Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer are the pivot points in Bulls’ pursuit of Carmelo Anthony

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Derrick Rose, whose play varies from MVP-caliber to non-existent due to injury, is the Bulls’ most important player and biggest X-factor.

Carmelo Anthony knows this, which is why he wanted to see Rose in action. Assuming Melo is satisfied – if he’s not, likely none of this matters – Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer become essential to any negotiations between Melo, the Bulls and Knicks.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Sources said both the Bulls and Anthony, should he choose Chicago, want to keep Gibson for a core that would significantly improve their chances for an Eastern Conference championship.

Chris Broussard of ESPN:

But the Knicks, according to sources, will not cooperate with any plan that involves them taking back Boozer.

It’s no wonder the Bulls and Melo, if he signs there, want to keep Gibson in Chicago. He’s a very good player – a top-shelf defender and rebounder and, at times, aggressive scorer. He makes his team better.

He also makes $8 million next season, a roadblock to Chicago creating enough cap room to sign Melo.

If they amnesty Boozer, waive the fully unguaranteed contracts of Ronnie Brewer, Mike James andLouis Amundson, renounce all their free agents and trade Mike Dunleavy, Anthony Randolph, Tony Snell and Greg Smith without receiving any salary in return – the Bulls could offer Melo a contract that starts at $16,284,762 and is worth $69,535,934 over four years based on the projected salary cap.

That’s far short of the max salary – $22,458,402 starting, $95,897,375 over four years – Melo could get signing outside New York, and it might be difficult to move some of those contracts (Randolph and maybe even Dunleavy) without offering a sweetener.

The bigger challenge would be convincing Melo to leave more than $26 million on the table – and that’s not even considering how much more the Knicks could offer him.

The Bulls could bump the offer to a max deal by also dealing Gibson without returning salary, but Melo might not want to play in a Gibson-less Chicago. If Melo is going to the Bulls to win now, he knows Gibson is a big part of that.

Chicago could bypass this issue by arranging a sign-and-trade with the Knicks. Of course, that requires convincing New York to agree.

If Phil Jackson wants to take a hardline stance against sign-and-trading Melo, I could understand that. As you can see, the Bulls would have a difficult time keeping their core together while making space for Melo. Another prominent Melo suitor, the Rockets, could strip their roster to just Dwight Howard and James Harden, and they still wouldn’t have enough room below the projected cap to offer Melo his full max starting salary. By refusing to entertain sign-and-trades, Jackson might significantly diminish the odds Melo leaves the Knicks.

But if Jackson is willing to conduct a sign-and-trade, refusing to take Boozer is asinine.

Neither the Knicks nor Bulls need to enter negotiations under any illusions about what Boozer is. He’s a player with negative value whose expiring contract would be used only to make the deal’s finances work.

A simple trade of Boozer and one of Brewer, James or Amundson for Melo would allow Melo to receive his max starting salary. New York would have no obligation to Brewer/James/Amundson beyond the trade and none to Boozer beyond next season. Considering the Knicks don’t project to have cap space until 2015 anyway, Boozer wouldn’t interfere much, if at all.

Of course, New York would never go for that.

Brewer/James/Amundson is a worthless piece, and like I said before, Boozer has negative value. It’s up to the Bulls to tweak the deal to include other positive assets – future draft picks, Nikola Mirotic, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott – that compensate the Knicks for both parting with Melo and accepting Boozer. Armed with all its own first rounders, a Kings’ first rounder if it falls outside the top 10 in the next three years and the right to swap picks with the Cavaliers outside the lottery next season, Chicago has the tools to create a tempting offer.

But to make the finances work – unless they include Gibson, whom Melo wants left on the team – the Bulls need to include Boozer in the trade.

Boozer is nothing more than a contract to make the deal work. Sure, he might give the Knicks a little interior and scoring and rebounding in the final year of his contract, but neither New York nor Chicago needs to value that when determining a fair trade. Boozer is a contract.

He’s also a contract who could be useful in another trade for the Bulls sometime before the trade deadline for the same reason he’s useful here. Expiring contracts grease the wheels of larger deals.

Why is Phil Jackson so opposed to this? Maybe he understands the situation and is just posturing. If so, it’s a little annoying, because it’s not necessary. The Bulls, who might just amnesty Boozer, understand his value.

If there’s more to this, and Jackson thinks Boozer’s mere presence would harm the Knicks, he could always tell Boozer not to report. That would still allow New York to trade Boozer later without risking him infecting the team with whatever Jackson believes Boozer carries. (That Boozer has fit in Chicago’s strong organizational culture suggests these fears are unwarranted.)

If Jackson is willing to discuss a sign-and-trade, he should listen to offers that include Boozer. The Bulls will surely add valuable assets in exchange.

But if Jackson flatly refuses and Melo still wants to sign in Chicago, he faces a dilemma – playing with with Gibson or making $26 million extra dollars over the next four years.

 

Grizzlies beat slumping Pacers, who fall into tie for final playoff spot

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley matched his career high with seven 3-pointers on his way to 36 points, helping the Memphis Grizzlies rout the Indiana Pacers 110-97 on Wednesday night.

Vince Carter had 21 points and eight rebounds, and Zach Randolph finished with 17 points as Memphis snapped a four-game losing streak. Conley went 13 for 21 from the field.

Paul George led the Pacers with 22 points, Aaron Brooks, who provided an early spark from outside the arc, had 18 points, and Thaddeus Young finished with 16.

Indiana lost for the fourth time in five games.

Memphis played without All-Star center Marc Gasol, who missed his third straight game with a left foot strain. But Conley helped the Grizzlies get off the fast start, and Pacers were never able to catch up.

Memphis led by as many as 22 in the second quarter and carried a 72-53 advantage into the break. Conley scored 22 points in the first half, and the Grizzlies went 10 for 17 from beyond the arc in the first two periods.

Brooks made four 3-pointers and scored 14 in the first half for Indiana.

The Grizzlies led 96-79 after three, and the sliding Pacers never threatened in the fourth.

Indiana (37-38) dropped into a tie with Miami for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Both are two games behind Milwaukee and Atlanta.

The Heat, Bucks and Hawks all won Wednesday night.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Brooks made a 3-pointer in the first quarter to reach 800 for his career. … Indiana dropped to 0-8 in road games on the second night of a back-to-back.

Grizzlies: JaMychal Green was out with left shoulder soreness. That caused Memphis to use its 22nd different starting lineup this season. … Memphis scored 38 points in the first quarter, matching its highest point total for any quarter this season. … Memphis has made at least 10 3-pointers in 36 games. … In the third quarter, Carter passed Ray Allen (24,505) for 22nd in NBA history for career points scored. … Reserve guard Andrew Harrison left in the third quarter with a right ankle injury.

PACERS HOMECOMINGS

Pacers forward Thaddeus Young played high school basketball in Memphis and still lives there. Pacers guard Monta Ellis has a home in the Eads community east of Memphis.

HOME STRETCH

Memphis (41-34), which sits seventh in the Western Conference playoff race, has a beneficial schedule down the stretch. Of its seven remaining games, five are at home, and five are against teams with losing records.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Visit Toronto on Friday.

Grizzlies: Host the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

Three Mavericks teammates restrain Devin Harris, who still gets ejected (video)

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Dallas guard Devin Harris was ejected from Wednesday night’s 121-118 loss to New Orleans after angrily protesting calls made by official Ben Taylor.

Harris was assessed two quick technical fouls by Taylor, the first after Harris protested Taylor’s decision to whistle him for a personal foul when he collided with Pelicans’ guard Jordan Crawford.

The impact with Crawford sent Harris crashing to the court, marking the second time in the period that Harris had gone down hard. The first time, no foul was called when a collision with Pelicans’ guard E'Twaun Moore left Harris flat on his back.

When Harris was assessed the first technical, he went into a tirade and had to be restrained by teammates as he advanced toward Taylor. That triggered his ejection.

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon beats shot clock, Celtics with dagger (video)

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Who should win Rookie of the Year?

Joel Embiid has been, by far, the best rookie while on the court, but a season-ending injury will limit him to just 31 games. Malcolm Brogdon has been next best over the full course of the season. Dario Saric is making a heck of a finishing kick, and with a couple weeks left, he can still catch Brogdon.

But Brogdon got his own late signature moment in the Bucks’ 103-100 win over the Celtics tonight.

With the Bucks up one in the final seconds and the shot clock nearing expiration, Brogdon hit an off-balance jumper with 3.9 seconds left to produce the final margin.

Milwaukee’s win drops Boston (48-27) to second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Cavaliers (47-26). The Bucks (39-36) keep pace with the Hawks in a tie for fifth.

Russell Westbrook scores most points ever in triple-double, 57

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Russell Westbrook led a double-digit comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Been there done, that.

Westbrook hit a defining buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Been there done, that.

Westbrook posted a historic triple-double. Been there, done that.

All three in one game?

That’s a new level for Westbrook, who lifted the Thunder to a 114-106 win over the Magic tonight while posting an incredible stat line: 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

James Harden scored 53 in a triple-double just this season, and Westbrook has already one-upped that record.

This MVP race is one for the ages.