: money or a ring.
For whatever reason, those two scenarios for a player's future endeavors are considered mutually exclusive, with the common belief being that taking more money creates a bigger salary-cap hit, that a player considering free agency is doing so because his current team's outlook appears bleak and, thus, has a worse chance of winning if said player re-ups with his team (a team which, because of Bird Rights, can offer more years and money than any other team).
And this summer, Carmelo Anthony certainly falls under this category.
It appears the race for the seven-time All-Star's services has been narrowed to three teams: the Bulls, the Knicks and the Lakers. The Knicks may offer Anthony a maximum contract worth $129 million over five years, the Lakers can offer him a max deal worth $94 million over four years and the Bulls can offer him a four-year deal worth roughly $73 million, assuming Gar Forman moves some pieces around (CSN's Kevin Anderson breaks it all down here).
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The Bulls can offer less money, but with Derrick Rose returning, Doug McDermott on board and a team that just won 48 games Anthony's best chance at that elusive ring resides in Chicago. At least as far as next year goes. While the Lakers and Knicks are both in relative rebuilding phases (the Knicks won 37 games and are in salary-cap hell, while the Lakers managed 27 wins in a brutal Western Conference) next year, Anthony is playing for more than 2015.
And with that, here's a look at the futures of the three teams Anthony is reportedly considering and where they stand to compete over the course of Anthony's hypothetical contract.
New York Knicks
If Anthony stays in New York on a maximum contract, the Knicks will be all but done in the free agency period. They'd be on the books for nearly $80 million in 2014-15, brushing up closely against the expected hard cap of $81 million. But the Knicks' pitiful 2014-15 outlook has been known for quite some time; Phil Jackson is building his team around next year's offseason when they'll have room to add another maximum contract, which in a best-case scenario could be Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo or Kevin Love. In 2016 they could even go after Kevin Durant, though it's hard to see the reigning MVP leaving Oklahoma City anytime soon.
So while as many as seven players' contracts could go off the books in 2015, the Knicks also have developing youth. Iman Shumpert will be paid in 2015, while youngsters Shane Larkin, Tim Hardaway Jr. and 2014 second-round pick Cleanthony Early all have solid upside to go with Jose Calderon being under contract through 2017. The Knicks also have their first-round pick in 2015, and should they struggle in 2014-15 (a likely scenario) that pick will return a top prospect.
It's also impossible to look past what Jackson can do. The Zen Master has 11 shiny championship rings he can place on a table at any free-agency meeting and he's placed his faith in Derek Fisher as head coach. Los Angeles has plenty of history and Chicago touts the best player of all-time, but should Anthony choose New York his team would be run by one of the best minds in basketball who will have plenty of freedom to upgrade the roster the next few years.
Los Angeles Lakers
Taking a page out of the Miami Heat's book, the Lakers completely gutted their roster this summer with nine unrestricted free agents. As of now they have six players on their roster, led by Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and first-round pick Julius Randle (Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall and Jordan Clarkson are the others). Granted, Bryant will make $23.5 million next year despite coming off a six-game 2013-14 season, but the Lakers still have plenty of cap space with which to work.
Multiple reports have surfaced that the Lakers are interested in bringing back unrestricted free agent Pau Gasol should Anthony sign in Los Angeles, and while it would lack youth a "Big Three" of Bryant, Anthony and Gasol to go with Randle would give the Lakers one of the best cores in the league (assuming Bryant's health).
Bryant's future is the elephant in the room, as the Lakers really won't be able to let him walk after 2016 yet he'll command big money, presuming he doesn't fall off from a production standpoint in the next two years. If he still wants to play in 2016-17, the Lakers will find themselves in a situation the Heat are dealing with in Dwayne Wade. Still, the Lakers may have room to go after a third star in the coming years (Kevin Love?) to build around, though they are sending a top-5 protected first round pick to Phoenix in 2015. Bryant plays a huge role in all this, but it appears - at least in reports - that Anthony is strongly considering becoming the heir apparent to Bryant's Hall-of-Fame career.
Perhaps the biggest headliner that came from Anthony's impressive visit to Chicago was that he watched Derrick Rose in a scheduled workout. Whether that was as big a deal as it was made out to be, Rose's health is the biggest question mark concerning the Bulls' future. But considering Russell Westbrook's and Rajon Rondo's successes post-serious knee injury, it's a safe assumption that the 25-year-old Rose will return to his old self in 2014-15.
Past the Chicago native's health, Joakim Noah is playing the best basketball of his career while Taj Gibson, if he isn't included in a sign-and-trade for Anthony, will enter the starting lineup with serious momentum. That core automatically puts the Bulls near the top of the Eastern Conference; even if LeBron James signs in Miami, only the Heat and Pacers would be real threats in the East.
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It's unknown who would have to depart in order to make Anthony's contract work in Chicago, but in a best-case scenario the Bulls would hold on to Gibson and Jimmy Butler while also adding rookie Doug McDermott on the perimeter. It's unknown how Spanish forward Nikola Mirotic would fit in financially with Anthony in the mix, but the 23-year-old has significant upside and would add a deep threat to a team that needed it a year ago.
Any combination of the aforementioned role players would put together a championship contender in Chicago, and their window would be wide open with Rose, Gibson and Anthony all under contract through at least 2017 and Noah through 2016. And under the guidance of Tom Thibodeau, there's no reason to believe the Bulls won't continue competing in the East, perhaps to a championship level with Anthony on board.