Behind The Melo-drama: Bulls Never Close Deal

What was most remarkable about NBA free agency — which, in the realm of reality TV, sure beats dueling real-estate brokers and what’s left of the Kardashians — is the idea that Carmelo Anthony comes out with considerably more money than LeBron James. Not that LeBron gives two Beats, given his annual endorsements fortune and recent Dr. Dre stock windfall. But Anthony’s $120 million-plus deal with the Knicks made him the weekend’s financial winner, even though he never has won much in the playoffs, still doesn’t play lockdown defense and has about one-fifth of James’ impact in the sporting and economic spheres.

As I keep repeating, through all the LeBronaggedon madness, James will have the opportunity to opt out much sooner than a delirious Cleveland thought when it heard the news of his homecoming. Keeping his focus on the league’s eventual new salary cap — which should grow by leaps and bounds after the new national TV deals are negotiated — he has agreed to a two-year, $42.1 million contract with the Cavaliers that gives him an opt-out as soon as next summer. Yes, next summer. Assuming he doesn’t want rioting in northeast Ohio by announcing a 2015 move to, oh, Phoenix, James will get his monster deal in due time via the increased max deal. For now, Anthony has lapped him in moolah, with his own cap-related opt-outs in place.

It should surprise no one who knows the truth about Anthony — you can’t spell Carmelo without the ME — that he returned to New York for the five-year maximum after James returned home to Cleveland, ending any chance that the two might play together in Miami or Los Angeles. Pat Riley preferred taking care of Chris Bosh with a max deal over pursuing Anthony for the Heat, which Riles may regret when he looks up in the fourth quarter and sees no dangerous scorers on the floor. That’s the one world-class skill Anthony does possess — he’s a badass scorer, among the more potent of his time — and here is where I continue to convulse over the astonishing ineptness of the Chicago Bulls.

I said when this process started that the Bulls would finish second for Anthony, which indeed happened. How do I know this? Because they ALWAYS finish second for major free agents, or third or fourth or fifth — by the deliberate design of their cheap, fossilized, please-go-away owner. Yes, maybe Anthony still would have returned to the Knicks had the Bulls indeed offered the four-year max at $96 million. But anyone who knows the Bulls, as I do, knows that they wanted Anthony only on their financial terms. And by the math of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, that meant offering only $73 million over four years, which he will try to sell as (1) wanting to keep super sub Taj Gibson and (2) the refusal of Knicks boss Phil Jackson — who used to fight every summer with Reinsdorf for market-value coaching contracts while winning six titles in the ‘90s — to inherit the financial albatross that is Carlos Boozer in a sign-and-trade flip for Anthony. Reinsdorf and his son, who will take over the team when dad does us all a favor and self-embalms in Arizona, could have been creative and still made it worth Anthony’s financial while with a larger offer in Chicago. He could have SOLD Anthony on winning championships with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. He could have traded Gibson. He could have offered $96 million, not $73 million.

But the Bulls never wanted to go that far, despite the silly dog-and-pony show when Anthony came to town. In the end, the Bulls don’t want the elite free agent because Reinsdorf doesn’t want to spend for him. When they had boatloads of money after Reinsdorf prematurely broke up the Jordan dynasty, they really didn’t want Tim Duncan, Grant Hill or Tracy McGrady as much as they wanted to keep the money for Reinsdorf and his business partners and trot out cheap payrolls for years. When Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett thought about coming last decade, the Bulls couldn’t make either deal happen. When LeBron thought about Chicago in 2010, that deal, of course, didn’t happen. When Kevin Love’s people made recent noise that Chicago was a preferred destination, you knew that wouldn’t happen.

Some owners get the deal done. Jerry Reinsdorf and his people never get the big free-agent deal done. The one time he did, as a baseball owner, he was ticked off about the terms of the resolved labor impasse — that one that canceled a World Series, largely by his doing — and signed Albert Belle out of spite. You remember how that worked out for the White Sox.

So the Bulls settled for the less expensive Pau Gasol, which still doesn’t answer the question of who scores points in crunch time. With Anthony, they would have been the clear Eastern Conference favorite. Now, while hoping Rose’s two surgically operated knees keep him upright and that rookie Doug McDermott is more than a college-campus wonder, they’re just one of several East teams with a shot while James goes to work with a rookie coach and a roster incubator.

When the dominoes started falling, Gasol became a key figure. He’s an ideal addition to a contender, savvy and ring-encrusted, but the Bulls still have no go-to scorer when the Cavaliers are coming at them with James and the Pacers with Paul George. Gasol would have had a better title shot in Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Chicago offered more money and a better cultural experience — though much colder winter nights. San Antonio was offering low money but high championship potential. New York was offering mediocrity. The Lakers, who offered him two deals that he rejected, had only misery to part with. Maybe Gasol, always a smart team, didn’t want to deal with the Western Conference. Jackson would chide him for that.

Now we know the winners and losers. And while there still could be movement with Love — this could take a while, with the Warriors and Celtics forced to up the ante with Cleveland possibly involved — we now have a general picture of how both conferences look moving forward.

The most important signing last week wasn’t James. It was in a two-paragraph statement from the Spurs, announcing an extension for Gregg Popovich, which means a sixth title is quite possible with Duncan, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills also coming back. Houston suffered a blow when Chris Bosh took more more money to return to Miami, leaving the Rockets on a strong but secondary level with the Thunder and Clippers — who couldn’t join the LeBron chase as long as Donald Sterling, a target of James’ criticism after his racist rant, is in a Los Angeles courtroom calling his wife “a pig’’ and still legally fighting her for his franchise. The Warriors could be serious players, depending on the Love situation and how Steve Kerr coaches, and Dallas and Memphis and Portland will make the playoffs again. The Lakers, with Jeremy Lin, will not make the playoffs, and I’m taking over-under bets on Kobe Bryant’s first trade demand or admonishment of Nick Young for smiling too much. Do the Lakers have a coach? I saw Mike D’Antoni in a purple shirt at the movie theater over the weekend, and if he was the one guy who maximized an otherwise average Lin in New York, maybe he’ll coach for a few months, until Bryant tries to kill him.

Who wins the East? The Pacers have to mature dramatically, which may not happen with Frank Vogel coaching and Roy Hibbert in his periodic funks, regardless of where Lance Stephenson ends up. Chicago will play defense and will be well-coached — yada, yada, yada — but who scores? By taking less than he had to in New York, Anthony allows Jackson some immediate flexibility, but not enough to avoid an early playoff ouster. Miami will make the playoffs, barely. Brooklyn is hazy. Maybe Milwaukee will surprise, if Jason Kidd puts the knife and soda cup away.

Cleveland? Not until David Blatt introduces himself to the world and explains how he’ll coach LeBron when he’s never met him, deal with the insane media onslaught, handle the delicate balance of LeBron and Kyrie Irving and help Andrew Wiggins (if he’s there) and other young players learn the game. If Dan Gilbert had known James was returning, there’s no way he would have hired Blatt, who never has coached in the NBA and spent two decades overseas. He’s highly regarded internationally, but really, if Gilbert is bold enough to hire and fire Mike Brown twice, he can put Blatt in charge of Sharpies and hire Jeff Van Gundy or a more experienced hand.

It probably says something profound about Carmelo that Chicago and Miami didn’t offer him enough to make him reject New York’s bigger money. He is not the sure thing, even if both should have gambled. In the future, maybe a change in his birth certificate would help. Solutions-oriented fellow I am, I propose he shorten his first name to Carlo, proving he doesn’t need ME anywhere near it. Then we might take seriously the man’s desire to win first — which means playing defense, passing the ball to teammates, committing to a hardened playoff mentality and not turning an NBA game into driveway one-on-one every time the basketball arrives in his hands, or suction cups, with 10 seconds or fewer on the shot clock.

Jackson has dealt with Jordan, Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, some of the biggest egos ever in sports. This might be his biggest challenge, showing Anthony how to win when management’s roster options may be restricted for quite a long time. Jackson feels good about a recent chat with Anthony, saying, “We really struck a chord, the two of us, and feel overly passionately about what we’re trying to get accomplished. It’s his ability to stay, be patient, lead and watch us develop a winner. There’s no instantaneous winner that we think is going to happen to the Knicks right now, but we’re going to be a lot better.’’

That said, the Bulls could have won now with Anthony. And, naturally, they didn’t try hard enough because they didn’t want to try hard enough. Welcome to Year 17 and counting since Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen were told to move on, all because Jerry Reinsdorf, as he infamously said then, wanted to create his own “dynasty.’’

How’s that going for you, chairman?