New Jersey Nets Deron Williams, center, holds up his jersey...

New Jersey Nets Deron Williams, center, holds up his jersey as he poses with Nets coach Avery Johnson, left, and general manager Billy King, right, at a news conference. (Feb. 24, 2011) Credit: AP

CLEVELAND - Is Deron Williams the one who got away? Or perhaps, with his stunning trade to the Nets, the one who moved close enough to enable a recruiting process on a regular basis.

"Nah, it's too early for me," Carmelo Anthony said with a laugh, regarding Williams' ability to become a free agent in 2012.

Amar'e Stoudemire said Williams' presence on the Nets means "he's going to be a threat for us now because he's going to play well any time we go against them."

Both stars have to be careful when it comes to talking about Williams - not only because of tampering concerns but more out of respect for another All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, who also can become a free agent in 2012.

It was Paul who made a toast at Anthony's July wedding, wondering if he and Anthony might join Stoudemire in New York to "form our own Big Three."

Plus, Williams could wind up off the block by 2012 if he signs a contract extension with the Nets, which he can't do until after this season under a new collective-bargaining agreement.

The Knicks expect to have salary-cap space in 2012. League sources, who cannot go on the record when discussing a player already under contract, say Williams - the bigger, more durable player - is at the top of the Knicks' wish list, though Paul is barely a notch below.

If the Knicks fail to get either, they might have to choose between two older point guards, such as re-signing Chauncey Billups, who will be 36, or Steve Nash, who will be 39.

Williams had 14 points and 12 assists in 41:20 in the Nets' 106-96 loss to the Spurs Friday night in San Antonio.

The Knicks, like the rest of the NBA, were blindsided by the Williams trade on Wednesday. "I wasn't expecting that, for him to go to Jersey . . . I was like, 'What? Are you serious?' " Stoudemire said. "I didn't know he was on the trading block."

Anthony added, "I was just with him this weekend and I don't think he knew what was going on. It was last-minute. But that's the business of basketball."

Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni say they had no idea the Jazz was ready to move Williams, who would have been a perfect fit in the pick-and-roll with Stoudemire. But even if Williams had been made available, the Knicks might have been too deep in the game with Anthony to be able to make the switch.

"At that point, we already charted our course," D'Antoni said. "I don't know if we would have done anything different.''

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