Is Carmelo Anthony’s smart play to opt in and play out contract with Knicks?

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According to every reliable source, Carmelo Anthony is going to opt out of the final year of his contract this season and look either to re-sign a five-year deal with the Knicks or move on to another team to be part of a contender. If Anthony wants to jump ship and go somewhere like oft-mentioned Chicago, he is going to have to take a serious pay cut. More and more fans seem to think he will.

But is that really the smart play here?

The smart play may be to play out his current deal, make $23 million next season on an likely struggling Knicks team, then join a potentially huge free agent class in 2015 where he could team with someone or someones to form a serious contender.

First, let’s look at what Anthony is giving up if he really wants to bolt to a contender like Chicago — it’s a lot. Ken Berger lays it out at CBSSports.com.

If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer, the starting point for the cap room they could offer Anthony, according to league salary sheets, is $13.8 million. To even get there, they would have to renounce free agent Kirk Hinrich (and lose his Bird rights) and trade their first-round pick and the pick they are getting from Charlotte (which together would amount to another $2.7 million on Chicago’s books)…

But let’s play along, shall we? Let’s say the Bulls renounced Hinrich ($5.2 million cap hold gone), kept their picks, and traded Taj Gibson ($8 million) and Mike Dunleavy ($3.3 million) while bringing back no salary in the process. They would be able to start Anthony at about $20 million in the first year of a four-year, $85.4 million deal — give or take, depending on how much they need to sign (hot European prospect Nikola) Mirotic….

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s back up to where Anthony’s four-year deal with Chicago would start: $20 million. That’s $1.7 million less than Anthony is making this season and $3.3 million less than he’d make in the first season of a five-year, $130.9 million deal he could get from the Knicks. The compounding effect of Anthony’s initial sacrifice, plus forgoing the fifth year the Knicks could offer at $30.3 million, would mean that Anthony would be leaving $45 million on the table to sign with the Bulls.

That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table. This isn’t a simple “winning vs. money” situation because he already learned that if you go to a gutted team it may not work out as expected.

Which brings us to an interesting idea put forward by Brian Windhorst over at ESPN — Anthony should not opt out. He should play out his contract with the Knicks and make $23 million next season and suffer through what likely will be another rough season in New York.

Why? To really control his destiny in the summer of 2015.

The market this summer for top-line free agents is relatively weak. The teams projected to have at least $15 million in cap space this summer are the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic,Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. (Note that teams such as the Bulls and some others could make moves to get into that range, but they have to weaken existing rosters to do it.)…

Here are some of the teams in 2015 that are projected to have large cap space: the Knicks, Lakers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and possibly the Houston Rockets. The Heat and the Bulls, in better cap position that year, could be very much in the game again as well.

Now, here are the list of players who have the option to be unrestricted free agents in 2015: James, Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert and Goran Dragic. Plus names like Randolph, Gay, Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, David West, DeAndre Jordan, Thaddeus Young, Arron Afflalo, Al Jefferson and Monta Ellis.

Again a quick note on 2015: Whether any of the big three from Miami are available depends on what they do this summer. Also, it is expected around the league that LaMarcus Aldridge will stay in Portland with a new deal now that the team is successful. There could be other changes as well, this is more than a year away.

All that said, the chance to partner with a bigger name in a major market — or draw one to play with him in New York — is better in 2015 than it will be this summer. If winning really matters, there will be more potential options that season.

But it means likely another season of struggles with the Knicks to get there.

Could Anthony be that patient? Or does his desire to get out of this deal — and maybe out of New York — trump that?

There are no easy answers for ‘Melo. But with the Knicks season ending mid-April he’s going to have a lot of extra time to think about the options.