The Carmelo Anthony saga moved to the next phase Tuesday, with the Nets trying to provide more cap relief to the Nuggets by finding a new home for Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, CBSSports.com has learned.
It was a futile effort to revive this excruciatingly slow-moving blockbuster, which died Tuesday in its current form involving the Bobcats and Jazz. Sources say discussions will continue, however, on other fronts amid mixed priorities within the Denver front office and some lingering doubts about whether Melo will ultimately give his thumbs-up on a trade to New Jersey.
“I think he’s thumbs-sideways on it,” said one source familiar with Anthony’s stance. “He’s not 100 percent sold on it.”
Martin, whose $16.5 million expiring contract would be a valuable asset at the trade deadline, and Smith, who has a $6.8 million expiring deal and controversy wherever he goes, could be the final pieces that eventually compel the Nuggets to sign off on a divorce with Anthony. But that divorce isn't happening with the structure of the exhaustively reported four-way deal involving Utah and Charlotte. That framework, a person involved in the discussions said, is "dead." The Melo talks as a whole, however, will trudge forward.
If more cap savings is what the Nuggets want, they'd only have to take back $17.5 million under NBA trade rules for Martin and Smith, a savings of $5.8 million – twice that when you factor in luxury tax. Numerous scenarios have been explored to allow the Nuggets to send out both Martin and Smith, sources say. But despite a growing belief that the Nuggets finally are ready to acknowledge that a truce with Anthony is unattainable, conflicting priorities among Denver decision-makers have put a chill in the discussions for now.
“Denver keeps moving the goal posts,” said one person connected to the talks. “They say, ‘We want this,’ and New Jersey says, ‘We got it.’ And then Denver says, ‘Wait a minute, we want this and this.’”
Around and around they went, several weeks after the basic framework of the deal was hatched by old friends Kevin O’Connor, Larry Brown and Billy King. Sources say those three did the legwork on the four-team possibility involving New Jersey, Denver, Charlotte and Utah and brought it to the Nuggets as a potentially attractive way for them to part ways with their disgruntled superstar. O’Connor, the Jazz GM, is a former assistant coach under Brown at UCLA. Brown, the Bobcats’ coach, has known King, the Nets’ news president, since his college days at Duke – and the two worked together in Philadelphia.
Ironically, one person familiar with the negotiations said the deal probably would’ve been done by now if Charlotte hadn’t waived center Erick Dampier and his non-guaranteed $13 million contract – which would’ve been a home-run for Denver in an exchange for Martin. Including Dampier in the deal would’ve provided what a source described as “ridiculous savings” for the Nuggets – about $33 million when factoring in the tax, making the deal “a no-brainer.”
UPDATE: In the absence of that asset, the Nuggets – led by newly hired GM Masai Ujiri, 30-year-old executive Josh Kroenke and adviser Bret Bearup – insisted on trying to squeeze more out of the deal while also exploring offers from other teams. In addition to Martin and Smith, Denver officials eventually were trying to dump Renaldo Balkman in the trade. Ultimately, one executive involved in the talks said, Denver's never-ending efforts to make the deal better for them was what wound up killing it.
The other part of their protracted strategy – sitting down face-to-face with Anthony before media day Monday – may have backfired on them, too.
Ujiri, trying to take the high road in the Anthony matter, insisted on meeting with him in person before signing off on the deal – as any new GM would. Unfortunately for Ujiri, Anthony’s discontent with the direction of the organization pre-dates the new GM’s arrival – and also runs deeper than Ujiri was aware. One reason Ujiri declined to give any details of his face-to-face encounter with Anthony Monday, according to two people familiar with the exchange, was simply that there were no details. Anthony, not wanting to rehash old wounds with his new boss, politely declined to engage Ujiri in any substantive conversation about his future.
“He said, ‘I’m cool,’ and, ‘You’re going to have to talk to my reps about that,’” said one of the people familiar with the meeting. In addition, multiple reports indicated that Anthony did not participate in the promotional activities players typically perform on media day, and the Denver Post noted that his image was removed from a prominent ad on the Nuggets’ website – replaced by Ty Lawson.
As a result, one source maintained Tuesday that the Nuggets were “going to move him, like now, ASAP.” But after all the delays and frustration on all sides, that may be an optimistic take.
"The Nuggets are going to look at every single trade and they’re going to have to work with [Anthony]," another person familiar with the talks said. "And that’s really going to slow the whole process down.”
Further complicating matters, sources say Karl is not going to be as influential in trying to keep Anthony in Denver as first believed. With the departure of Karl’s biggest supporter, former GM Mark Warkentien, and his top assistant, Tim Grgurich, Karl is unsure where he stands in the organization as he returns from his heroic cancer fight with one year left on his contract. The result has been tension – or at least uneasiness – among Karl, his staff and the newly formed front office. Plus, while Karl knows that he has a 50-win playoff team with Anthony and a rebuilding team without him, sources say the 59-year-old coach is growing tired of the MeloDrama and isn’t relishing the strain that it could place on him and the team.