Posted Jan 21 2011 4:54PM
So, that happened.
And while some folks around the league think Mikhail Prokhorov's declaration that the Nets are out of the Carmelo Anthony business is a bit of High Russian Theatre, designed to take the pressure off of his team and put it squarely on the Nuggets, the word out of Jersey Thursday was that his pique at how things unfolded so publicly between his team and Denver's was real, as was his intention not to re-start trade talks even if Anthony and Denver came back to the table.
"He's not bluffing," I was told early Thursday, by someone who knows Prokhorov well.
Now, of course, he could be; he didn't tell anyone his intention to pull out of the deal until just before he got to the podium in Newark on Wednesday, so he certainly may not have told anyone if he's just testing the Nuggets' resolve. And the Nets were close enough to getting a deal done that they, indeed, got permission from the Nuggets for a face-to-face meeting with Anthony. So it could be put together again. But I'd put it at less than 10 percent. Which just happens to also be the percentage I'd give to the chances that Anthony will shock us all and re-sign in Denver, finally taking that three-year, $65 million extension offer that's been on the table since last summer. Small percentages, to be sure. But still there.
But Prokhorov's act, while only affecting one team, may well have ripple effects beyond this season.
The last year and a half in the NBA has been a high-water mark for player empowerment. Much of it was LeBron James' doing, as teams contorted themselves like pretzels in 2008 and '09 so that they'd have enough cap space to make an offer to the now-former Cavalier and the rest of the terrific free agent class of 2010. James forced teams to make pilgrimages to Akron and pitch him and his advisers, and when that was over, James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami -- Wade having held the Heat's future in his hands as well. If he had decided to go home to his native Chicago, Bosh almost surely would have joined him.
In the wake of 2010, other star players, like Anthony and Chris Paul, have followed suit. The notion of staying where you are and trying to win with the teammates you've got suddenly is as quaint as the set shot. And so Anthony and Paul would like to play together, preferably in New York, and the contorting began again.
With Prokhorov's nyet, the pendulum may start swinging back toward owners setting the agenda, with the likelihood of greater owner hammers to come in collective bargaining.
But in the interim, what will happen with 'Melo?
You can be sure of one thing -- Denver won't be left without a chair when the music stops.
First-year GM Masai Ujiri may be new at his job, but he saw the hard lesson learned in Toronto as the Raptors' assistant GM last year, when the Raps waited ... and waited ... and waited on Bosh, in the hopes that they could somehow convince him to stay. The trade deadline came and went, and Toronto failed to pull the trigger on any of the available deals. In the end, all the Raptors got was a trade exception as Bosh walked out the door. If there's one thing fans don't give a damn about, it's a trade exception.
The Nuggets always operated under the assumption that Anthony, ultimately, would say no to the Nets' offer. That Prokhorov was the one who actually pulled the plug doesn't change the equation -- 'Melo to NJ was always viewed as a Mile High long shot. That's why the Nuggets have been in contact with other teams all along, including the Bulls and Rockets, from what I hear.
The problem with Chicago remains the package. The Bulls will obviously not talk about dealing Derrick Rose or Carlos Boozer, nor will they trade Joakim Noah (and his base year status makes dealing him this year extremely difficult, anyway). That leaves a hodgepodge of players centering around forward Luol Deng. The Bulls would put him in a deal for Anthony, but the Nuggets aren't interested in taking on the remaining three years and $39.9 million on Deng's contract after this season, despite his solid play (17.8 ppg) for the Bulls.
Nothing has changed from Denver's point of view. The Nuggets still are looking for draft picks, young players and expiring contracts.
Houston has those assets -- the expiring deals of Yao Ming, Shane Battier, Jared Jeffries and Aaron Brooks -- and has eight trade exceptions it can use in the coming months to facilitate trades. Either of the biggest two, $5.8 or $6.3 million, could be used to take in Nuggets forward Al Harrington and get his salary off of Denver's books in exchange for a Draft pick, allowing the Rockets to move the expiring deals and future picks for Anthony. That would allow the Nuggets to clear almost all of their major expenditures for next season, and be in a position to act fast when and if a work stoppage ends.
Dallas isn't out of the mix, either, though not having a healthy Caron Butler to use as a chip with his expiring deal makes it harder for the Mavs to put a quality package together. The Mavericks' first-round picks -- likely late selections -- wouldn't be of much use to the Nuggets, either.
And that leaves the Knicks where they've been for a while -- Anthony's desired destination, but not in possession of the assets that the Nuggets seek to make a deal. At the end of the day -- or the end of February, at the trade deadline -- New York could still be a player. The Knicks have some young players, they have Eddy Curry's expiring $11 million contract and they could come up with some additional picks if they trade Anthony Randolph.
You wonder why Anthony wouldn't just "opt in;" that is, just play out the last year of his existing contact next season, which would pay him $18 million. That would give Anthony even more leverage next season; the Knicks will get under the cap this summer, to less than $43 million, which could be enough to sign 'Melo if he opts out. But it would be for less than the $18 million, and with the new CBA rules uncertain, who knows what Anthony would get in a new deal? By waiting a year, he'd be assured to max out in salary and could potentially be grandfathered in under the new rules.
It would also give Denver one final chance to find that second young star that would make Anthony happy enough to consider staying.
Unlikely? Just as unlikely as a 6-foot-7 billionaire becoming one of the most important guys in the league on Russian Culture Night.
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