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Revisiting Melo, Howard trades: How deals helped reshape NBA

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For all the Knicks gave up to get him, can Melo validate the deal by leading NY to a title? (USATSI)
For all the Knicks gave up to get him, can Melo validate the deal by leading NY to a title? (USATSI)

The NBA's homecoming week is upon us. For every superstar hostage crisis there's the eventual task of sorting out who made out the best and worst in the trade.

What better time to get nostalgic about the Melodrama and Dwightmare than this week, when Dwight Howard returns for his first game in Orlando since getting traded to the Lakers and Carmelo Anthony returns to Denver for the first time since the Nuggets granted his wish with a 2011 trade to the Knicks?

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The Lakers visit the Magic on Tuesday, trudging into the Kingdom That Dwight Left with a record hovering around .500 and their own uncertainty about whether they'll be able to keep Howard as a free agent this summer. It's safe to say this little transaction didn't work out quite as the Lakers had hoped.

The Knicks didn't play in Denver during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, so Wednesday night will mark the first time Anthony has played there since the trade -- assuming he is back from a knee injury by then. The Knicks and Nuggets are both playoff teams, so things seem to have worked out pretty well for both sides.

There also have been some odd ripple effects from the Melo trade, such as Raymond Felton -- traded from the Knicks to Denver in that deal -- winding up back in New York after an ill-fated stint in Portland. Anthony Randolph, who went from New York to Minnesota in the Eddy Curry salary-dump part of the three-team deal that made it work financially under NBA rules, is now with the Nuggets. Corey Brewer, traded from Minnesota to New York in the Melo deal, also wound up in Denver.

It's like there's some weird vortex surrounding the Knicks and Nuggets, dispersing spare parts from the past all around. With the recent addition of free agent forward Kenyon Martin, the Knicks have three members of the 2008-09 Denver team that lost to the Lakers in the conference finals: Anthony, Martin and J.R. Smith.

Winners/losers analyses in the hours after trades are completed are part of the deal, but that's never the time to evaluate trades. In truth, it's still too early to evaluate both of these blockbusters, since future draft picks and cap room are still to be utilized. But with some room to breathe since two of the biggest NBA trades of the past decade, it's as good a time as any to get out the scorecard.

Howard to the Lakers

The deal: The Lakers got Howard, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon. The Sixers got Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson. The Magic got Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and three first-round picks. The Nuggets received Andre Iguodala.

The winners: Howard and the Nuggets

No matter how physically compromised he's been this season or how frustrated he's become with Mike D'Antoni's postup-free offense, Howard probably will wind up the biggest winner. He got out of Orlando, wound up in a glorious city and market, tried on the uniform of one of the storied franchises in American sports and will get his five-year, $100 million-plus contract this summer if he chooses to stay there. Not bad work if you can get it.

For their part, the Nuggets made good use of one of the picks they got from the Knicks in the Anthony trade -– the lesser of their pick and New York's in 2014 go to Orlando as part of this deal -– and managed to dump Harrington's $14 million in guaranteed money and get Iguodala, the second-best player in the deal.

The losers: The Sixers

Bynum hasn't played a minute for the Sixers due to chronic knee issues and may never suit up for them. He's now considering season-ending arthroscopic surgery and is an unrestricted free agent this summer. What team would pony up a max offer for an injury-prone 7-footer who hasn't played in a year? And how could that team possibly be the Sixers?

Richardson, who was supposed to serve as a floor-spacing sniper to space the floor for Bynum, also is out for the year following knee surgery that could jeopardize the 32-year-old's 2013-14 season as well. Oh, and did we mention? The Sixers owe Richardson $12.8 million over the next two years.

The jury's still out: The Magic and Lakers

Orlando GM Rob Hennigan went with the long-term approach in this trade, so it's going to take long-term analysis to determine how he did. Here's what we know so far: Afflalo will never be an All-Star, but he's solid and is Orlando's leading scorer during a rebuilding year. Vucevic is the Magic's leading rebounder and appears worthy of being in their future plans. Harkless has started 40 games and will be a rotation player in the league. Everything else will hinge on the draft picks the Magic are getting and how Hennigan uses them. After getting the worst of the Knicks' or Nuggets' pick in 2014, Orlando will get Philly's top-14 protected pick in '15 and the Lakers' first-round pick in 2017.

"I think Orlando's going to be in a great situation," a rival GM said, "as long as you pick smartly and you pick the right guys. That's the challenge of that approach."

As far as the Lakers, a lot hinges on whether they retain Howard and have enough payroll flexibility to put a winning roster around him with the NBA's new ultra-punitive luxury tax system kicking in next season. As we've already covered, if the Lakers sign Howard to a max deal this summer, they'll be on the hook for $100 million for nine players next season -– resulting in a whopping $76 million luxury tax bill. Good luck with that.

Anthony to the Knicks

The deal: The Knicks got Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman, Shelden Williams and Corey Brewer. The Nuggets got Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, the Knicks' 2014 first-round pick (which later was conditionally dealt for Iguodala), two second-round picks and the right to swap first-round picks with the Knicks in 2016. The Timberwolves got Anthony Randolph, Eddy Curry, cash and the Nuggets' 2015 second-round pick. (The least favorable of Minnesota's pick and Denver's will go to Portland as part of a subsequent trade.)

The winners: Anthony and the Nuggets

Denver GM Masai Ujiri set the bar for the haul of assets a team faced with losing its superstar in free agency under the old CBA. Under the new rules, it's unlikely any such truckload of talent will be changing hands in a deal like this again. Anthony was only interested in going to New York in a trade, and Ujiri was fortunate to have two teams located there bidding for him. Melo got his first choice, the Knicks, and he also got his max extension as part of the extend-and-trade -– a dinosaur of the old CBA that no longer exists to the extent a star in Anthony's shoes would want it. The Nuggets opted for young, established talent over a laundry list of draft picks, and so far the strategy has paid off. Denver was a playoff team last season and will be again this season –- and for the foreseeable future.

Ujiri subsequently traded Felton to Portland for Andre Miller and the 26th pick in the 2013 draft, who ended up being Jordan Hamilton. Felton was awful in Portland, and he's back with the Knicks now, doing serviceable work as the starting point guard on the team with the East's third-best record. Unexpectedly, Koufos has moved ahead of Mozgov on George Karl's depth chart, but it's safe to say one of them will be a keeper. Denver also has since extended Chandler and Gallinari, but both are on reasonable contracts that won't be deal-killers in future trade talks, if that's the avenue the Nuggets decide to pursue with them.

A key part of the deal that has been overlooked is the right to swap first-round picks with the Knicks in 2016. If the Knicks come up empty at the end of a three-year window that concludes with the 2014-15 season, they may opt to move back under the tax to avoid repeater penalties in 2015-16, when Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler all come off the books. So it could be the lottery pick of a rebuilding team that goes to Denver that year, one more asset changing hands in a massive deal for one of the NBA's most talented players.

The losers: None yet

Not unless you count Balkman, who is playing in the Philippines and choking teammates during games.

The jury's still out: The Knicks

The Knicks used the new amnesty provision on Billups to clear the room to acquire Chandler from the Mavericks. They've found enough capable point guards since then -– from Jeremy Lin to Felton -– and Chandler has contributed as much as anyone on the roster to creating a winning culture. (Everyone else they acquired in the Melo trade is gone.) Anthony has held up his end of the bargain so far, re-establishing himself among the very best players in the league this season and committing to areas of the game beyond just scoring.

But for all the Knicks gave up to go all-in with Anthony, the result can't simply be playoff berths. It has to be a realistic shot at a championship. Before Anthony's run in New York is over, he has to at least get the Knicks to the Finals to validate the deal. Now, with Stoudemire out at least six more weeks for another knee procedure, Anthony must establish himself as not only an elite talent, but also a leader capable of pushing a flawed team beyond where it could have gone with the players that were traded for him. This is no easy task; that's why only a handful of players have that ability and stature in the NBA.

For all Anthony has done to quiet the critics this season, winning at the highest level is a measure of respect he still must earn.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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