Much like the Denver Nuggets learned from the mistakes of the Cavaliers and Raptors -- remember, Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri was in the Raptors front office for firsthand experience in losing Chris Bosh for nothing -- Carmelo Anthony also learned how the wrong tact can tarnish an image. To his credit, Anthony has gone out of his way to handle his situation this season far more delicately and even affably.
So when reports surfaced Sunday afternoon after he left the Garden following the Knicks' 129-125 win over his Nuggets that Anthony had told Denver he would only sign an extension in a trade to the Knicks, Melo's camp quickly went into spin mode to protect him.
A person close to Anthony told me Sunday night that while the Knicks were certainly his obvious preferred destination -- and obvious likely destination -- he wasn't the type of person to deliver any ultimatums. No, the source said, the Nets are not a situation that inspires him like the electric atmosphere he experienced at the Garden Sunday afternoon, but he doesn't want to disrespect the Nets organization by publicly declining their interest.
At a time in the NBA where LeBron is being vilified as a self-absorbed personality who paralyzed the Cavaliers for two years with the threat of leaving as a free agent, Anthony is making every effort to handle his situation with delicate care. The Nuggets will always be the first to know.
But obviously there has to be an End Game for both Carmelo and the Nuggets. And while Anthony may have some leverage by deciding where he will sign an extension, the only leverage that the Nuggets have is in controlling when a deal will go down. And that still may not happen until just before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. In fact, I'm told to bet on nothing happening quickly.
Here are factors to explain why:
1. The Nuggets literally can't afford to trade their star player 23 games into their season. There are 19 home games between now and the trade deadline and Denver needs to sell tickets. Why? They're averaging 16,301 per game so far after 11 home games, which is 85.1 percent. That's their lowest average in Carmelo's career in Denver (the've always averaged well over 17,000 by the end of the season. Now the Nuggets generally start off slow at the gate -- the Broncos own that town in the fall -- and make it up in the second half, plus the playoffs. But if you move Carmelo before January, you're basically setting yourself up for a miserable second half attendance-wise as fans will be rightfully turned off. And that kind of lost business costs real dollars. Mark my words, Fixers, whatever deal the Nuggets do wind up doing to move Carmelo, they WILL come out of it with immediate cash savings on this season's payroll (which is why, among other things, Kelenna Azubuike and the potential for 80 percent of his $3.3M salary covered by insurance could come into play). Saving money may be the top priority, perhaps even greater than whatever live bodies they acquire in the deal.
2. You stand a better chance later in the season to perhaps get a contending team to consider rolling the dice to make an all-or-nothing trade for him as a mercenary -- this just screams Mark Cuban, doesn't it? -- without the caveat of an extension. Carmelo doesn't have a no-trade clause, so if a team is willing to give up something of reasonable value, the Nuggets can have options to consider, which, at the very least, keeps the Knicks from low-balling.
3. Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke has to sign off on anything that happens and if you ask anyone affiliated with that franchise during his ownership tenure, Kroenke doesn't make any quick decisions. Another factor to consider is that Kroenke officially takes over the St. Louis Rams in January, so his focus will head in that direction (Kroenke has to relinquish is majority stake in the Nuggets by Dec. 2014 as a requirement to being a majority owner in the NFL). His son, Josh, has stepped into more of a hands-on role with the Nuggets, which means there could be more action after the calendar flips to 2011.
Now for the Knicks, from what I understand there's an internal debate raging within the organization that involves two schools of thought:
1. Do it now. Yes, we're all in love with Landry Fields' game, but think back to the 2005-06 season, when Channing Frye was a rookie and he was deemed untouchable. It's not to say that Fields hasn't proven himself to be a valuable player with a very bright future at a ridiculously affordable price (he has a non-guaranteed $788,872 salary for 2011-12). He's a hell of a find and a player who brings great intangibles. He's also a wonderful kid who you'd much rather have in your locker room than, say, J.R. Smith, whom the Nuggets (with George Karl's insistence) will likely try to force down your throat in any trade for Carmelo. It's impossible to not appreciate Wilson Chandler, too. Hard-working, low-maintenance and extremely coachable. But remove emotion and consider their upside as average to above-average NBA players. Then consider Carmelo Anthony, an All-NBA talent and a tough dude who brings superlative confidence and talent to your team. Add him with MVP-candidate Amar'e Stoudemire and a legit all-star caliber point guard in Raymond Felton and you have the makings of a third Big Three in the East to legitimately contend with the Celtics and the Heat and, perhaps, even the Lakers. You also have three players in the prime of their careers, two of them locked up for the next five seasons. You have the hottest ticket in town through 2015, when the Garden transformation will be completed, and your best shot at ending a championship drought before it reaches its fourth decade. You can't afford to stare down Feb. 24 with the hope that Carmelo uses his leverage and refuses to accept an extension with any other team. If you aren't proactive, another team may jump into the mix.
2. Wait, don't mess up a good thing. Why rush into this? Amar'e has proven he can carry the mail through this stretch of eight straight 30-point games and Felton has been a revelation. A supporting cast has emerged with players such as Fields and Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Making a multi-player trade for Carmelo might disrupt the chemistry just as it finally has developed and it may also have a negative impact on Amar'e, who is thriving in his long-awaited role as The Man, whose success is no longer qualified by the presence of Steve Nash. Carmelo will command shots, so how do you work him into this system that is predicated on the Felton-Stoudemire pick-and-roll? You'd have to convince Carmelo to accept a role as an outlet player and get him occasional touches off curls and pick-and-roll plays on the wing. And what about at the defensive end? Carmelo may be a great scorer, but he certainly doesn't make you a better defensive team and, around here, you can't afford to get worse at that end of the floor. The best case scenario is to wait this out and try, through backchannels, to convince Carmelo to not take an extension with any other team and just finish out the year in Denver or wherever they may send him without an extension in place. Then sign him as a free agent to add to your roster, rather subtract so much from it. And if he winds up elsewhere, so what? The cap space might be better used to improve the center (Marc Gasol will be a restricted free agent) and backup point guard positions (Andre Miller has a $7.8M team option).
The message you get from the Knicks, happily intoxicated by their 16-9 start and eight straight wins and 13 wins in their last 14 games, support the second viewpoint.
"Right now, we don't need anybody," Gallinari said. "We knew from the beginning of the season that we could do something really good with the team that we had. Our confidence was there from the beginning and now that we are winning, it's even better."
Felton said he doesn't waste his time following rumors and, while most players try to pretend they don't when they really do, Felton seems like the kind of guy who means it.
"I'm happy with my teammates," Felton said. "If something happens, I don't control that. You just have to welcome whoever comes in off that trade. But at the same time, I'm happy with the guys we have now. They're doing a great job . . . I love my teammates."
I asked Chandler, who had to have caught the eye of Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri with his 27-point performance, if he was offended by the notion that the Nuggets didn't want to deal with the Knicks because they felt there wasn't any value on the Knicks roster.
"No, not me," Chandler replied with a smile, I don't want to go to Denver, so I'm good."
D'Antoni took this job in May 2008 with the anticipation of one day coaching a star-studded team, but would he take that opportunity now if it meant giving up such coveted players such as Chandler and Fields? I'm not so sure about that right now, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.
"I'm excited about this team," D'Antoni said. "Excited about where we can go. But then Donnie has his job. That's why you have a general manager. They're a little more cold and calculating and he'll do what he thinks best and whatever it is, it is. But, yeah, I'm excited about what we have, where we can go and how much better we can get."
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* - Stoudemire was definitely lucky he didn't draw a second technical foul -- and automatic ejection -- in the second quarter when he got physical with Nene and shoved him to the baseline. There's little chance the Knicks win the game without him on the court and, obviously, he doesn't reach the 30-point mark for a franchise-record eighth straight game. According to the Knicks, Stoudemire is the first NBA player to record eight straight 30-point games in the same season since Kobe Bryant had nine to end the 2005-06 season. (For those curious as to what the NBA record is for most 30-point games? As Newsday editor Greg Gutes reminded me, it's owned by Wilt Chamberlain, who had 65 straight 30-point games in the 1961-62 season. Amar'e just has to hit 30 in every game for the rest of the season to match Wilt).
* - One would have to expect Stoudemire will win NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second straight week. The Knicks were 4-0 (wins over MIN, TOR, WAS and DEN) and Stoudemire averaged 33.5 points and 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game over the four games. He'd match Patrick Ewing for most Player of the Week honors by a Knick in a single season (3 in 1992-93).
* - Raymond Felton had 19 points and 17 assists -- 17 assists and just two turnovers -- for his sixth double-double of this eight-game winning streak. The Knicks are 10-1 when he records a double-double.
* - The Knicks' 16-9 record is their best start since they opened the 1996-97 season at 18-7.
* - Gallinari hit 2 of 6 from three-point range. The Knicks are 14-3 when he hits at least two three pointers.
* - Fields had 18 points and 9 rebounds in 43:45. He averaged 19.5 points and 13 rebounds in two games against the Nuggets this season. I talked to him after the game about his rebounding. It's worth it's own blog, so you'll have to wait on it because it's after 1 a.m. and I'm tired.