The Nuggets continue to field numerous offers for disgruntled star Carmelo Anthony, and rival executives who've been in contact with them recently say Denver officials are more resigned than ever to the fact that Melo must go -- but on their schedule, not his.
"He's made it clear that he wants out, period," one executive connected to the situation told CBSSports.com on Wednesday.
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But the Nuggets' front office, which recently added cap expert and deal-maker Pete D'Alessandro to assist GM Masai Ujiri, adviser Bret Bearup and owner-in-waiting Josh Kroenke, remains in no rush to accommodate Anthony's wish. According to several people with knowledge of the Nuggets' plans, the organization believes the best course of action is to let the season begin, hope the team can get off to a positive start and continue weighing trade offers in an effort to find the best deal.
"If nothing happens in the next week," one person with knowledge of the Nuggets' strategy said, "I don't think it happens until after Dec. 15."
That is the day players signed as free agents over the summer become trade-eligible, giving the Nuggets a new pool of assets to explore. By then, it will be clear whether Denver is on its way to a fourth straight 50-win season or in full-blown Move-Melo Mode.
Though outgoing owner Stan Kroenke has stayed out of the day-to-day conversations, sources say it was his insistence on getting a better deal that ultimately sank the four-team trade discussed last month that would've sent Anthony to New Jersey. The deal would have added at least $6 million to the Nuggets' luxury-tax bill -- a non-starter for an owner who realized his team would be decidedly worse in the short term without Anthony.
The Bobcats and Jazz, half the puzzle in the four-team trade that fell apart, have moved far to the periphery of the Melo talks in recent weeks, sources say. In re-evaluating their priorities for a Melo deal, Denver officials have switched gears to smaller, simpler two-team deals. The Knicks and Nets, Anthony's clear preferences in that order, have emerged as the most persistent one-on-one partners. The Nets, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks, remain the most realistic.
The Knicks, as ESPN.com reported Tuesday, believe they can acquire the first-round pick that Denver is seeking as part of its haul for Anthony. Also, they can provide the needed cap relief in the form of Eddy Curry's $11.3 million expiring contract, and a young player the Nuggets like in Anthony Randolph, who makes only $1.97 million this season. But Knicks executive Donnie Walsh is said to be fighting what one source described as an uphill battle to compete with the assets and cap flexibility New Jersey can offer. Another avenue open to Walsh is converting his best young asset, Danilo Gallinari, into a serviceable veteran Denver would take. From the beginning of the Melodrama, Denver's wish list of veteran replacements for Anthony has been consistent: Joakim Noah, Andrei Kirilenko, Andre Iguodala, Gerald Wallace or Anderson Varejao.
|Carmelo Anthony has 'made it clear that he wants out, period,' one executive says. (Getty Images)|
"I don't see how the Knicks can give them a better deal than New Jersey has to offer," a person connected to the discussions said. "New Jersey has a lot more flexibility and a lot more assets."
So executives who've been in touch with Denver officials recently say the organization appears to have decided to make an attempt to start the season with Anthony. This calculated gamble would allow the new management team to appear determined to keep Anthony happy at all costs -- a strategy that isn't going to succeed, according to those familiar with Anthony's unbending insistence on leaving Denver and hooking up with a second superstar, preferably Amar'e Stoudemire in New York. Also, executives believe there is little difference between the value Denver would get in a trade now compared to what would be available in December.
"Why rush?" one of the executives said. "You can do a bad deal any time."
There are two risks inherent in this strategy. First, if the Nuggets get off to a slow start without Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen, Anthony will become even more emboldened in his desire to be traded -- making it a "long November and December" for the Nuggets, one executive said.
"If they want to milk it for this year, they can do that," one of the people familiar with the talks said. "But I don't see that as a viable strategy long-term."
Second, if Denver decides the best course of action is to assemble as many young players and draft picks as possible in a Melo deal, keeping Anthony around for too long will, by definition, lower the value of the Nuggets' own picks by superficially enhancing their record. That's not what Nuggets fans want to hear, but it's reality. There are only two things that can be sold in the NBA: success and hope. Nobody wants to buy tickets to watch mediocrity. So one of the executives in touch with Nuggets officials said the team may have to forget about salvaging a veteran replacement for Anthony in favor of a more forward-looking rebuilding strategy.
"Be Sam Presti" is how the executive put it.
"If you're going to do this, what's the point of being mediocre?" the executive said. "Move Kenyon, J.R. [Smith], Chauncey [Billups], end up with six or seven first-round picks the next two years out of this and hope you hit a home run with one of them. They have to shift their thinking because they're never going to get commensurate value."
And the risk of losing Anthony to the Knicks as a free agent after the season without having the assets to recover would be too big of a chance to take -- especially with the possibility of a lockout followed by a more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement.
"With a new CBA, I'd rather have picks than players under contract," one of the executives said.
Finding a way to move Martin and Smith in the deal would put the organization on solid footing with a new salary structure on the way. Billups will be attractive to any number of contending teams, even if they're similarly cost-conscious; only $3.7 million of his $14.2 million salary for 2011-12 is guaranteed.
As the latest Melo rumblings swirled Wednesday, Anthony addressed the speculation during the post-practice media session by claiming no knowledge of any escalation in the Knicks' pursuit of him through a trade. It was the first mini-Melo storm for a while, but it was only a prelude of what's to come.
"It really doesn't bother me," Anthony said, according to the Denver Post. "I'm able to still wake up in the morning and smile, come in here, laugh and joke with my teammates, play basketball. That stuff doesn't bother me. It's not life or death."