Lopez: Nuggets put Carmelo adventure behind them
Six months of leaks, myths and un-truths finally ends
In 1993, I wrote a story about the end of the world.
Specifically, the fact that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Rick Mirer’s contract would be guaranteed in all circumstances “up to, and including, the end of the world.”
That was my first journalistic exposure to the bizarre world of professional sports.
Eighteen years later, the craziness has reached new heights, thanks in part to the miracle of smart phones, rapid-fire tweets, Facebook posts and all the other wonders that the World Wide Web of instant gratification has to offer.
Thanks to my unique situation as the Nuggets’ in-house beat writer, I gave been able to gain a new perspective on the game of truth-and-rumors that is played every day by my former colleagues in newspapers and the dot-coms.
In the six months after Carmelo Anthony first declared that his “options are open” back on Aug. 14, we saw good, bad and ugly of i-world journalism and the business of basketball.
Unnamed sources with knowledge of Anthony’s thinking.
Unnamed sources familiar with the Nuggets strategy.
Wild proclamations, in-fighting at Madison Square Garden, power-plays by heavyweight agents and a carrier pigeon in a pear tree.
With the talks centering on New York – the world’s largest media market – and adjacent New Jersey, the Nuggets found themselves in a very public negotiation that featured enough leaked information to make a White House correspondent envious.
“It’s been quite an adventure, to say the least,” Nuggets team president Josh Kroenke said. “There have been a lot of misreports and un-truths throughout the process. We’re glad to finally have it behind us."
Among the biggest misperceptions was the notion that Anthony would seriously consider signing the top-dollar, three-year contract extension that the Nuggets proffered during the summer.
Anthony was upfront about his desires during a preseason meeting with Kroenke in Baltimore: He wanted to be traded to either Chicago or New York.
“The way it was explained to me was that this was a decision that he needed to make for him and his family,” Kroenke said. “Whenever somebody says that, there’s never a need to question anybody because you have to respect a person’s wishes.”
Given limited parameters, it was up to Kroenke and executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri to navigate the shark-infested waters of the NBA and come up with a deal that would make Anthony happy without sacrificing the short- and long-term future of the franchise.
After Anthony put the wheels in motion, the Nuggets were accused of not spending enough money to surround him with championship-caliber talent. Not only was that an insult to his teammates but it was simply untrue.
In the first two years after Anthony’s arrival in 2003, the Nuggets committed big money to Andre Miller and Kenyon Martin, and they later made bold trades for well-compensated point guards Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups.
The latest turn of events wasn’t about cutting costs and rebuilding. It was about making the most of an impossible situation.
“Our perceived desire to go young or cut salary (is inaccurate),” Kroenke said. “The salary thing really hits hard with me because we’ve been in the luxury tax four of the last five seasons. We have a top five payroll in the league this season. Our market doesn’t even come close to supporting that. The notion that this organization somehow is only concerned with cutting costs is absurd.”
With Melo expressing his desire to play elsewhere, the media experts predicted that Denver’s young front office duo would buckle and ultimately get fleeced by the mighty minds inside Madison Square Garden.
The New Jersey Nets added some intrigue with an aggressive push for Melo, but owner Mikhail Prokorov eventually held a memorable press conference to break off talks with Denver. At that point, the Nuggets were accused of “moving the goalposts” and “waffling” in their demands for Anthony’s services.
It was reported that the Nets later came back to the table only because the Nuggets initiated discussions. That was simply more misinformation leaked from somewhere in the vicinity of Newark and Bergen County.
Through it all, Kroenke and Ujiri never veered to the low road, and their silence was perceived as another sign of weakness and ineptitude.
“People around the basketball world know that I have pretty thick skin,” Kroenke said in an exclusive interview with Nuggets.com and The Denver Post. “I don’t know if certain people thought they were going rattle me into doing something, but it never really bothered me. I was kind of able to laugh it off.
“I think that some guys took below-the-belt shots sometimes, but that’s what happens. There’s a lot of people with a lot of agendas in this situation. It was rough seeing some of the stuff that was out there, but it didn’t affect us at all.”
That much was evident when the Nuggets officially delivered Anthony to his preferred destination Tuesday.
Denver sent Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams to the Knicks and a second-round draft pick to Minnesota as part of a three-team, 14-player deal. In exchange, the Nuggets received three of New York’s top four scorers, two 7-foot centers, three draft picks and $3 million in cash.
“I hated that the process took this long, but we knew going into it that in order for us maximize our value, we had to get the right timing,” Kroenke said. “I didn’t know when that was going to be, but you had to be ready to strike in September or you had to be ready to strike two days before the trade deadline.”
Nuggets coach George Karl praised Kroenke and Ujiri for their work after their persistence and patience netted forwards Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, point guard Raymond Felton and centers Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. Denver also got New York’s first-round pick in 2014 and the 2012 and 2013 second-round picks that the Knicks acquired from Golden State last summer.
“How many guys in Major League Baseball hit a home run the first time up? I think Josh and Masai hit a home run,” Karl said. “I think they did a great job. The kitchen got hot and they did a great job of keeping their composure and direction.
“I think they get philosophically what they want and we get philosophically what we want as a coaching staff. So, it's a win-win. And I think it's a win-win for the Knicks, too. In a strange way, I think we all worked the dynamics of a very difficult situation into a win-win.”
The only regret for Karl, Kroenke and Ujiri was having to include Denver native Billups in the trade.
"I can’t deny that when the trade went down, I was kind of more sad than happy," Karl said . "I think most of that sadness was because of Chauncey – and A.C. a little bit, too."
Kroenke and Ujiri issued heartfelt apologies to Billups and his family during their post-trade press conference.
"They mean the world to me, personally, and I know that Chauncey means everything to Denver," Kroenke said. "And when I say Denver, I mean just Denver basketball on every level. He is Denver basketball. He was a high-school star here, he was a college star here, he was a professional star here. It was an incredibly tough decision to include him in this trade."
Shortly after the press conference, the Nuggets started the post-Billups/Anthony era on an encouraging note, beating Memphis Grizzlies 120-107.
It was only one game, but it re-inforced an important point.
Losing Anthony doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press. Follow him on twitter @Lopez_Nuggets. Aaron's full bio...