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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Melodrama's final act hinges on one simple question

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With the Nets' months-long pursuit of Carmelo Anthony gaining momentum Sunday, the three-time All-Star has never been closer to finally having to answer the essential question that has shrouded the talks from the beginning.

New Jersey, Melo: Yes or no?

If and when the various parties satisfy everyone's needs in what sources caution is a complicated, combustible scenario involving the Nuggets, Nets and Pistons, Anthony finally will be asked to agree to a three-year, $65 million extension with New Jersey.

Carmelo Anthony will have plenty of information to weigh before making a decision. (US Presswire)  
Carmelo Anthony will have plenty of information to weigh before making a decision. (US Presswire)  
The Nets, partially at the behest of Anthony's representatives and also out of their own persistence, have worked tirelessly to bring the talks to this crossroads. And sources involved in the process told CBSSports.com on Sunday night that a Melo extension with the Nets is "a non-factor" in the talks, because the teams involved "already know that it won't hold up the deal."

My reaction to this was the same that one agent had upon hearing it: "Something is screwy in Denmark."

Let me get this straight: Anthony is going to give up all the leverage he has with the Nuggets and agree to go to New Jersey to play with Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton -- without a time machine to make it 2004 -- this easily?

Why?

If Anthony wants to sign an extension as part of a trade only to the Knicks -- as a person directly involved in his decision-making process told CBSSports.com last month -- why would he agree to this?

"If he is shying away for that New York challenge -- the challenge that he wants that LeBron didn't want -- something doesn't feel right to me about it," said the agent, who is not involved in the Anthony discussions.

When it comes to blockbuster trades in the NBA, the stars have all the leverage. In Anthony's case, he could put the brakes on this simply by telling the Nuggets what the aforementioned source told me: It's New York or nothing. If he did, the Nuggets would have a choice: Either negotiate with the Knicks and get the best possible deal they could from them, or find out what scraps the Nets, Rockets, Bulls, Clippers, Mavericks or any number of other teams would be willing to offer to rent Melo for the rest of the season.

After an eight-point performance in the Nuggets' 96-87 loss to the Hornets on Sunday night, Anthony told reporters he didn't believe it was his last game with Denver and didn't see a trade happening soon. But if the momentum created over the weekend does launch Anthony to Newark with a $65 million extension in hand, there could be only three possible explanations:

1) Anthony and his reps are scared to death of what the new CBA will mean for max players.

2) Anthony hasn't been sold on going to Newark to play with Billups and Hamilton. He's been sold on going to Brooklyn in 2012 to play with Chris Paul, who of course is represented by CAA.

3) Anthony and his agent, Leon Rose, aren't reading the tea leaves as closely as I am. They're simply looking at it as a business decision, and doing what professional athletes with a small window for top-tier earning power always do: Getting the most guaranteed money possible when they can get it.

Last month, after his lone appearance this season as a Nugget at Madison Square Garden -- by far his No. 1 preference as a future home court -- Anthony said unequivocally that the extension would be "the first thing that gets done" in any trade scenario. That only reinforced the common belief that Anthony would not tempt fate by playing out the season, opting out on July 1, and leaving potentially tens of millions on the table.

But exactly how much money would Anthony be leaving on the table by trying to force his way to New York? The simple answer is that nobody knows, and that may be all the answer that's needed. With $83.5 million behind curtain No. 1 -- $18.5 million next season and $65 million over the next three -- and a big fat question mark behind curtain No. 2, what would you choose?

But let's look a little closer.

If Anthony were to stay true to his preference and tell Denver officials that he won't sign an extension to land anywhere but New York, he'd be telling them that he'd be willing to opt out of his $18.5 million contract for next season and sign a new max deal with the Knicks at whatever the new max salary -- and contract length -- might be after the new CBA is ratified. Under current rules, he'd get a five-year deal starting at either 30 percent of the cap or a five percent raise on his $17.1 million salary this season, with 8 percent raises. So he'd be looking at an extra year from the Knicks and a total deal in excess of $100 million. Even I know that's more than $83.5 million.

However, everyone agrees that the current rules will not be in effect next season once the new CBA is ratified -- possibly after a lengthy lockout. The question is, how bad will it be? If Anthony agrees to this extension with New Jersey, he must believe that it's going to be epically bad for max players.

In the past two labor agreements, the max contract length was reduced one year for unrestricted free agents signing with other teams -- from seven to six, and then from six to five. Some observers of the labor talks believe it's logical to assume they'll be reduced again; others believe, like me, that superstar compensation isn't the problem, and at some point you diminish a sport's cachet when you dramatically slash the pay of the absolute top-tier players.

If max deals in the new CBA remain intact at five, even if Melo took a haircut on an annual basis, he'd make up for it by getting an extra year from the Knicks. If they're reduced to four, signing the extension now is clearly the better financial decision. The key is, nobody knows. But if Anthony goes for the sure payday now as opposed to holding out for the stage that he really wants, the decision is only good from one angle: His pocket.

"If he just goes for the money, he looks like the anti-LeBron in a way," said the agent not involved in the Melo talks. "It looks like it's all about money and greed. And if there are salary rollbacks, [Anthony and CAA] look stupid."

That's another part of the equation that is unknown: What if owners achieve rollbacks of existing contracts in the new CBA, as the NHL did after losing a season to a lockout? Then all of this stuff about getting the money now becomes a moot point, because Anthony would have to take a haircut on his $65 million extension, anyway. That's what makes you believe that if Anthony goes through with this, he's doing it on the assumption that if CAA can get him to New Jersey, it can get Paul there, too.

So as the Nets and Nuggets continued plugging away at what would be one of the biggest trades in NBA history early Monday, with agendas and egos and hurt feelings running roughshod on all sides, the question was the same as it's always been.

New Jersey, Melo: Yes or no?

The reasons behind the answer will be even more fascinating than the question.


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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