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Carmelo has leverage, but it's working against Knicks

Carmelo Anthony knew where I was going when I asked the question. It was quite simple and something just about everyone in the league -- even Charles Barkley gets it -- wondered when talking about this ongoing saga.

Why not just tell Denver you will only sign the extension with the one team you want to go to?

"Yeah, I can, but then they have to do what's best for their organization, too," he said. "So at the end of the day, they can say, 'Forget it, we have to take care of our organization . . . We have to do what we have to do'."

I took that to mean he isn't confident that would work because the Nuggets might just keep him rather than trade him or trade him to a team without an extension.

I also took it to mean he really had no interest in waiting this out to free agency, which is what LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire did.

And you know what else LeBron and Bosh did? They took a little less than the max to make sure they could fit their Big Three plan together plus add a few pieces (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem) to have a decent supporting cast around them. Carmelo isn't showing a lot of consideration for a supporting cast by eschewing free agency and going for the $65 million payday now.

"Time is ticking, man," he said of his anxiety. "And time is money."

And with all that said, Denver is unpredictable. While sources have told us the Nuggets, like Carmelo, want to leave All-Star weekend with a trade in place so they can address other areas before Thursday's deadline, there is still reason to be concerned that Josh Kroenke won't find the Knicks latest offer -- Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and a first round pick, plus over $6 million in cap and luxury tax savings, plus $3 million cash considerations -- suitable either. Denver has upped the ante throughout this entire process and what's stopping them from seeing if James Dolan and Donnie Walsh will go even further beyond the self-imposed limits they've already overstepped.

This is not at a point where Dolan is the one making the call. This, multiple sources say, is now up to Denver to accept. Walsh worked with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri to get to parameters where a month ago the Nuggets weren't even talking to the Knicks. Dolan only stepped into the process when it reached the ownership level with Josh Kroenke (and, from a distance, his father, Stan, who now owns the St. Louis Rams and by NFL rules is not allowed to be directly involved with another pro team).

Make no mistake, the Knicks want Anthony. They're proving it with the effort they've put forth over the last week of negotiations with some of the coveted names they've agreed to include in the deal. If this falls through at this point, Carmelo can't walk away thinking the Knicks didn't try hard enough.

In fact, perhaps he should wonder if he tried hard enough. But just like the rest of us who are trying to cover this ordeal, Carmelo also has a lot of information that needs to be digested. The greatest concern involves something no one can predict: the next collective bargaining agreement.

Anthony admitted the uncertainty of the CBA and the potential for a lockout and a more restrictive system that could cost him millions as a free agent "is in the back of my mind." But what he might need to learn -- it would be nice if his agent, Leon Rose, explained it to him -- is something we've discussed previously at the Fix and was brought up today among the owners in the CBA meetings: a new system (read: hard cap) may also require all current contracts to be rolled back a certain percentage. It's what the NHL did in 2005 in their CBA, which cost an entire season.

Either way, Carmelo may wind up losing money just like everyone else. What remains to be seen is if he'd lose LESS money by signing a contract now rather than entering free agency under a system that limits how much he can command annually.

Easy for me to say because it's not my money, but if Carmelo did go into free agency and signed with the Knicks, his lower starting point (say, $16M) would give the Knicks a little more room in the budget, especially in 2012, when the team is certain to be in the market for Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Let's face it, if Denver accepts the most recent offer the Knicks made, which, as we reported in Saturday's Newsday, would include a swap of Felton for 34-year-old Chauncey Billups, the Knicks would definitely need a point guard by '12.

Let's also not forget that Billups accounts for $14.2M in 2011-12, twice the hit of Felton's $7.5M salary. The Knicks could save money, however, by waiving Billups after this season ends. If he is waived within five days following the last game of the season (playoffs count), then only $3.7M of his salary is guaranteed for 2011-12. That opens up a significant amount of space, but it also leaves a huge hole at the point guard position. Perhaps the Knicks could try to swing a trade for someone such as Ramon Sessions, who, by then will be in the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers at $4.2M. Whomever they get would be the fifth starting point guard the team will have in six seasons.

But let's even dismiss the money aspect. Let's look at this from a team perspective. If Carmelo used his leverage and told Denver he would only sign an extension with the Knicks, that would give the Knicks an advantage in negotiations. There would be no phantom second bidder, no leaks involving talks with the Nets and impending deals to cause panic within the Knicks organization. The Nuggets would have to decide between taking a return of, say, just Chandler and Corey Brewer, a first round pick and some serious cash savings for Carmelo, or holding onto him for a playoff run and then watching him walk out the door the way LeBron, Bosh and Amar'e did. Then Denver would be left with a sign-and-trade option with maybe a first rounder in return as compensation.

In this scenario, the Knicks can keep more of their roster intact, with Felton still running the point and Danilo Gallinari as instant offense off the bench.

More importantly, the Knicks also have Gallinari as a chip to trade in 2012 when it'll be time for the Hornets (Paul), Jazz (Williams) and Magic (Dwight Howard) to endure the same experience with their impending free agent stars that the Nuggets are enduring right now with Carmelo. So you can talk about salary cap space in 2012, but let's be honest, those teams may have to trade those players if they can't get them to commit to an extension. The Knicks may have cap space in '12, but they may need assets instead to be a player before the 2012 trade deadline. If you take too much off this roster now, you won't have much to offer then.

[By the way, this deal also puts a lot of pressure on the Knicks first round pick in 2011, which the Rockets have the right to swap but they would only do it if Houston (26-31) finishes with a better record than the Knicks (28-26). Right now, it looks like the Knicks will keep their pick, but it obviously won't be a high one. But without a 2012 first rounder, the Knicks have to get something good out of their '11 draft just to restock their assets.]

Bottom line is, Carmelo isn't really thinking about the Knicks here or what would be best to build a championship roster. He wants what he wants, which is to be on the Knicks with the extension. Then it'll be up to the Knicks to build that team around him and Amar'e with a restrictive system and limited assets.

But I don't want to sound like a hypocrite here, especially after we endorsed the effort to get Carmelo since last summer. The indisputable fact is you are getting a superstar. You're getting an upgrade in your starting lineup and a player that now helps you offensively neutralize players like Paul Pierce and LeBron James at the small forward spot. Amar'e neutralizes Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh.

I asked Doc Rivers if he thought the Knicks get significantly better by adding Carmelo and he shot an incredulous look and said, "Yeah, Carmelo's pretty good."

He then explained what most executives have said about the deal: this is a stars league and you're now about to have two of them.

"Listen, we went out and got talent and I just think the better your players, the better your team," Rivers then said. "If they're all willing to play together."

That'll be on Mike D'Antoni, who won't be thrilled about the fact that he now has two needers and no feeders. Felton hasn't exactly dominated the pick-and-roll, but he does distribute the ball extremely well. Billups is more of a shooter, not a playmaker. The system should take care of things as long as Anthony and Stoudemire can co-exist with unselfish play, but you still need a floor general. That's what will make getting prepared for 2012 so important and why Donnie Walsh's job is far, far from done.

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