CHICAGO—The first game at the United Center between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks should have been a spectacle. After the Bulls’ much-publicized pursuit of Carmelo Anthony this summer, here was an opportunity for the Chicago’s fans to make their feelings known.
But then, nothing happened. Anthony didn’t play, sitting out with a knee injury that has been bothering him for the past month. The Bulls were without Derrick Rose (who fell ill) and Taj Gibson (whose ankles flared up). But if anything, the anticlimactic game was the best thing that could have happened here: it was an opportunity to put the tired “superstar spurns fans” trope to bed.
Especially since, in this case, it worked out for everybody. Anthony lost the chance to contend for a championship, but his family was happy living in New York and he got his five-year, $122 million contract.
“I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of guy,” Joakim Noah said at practice on Wednesday. “He made the best decision for himself. I can’t be mad at it.”
Every other Bulls player who was asked echoed the same sentiment. And truthfully, they don’t have much reason to resent Anthony’s decision. For as enticing as it was to sign a player like him, missing out has arguably worked out better for this Bulls team.
The Bulls’ last several pursuits of star free agents have been much more damaging than this one. They suffered through years of early-decade mediocrity after failing to land Tracy McGrady in 2000. Attempts to trade for Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett in 2007 fell short. They tried to get in on the LeBron James sweepstakes in 2010 and wound up paying $80 million to Carlos Boozer, who had to be amnestied to allow them to make moves this summer. But missing out on Anthony, on the other hand, has been a blessing in disguise.
Despite not landing Anthony, the Bulls are well positioned to compete for a title. Their fallback option in free agency, Pau Gasol, is rejuvenated and having his best year since 2010. Jimmy Butler’s career year wouldn’t have happened if Anthony was taking 25 shots a game. Promising rookie big man Nikola Mirotic may have had to be traded to bring in Anthony, and Chicago certainly wouldn’t have had the money to sign him. Paying Anthony upwards of $20 million per year well into his 30s is, in hindsight, less appealing than the shorter, cheaper contract they gave to Gasol with the flexibility to make more moves.
Make no mistake, the Bulls would have loved to sign Anthony. He would have given Chicago a second go-to scorer to take pressure off Derrick Rose as he returns from two major knee injuries. His defensive shortcomings could easily be hidden in Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, and his offense could be helped by being surrounded with teammates who know how to do their jobs, unlike the disastrous Knicks teams of recent years.
But Melo chose the money and the comfort, and it’s hard to blame him. He’s going to live with his decision, and the Bulls have moved on. Butler has become the go-to scorer they hoped to get when they pursued Anthony, and much younger and better defensively to boot. These Bulls have weapons, they have depth and they have versatility that they wouldn’t have had if they had ended up with Anthony.
That’s why the Bulls were uninterested in rehashing the summer’s free agency exploits. Melo turned them down and they moved on, arguably better off for it. And the Knicks team he re-signed with is a mess and not getting better any time soon. He’s considering shutting down for the year because of the knee injury, which would have been another in a never-ending list of health issues for the Bulls that was long enough as it is. He’s made his decision on how to spend the rest of his career, and he has to live with it. The Bulls certainly can.