In a surprising twist, the Los Angeles Lakers have emerged as the team that most worries the New York Knicks in their attempt to re-sign superstar free-agent forward Carmelo Anthony, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.
While the Knicks remain confident in their chances to convince Anthony to return to the Big Apple, the Lakers' pitch -- of teaming Anthony with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and prized rookie Julius Randle on a team with no long-term salary obligations -- made what one source described as a "strong impression" on Anthony, who is living and training in Los Angeles this summer, and has made his decision over the holiday weekend "tough," according to another source close to the situation.
There was a growing sense circulating through the league Sunday that Anthony is likely to choose between the Knicks and the Lakers, who are the only two teams that can offer him max money without needing to make roster moves first. New York can offer him a five-year deal worth $129 million, while Los Angeles can offer a four-year deal valued at $97 million.
But sources close to the situation told ESPN.com's Marc Stein said that, as of 6 p.m. Sunday, Anthony had not formally notified any of his suitors that they are out of contention. The 30-year-old had sitdowns this week with Chicago, Houston and Dallas before meetings with both the Lakers and Knicks on Thursday in L.A. Anthony then retreated from the spotlight to take the holiday weekend to make his decision.
ESPN.com reported a week ago -- before Anthony started his tour of meetings with interested teams -- that the Knicks were increasingly confident about their chances of retaining the high-scoring forward, partly because of the way Anthony and new Knicks president Phil Jackson have "connected." Sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard on Sunday that the Knicks remain confident about their chances, even in the wake of reports Saturday that the Lakers have emerged as a serious threat.
Los Angeles met with LeBron James' agent, Rich Paul, on Friday, and the four-time MVP is giving similar consideration to what the Lakers have to offer, according to sources.
Gasol has emerged as a key selling point for the Lakers. While the Spaniard has been listening to pitches from championship contenders who lack much financial flexibility, such as Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami and Chicago, sources believe he would quickly re-sign with the Lakers if they are able to land Anthony or James.
ESPN reported Thursday that the Lakers made it clear to Anthony that they'd offer him the maximum four-year, $97 million contract they can, if he were to choose them. That's less than the five-year, $129 million offer the Knicks have verbally pitched to Anthony. The Lakers also made it clear to James they'd offer him the maximum they could, sources said.
However, there are also scenarios in which both James and Anthony could come to the Lakers if each was willing to play for around $16 million per season, especially if the Heat and Knicks were willing to work a sign-and-trade with them.
ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley reported Saturday that the Knicks were feeling "positive" about their chances of re-signing Anthony, after a source said the free agent received Knicks president Phil Jackson's message "well" during their meeting on Thursday evening.
Lakers star Bryant wasn't able to make it to the Lakers' pitch meeting with Anthony on Thursday afternoon after it was moved up by several hours. He was still in the air from his flight home from a family vacation as the meeting was taking place. However, sources said the two superstars have been in constant communication this summer, and there is some sentiment Anthony's respect for Bryant could ultimately "put the Lakers over the top."
The shift in Anthony's thinking was first reported by Grantland's Bill Simmons on Saturday on Twitter.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported last week that the Knicks' confidence in re-signing Anthony was strong as he began his cross-country, free-agent recruiting tour through Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles.
It was widely assumed the Bulls pose the strongest challenge to the Knicks for Anthony, but that has shifted over the weekend, sources said. The Bulls do not currently have the ability to offer Anthony a maximum contract.
The Chicago Tribune reported late Saturday that the Lakers' surge could help precipitate a sign-and-trade between the Bulls and Knicks, should Anthony prefer Chicago. The Knicks have thus far refused to consider sign-and-trades involving Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, who is due to make $16.8 million this season.
If the Bulls are unable to execute a sign-and-trade involving Boozer, and want to keep their core of Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and newly drafted Doug McDermott intact, the most Chicago will be able to offer Anthony is a four-year deal starting at approximately $17 million a year, for a total of about $70 million.
Information from ESPN.com's Marc Stein was used in this report.