Carmelo Anthony wasn't kidding recently when he said in various media interviews that his decision about where to agree to a contract extension isn't purely about money. He craves a bigger market on the East Coast, where he was born. He also wants a superstar to team up with, so in LeBron James' words, he'll have a chance to compete with Miami and other star-laden teams for a championship.
But the Carmelo con game rolled on, until Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov stepped in Wednesday and stopped it. The teams that spent months negotiating a trade that would've sent Anthony to New Jersey, and the people advising Anthony, tried to make it about the money. They have preyed on his past preference to take money and security over flexibility -- as he did when he signed a longer contract than James and Dwyane Wade when the trio was up for extensions in 2006.
|Carmelo Anthony's trade talks took another twist Wednesday when the Nets withdrew their interest. (Getty Images)|
But Anthony never would commit to a trade that could've given him the most money while also robbing him of his first choice. A lot of people underestimated him -- and Prokhorov, too. The Russian billionaire, having been schooled in NBA Superstar 101 in the few short hours after arriving in the States, wasn't about to travel across this country to be stiffed by a 26-year-old kid who plays basketball.
So here we are.
Anthony may well be able to dig in his heels even more and force a trade to the Knicks, his first choice. Denver and New York have not been engaged at all in recent weeks while all emphasis was on the New Jersey scenario, which was clearly better for the Nuggets. But there's more at work here than another NBA star flexing his considerable negotiating muscle. The dollar signs are aligned with Anthony more than most people think. All Anthony loses here is the clearest path to the three-year, $65 million extension he wants to sign before the current labor agreement expires. But there have always been multiple paths. Also, there has always been the option of waiting to deal with this after the season. Anthony can still be traded with an extension then, or he can simply call everyone's bluff -- including David Stern's -- and play this all the way out to post-lockout free agency.
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If you think logically about that, it doesn't shape up as anything close to the catastrophic decision most people believe it would be.
If you assume the owners get every last piece of their draconian initial proposal, then Anthony would indeed be forfeiting tens of millions of dollars by forgoing the extension and holding out until after the CBA expires on July 1. The owners' proposal calls for a maximum contract length of four years in a sign-and-trade, and for a player of Anthony's service time, he'd max out at $47 million in a four-year deal that would start at 25 percent of a $45 million hard cap with 3 percent raises. That's the owners' proposal.
That's also John Salmons money for a three-time All-Star and a player fully capable of being a league scoring champion and leading a team to a championship -- provided he's in the right system with the right talent around him. His first-year salary under such a punitive new CBA would be $11.25 million -- barely more than Stern. That is the new pay structure Stern and the owners want. Sources say they won't get it without a protracted work stoppage.
But what Anthony's advisers have neglected to tell him is that rolling back existing contracts to fit the new hard-cap system also is part of the owners' proposal. Stars like Anthony and future free agents Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard will never tolerate a system where James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson got theirs while prospective free agents like themselves will have to suffer.
According to a person involved in the formation of Anthony's strategy, he is unaware that the owners' proposal would make the three-year, $65 million extension Anthony would get as part of an extend-and-trade a moot point. Sources familiar with the bargaining process say they believe owners are using rollbacks as a negotiating threat and that star contracts would be grandfathered into a new labor agreement. But forgetting about rollbacks for a moment, here is another way Anthony could get a comparable financial deal by waiting -- one that he may not have considered.
If CBA negotiations result in a more moderate reduction in salaries, and preserve a cost-neutral provision that allows players to get 20 percent of their guaranteed money up front as a signing bonus, Anthony wouldn't lose as much by waiting as the spin doctors behind this New Jersey deal were telling him. My new model for a post-lockout max contract, regarded by sources involved in the bargaining process as a reasonable compromise yet still significantly in the owners' favor, would be:
• Maximum contract length reduced by one year, from six to five for free agents staying with their teams or dealt in sign-and-trades, and from five to four for free agents who leave on their own.
• A salary cap of $50 million -- more than the owners have proposed but less than the estimated $60 million cap the current system would have yielded for next season based on a third consecutive year of record revenues. A max deal for a player like Anthony with seven-plus years of service would begin at 30 percent of the cap -- or $15 million. That's less than the $18.5 million Anthony is on the books for next season if he doesn't exercise his early termination option, but more than the worst-case scenario the owners have proposed.
• Annual raises totaling 8 percent of the first-year salary for a free agent staying with his team or dealt in a sign-and-trade -- down from 10.5 percent in the current deal. A free agent leaving without a sign-and-trade would get 5 percent raises.
Under these more realistic guidelines -- which still would represent a major defeat for the union -- Anthony would be looking at a five-year, $87 million deal in a sign-and-trade arrangement under a new CBA. If he'd caved and accepted the three-year extension from New Jersey on top of the $18.5 million he has coming next season, Anthony would've been owed $83.5 million over the next four years -- a significant difference, but not as drastic as what the owners' proposal would dictate.
But if the new CBA kept the signing-bonus provision -- a vehicle that doesn't change the owners' costs but simply adjusts when the money is paid -- Anthony would be able to get $17.4 million of his new five-year contract up front. The bonus would be prorated over the five years of the deal, and the annual salaries adjusted downward accordingly -- by $3.48 million a year if all five years are guaranteed.
If the new CBA also kept a provision that allows players to receive 80 percent of their annual salary up front, that would add $9.2 million to the amount Anthony would be paid when he signed the new contract with the team of his choice. The total haul on Day 1 of such a deal would be $26.6 million -- enough to soften the blow from the money that would be lost because of reduced salaries and contract lengths in the new CBA. In all, Anthony would make $32.4 million in the first year of the deal, effectively making him the highest-paid player in the NBA.
Is that enough for Anthony to hold out for the team he wants? Is it reasonable to project that such a deal would be available to him after what figures to be a bloody CBA negotiation? Time will tell.
Everyone who was trying to get Anthony traded to New Jersey was hoping he'd never figure this out. It was the best deal for Denver, because the Nets had the most attractive assets to offer. It was the best deal for New Jersey, because they would've gotten a Brooklyn-born star to open their new building in that borough in 2012. It was the best deal for Detroit, which would've dumped Richard Hamilton and the $25 million left on his contract over the next two years. It was the best deal for Anthony's agents at Creative Artists Agency, who by delivering Anthony -- and, no doubt, promising Chris Paul in 2012 -- would effectively have been running the Nets organization from that day forward.
Was it the best deal for Anthony? Those around him were hoping he'd grab the easy money and compromise his true desire to take LeBron's advice and team with Stoudemire in New York. If Anthony had caved, and if money and greed had remained undefeated in the NBA, then he would've become just another young star who lost his way and let people who care only about themselves control him.
If Prokhorov had led the Nets' contingent on a fruitless journey to Colorado, Anthony could've uttered a word that the star players of the NBA rarely hear or say themselves.
But Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who only needed a few hours to determine that something was rotten in Denmark, said it for him.