NEWARK, N.J. -- The Russian smelled a rat from an ocean away, and Mikhail Prokhorov swooped in Wednesday to stomp on it.
Everyone forgot about him. Everyone forgot about the richest man in Russia, the man behind the curtain for a Nets franchise that is now wandering more aimlessly than it ever has. After negotiating hijinks dragged on pointlessly for months, with the Nets chasing a player who never wanted to be caught, it only took Prokhorov -- the guy with all the money, $9.5 billion in all -- a few hours to figure out what had to be done. He killed this fantasy of Carmelo Anthony coming to Newark and then leading some basketball renaissance in Brooklyn in 2012 -- killed it with the blunt intonations and icy glare of a man with too many commas in his net worth to be played like a fool.
|Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov explains why he put a stop to the Carmelo Anthony trade talks. (AP)|
"There comes a time when the price is simply too expensive," he said.
For Prokhorov, with all those billions and parties in the French Riviera and starlets on his arms, flying across foreign soil to be blown off by a 26-year-old basketball player was where he decided to draw the line. Prokhorov said he never did get an answer from Anthony about whether he would sign a contract extension with the Nets, joking that perhaps "the carrier pigeon got lost." But you don't amass billions of dollars by being naïve, and it didn't take Prokhorov long to figure out what that answer was going to be.
"Everything was very mixed information," Prokhorov said. "I never received any straightforward information. It was too complicated."
In the end, there was nothing but smoke. To his credit, Nets president Billy King worked tirelessly to push this deal to the finish line in the hopes that Anthony would be wowed by Prokhorov and the vision for a monument to Melo being built in Brooklyn. We may never know exactly why, but Anthony didn't buy it. He was never even remotely curious, as sources have indicated repeatedly that the only teams he was even considering signing an extension with were the Knicks and Nuggets.
"Do you get signs and indications?" King said. "You guys all have your sources to say one way or another, but at the end of the day, we hadn't met with him or talked with him directly about that."
Now, the Nets' ill-fated pursuit of a savior -- their winter version of LeBron James -- and the Nuggets' insistence on overplaying their hand have conspired to change the landscape. The price that had been established for Anthony -- multiple first-round picks, Derrick Favors, blah, blah, blah -- went down like the stock market Wednesday. The team that was willing to pay the most -- willing to bankrupt its basketball assets and turn the team over to Anthony and agent William Wesley -- is no longer setting the market.
And if you're wondering if Prokhorov's sledgehammer delivery Wednesday was some sort of negotiating ploy that will allow the Nets to keep chasing Anthony, think again. Prokhorov was given several chances for wiggle room, and he never budged.
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"I think I was absolutely clear on this matter," Prokhorov said.
So was Anthony, without having to hold a news conference. But if you think the Nets are still in the game for some secretive, backdoor pursuit of Anthony as a rental property with no extension, you can forget about that, too.
"That's the opposite of what ownership wants," one person familiar with the Nets' strategy said.
The Nuggets, according to sources, were nonplused by Wednesday's events. In truth, there was never a deal between the Nets, Nuggets and Pistons -- never anything to bring to Anthony and ask his approval of in the first place. Denver executives Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke will continue "comparing deals," one of the sources said. But those deals have not been coming from Anthony's most logical suitors besides New Jersey; the Knicks and Rockets never engaged in serious talks with the Nuggets while the Nets fiasco dragged on. And with the Nets out of the equation, the Nuggets will need to spark interest from another team to leverage their position against the Knicks, who are Anthony's first choice but whose assets have never been appealing to Denver.
According to Yahoo! Sports, the Melo saga shouted, "Tag, you're it!" to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, with Wesley reportedly on his way to Chicago in an attempt to rekindle interest. The Bulls and Nuggets long ago discussed a deal that involved Joakim Noah, which signified the end of that discussion from the Bulls' perspective. Noah has since signed a five-year, $60 million extension -- and also gotten hurt, but that's beside the point of the new contract's poison-pill provision making him virtually untradeable.
Despite the need for Denver and Wesley to fill the negotiating vacuum left in the Nets' wake, the Bulls "don't want any part of that," according to a person who has discussed their strategy.
"There's nothing there," the person said.
So what now? Knicks president Donnie Walsh, who officially recused himself from making further public comments about Anthony this week, can continue to sit back and watch in amazement as Anthony takes another step toward landing in his lap. The rationale that the Knicks could never trade for Anthony was always based on the faulty premise that the Nets had more to offer. Not anymore.
The Nuggets could dodge the Knicks and trade Anthony to a team that's willing to take him on as a rental -- such as Houston, which actually has some expiring contracts and young assets that would be worth Denver's while. Out of spite, the Nuggets could ship Melo to Memphis and let him languish in collective-bargaining purgatory while he finds out how much money he'll lose under the new CBA.
As for Melo? The fear that he could get stuck in a place like that if the new CBA brings with it a franchise tag is just more faulty logic. His counter move would be simple: opt out of his $18.5 million contract for 2011-12 before July 1 and become a free agent. A franchise tag in any form cannot be used on a free agent.
That's where Anthony and Prokhorov have a lot in common when it comes to this saga -- a soap opera that mercifully met its demise in a strange, bilingual news conference in which a billionaire had to concede check-mate to a millionaire. Everyone forgot about the rich Russian, and everyone forgot about Anthony, too. They forgot about the two most important people in the deal: the guy with the most money and the guy with the most leverage.