A Tight Ship

Public airing of megadeal shows why Pistons run buttoned-up business

Joe Dumars still has a long-term plan in place for the young Pistons.
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For three or four days now, the Pistons have twisted in the wind as a proposed trade to which they are a party gets aired very publicly. It makes them all uneasy, even though only one Piston – Rip Hamilton – has been mentioned prominently, and it provides a glimpse into the way different organizations go about their business.

If the Pistons are a little uneasy over all of this, imagine how the New Jersey Nets feel. For the Nets, it’s been three or four months, not days. And at some point along the continuum, virtually every player on the roster save Brook Lopez has been included in one package or another heading to Denver in return for the grand prize, Carmelo Anthony.

The Denver Nuggets are being painted as the black hats in this Melo-Drama, portrayed as wafflers or worse. They’re an easy mark because of the inexperienced hands on the reins: owner Josh Kroenke is the 30-year-old son of former owner Stan Kroenke, who divested to purchase the St. Louis Rams without running afoul of NFL cross-ownership regulations; and the GM, Masai Ujiri, is a first-timer new to the job.

But the Nuggets are only proceeding with appropriate caution. You only get one chance to trade a superstar. Nobody but Kroenke, Ujiri and their New Jersey counterparts, GM Billy King, his top assistant Bobby Marks and, perhaps, absentee owner Mikhail Prokhorov, really know whether they had come to an agreement Sunday night on their end of the deal – the end far more complicated than the relatively straightforward Pistons-Nets side.

According to media reports, the Nets have grown impatient with the Nuggets and the Nuggets annoyed with the Nets for the insinuation that they reneged on a deal.

The real issue here is that the details became so public while it was still being hammered out. There is always a danger that any deal involving more than one team, never mind one that involves more than two players – and this one included as many as 15 in some forms – will fall apart over trifling details. When the deal gets publicly aired before it’s ready to be presented to NBA offices for the official seal of approval, that danger is multiplied.

Nobody can say for sure where the leaks sprung, but they sure weren’t coming from Detroit or Denver – that much is clear in where the reporting has originated. Maybe it was somebody’s agent spilling to the pervasive New York-New Jersey media. Maybe it was somebody who’d grown frustrated with Denver’s apprehension and felt Nuggets management’s hand would be forced by pushing the issue to the public stage for the locker-room chaos it would create.

Indeed, Denver’s play has been deteriorating – they were blown out at Sacramento, then lost big at home Sunday to New Orleans – and it’s tough to imagine the Nuggets allowing the current atmosphere to continue without action.

But maybe that action will be to follow the path Toronto took with Chris Bosh: Let it play out and see what happens, and be forceful in public proclamations that no deals are imminent, that Anthony is staying put.

The wild card – the element that wasn’t in play for Toronto, Cleveland, Phoenix, Utah or all the teams and players that confronted free agency a year ago – is the pending expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

If Anthony remains in Denver as the February trade deadline approaches, a game of chicken will ensue. Does Anthony let it pass without signing a contract extension for three years and $65 million, knowing he isn’t likely to make up the difference under a new CBA and knowing if he signs the extension after the deadline his leverage to get out of Denver dissipates? Does Denver gamble that New Jersey will cave to every demand as the deadline nears? And are the Nuggets prepared to let the deadline pass and risk losing Anthony for virtually nothing?

Ujiri was on Toronto’s staff as the Bosh scenario unfolded. You’d think that would make him wary of letting it play out that way. But you never know. Maybe the Nuggets would rather construct a sign-and-trade for Anthony and receive a trade exception – but will there even be such a thing as a trade exception under the terms of a new CBA? That’s another consideration arguing for Denver to get what it can now.

The Pistons don’t have nearly as many chips in the center of the table as Denver or New Jersey, yet their role as the facilitator could be jeapordized if the moment passes. Remember, Utah and Charlotte thought they were the third (and fourth) party to this trade on the eve of training camp, but nothing came of it and the Jazz and Bobcats lost their spot at the table.

Aside from dispelling the hollow notion that Joe Dumars hadn’t been as aggressive in attempting to deal as he’s vowed he would be, the very public nature of the last week’s negotiations has caused fallout for all three principles to the trade. It’s been tough enough on the Pistons, even though their role in the deal is comparatively minor. If you ever wonder why Dumars operates with a lean executive staff and keeps Pistons business closely held, this is it.