With 10 days to go before the trade deadline, the Nuggets continue to explore trade scenarios for Carmelo Anthony while also pursuing a strategy that would result in the three-time All-Star remaining in Denver for the rest of the season, league sources told CBSSports.com.
Nuggets officials are said to have been encouraged by Anthony's recent statement that he will "take a hard look" at re-signing with Denver if he isn't traded before the Feb. 24 deadline. That represents D-Day not only for the Nuggets, but also for Anthony, who sources say also is beginning to feel the pressure of the decision that has been weighing on him for months.
"Carmelo is feeling the heat, too," said a person connected to the Anthony talks.
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According to people who have been in contact with Denver officials, the Nuggets have believed for several months that at some point Anthony will have to confront the choice of re-signing in Denver for three years and $65 million as opposed to trying to force his way to New York via a trade or free agency. Anthony said recently that he is not afraid to test the free-agent waters amid the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement. But he also said, "If I sit here and tell you I'm willing to lose $15 to $20 million, then I'd be lying to you."
Under the owners' proposal, Anthony would only be eligible for a four-year, $47 million deal with New York as an unrestricted free agent. Few executives believe the actual agreement will be that punitive, but Anthony will have to make his decision before learning what the consequences are. One of them could be a franchise tag, which could strand Anthony in a place he doesn't want to be. Though no one knows if there will be such an NFL-style tag, which severely restricts a star player's ability to change teams, an executive familiar with how such a rule would be applied said a player in Anthony's position wouldn't be able to duck the tag by opting out of his contract.
"That would defeat the purpose of the tag," the person said.
On the flip side, Anthony also faces the possibility of being punished for taking the safe option and signing the extension. As part of the owners' proposal, they want to roll back existing contracts to fit their new hard-cap system -- meaning Anthony could sign the $65 million deal, only to see it cut down to size by across-the-board rollbacks in a new CBA. If Anthony is going to lose money either way, why not hold out for a chance to team up with Amar'e Stoudemire as a free agent in New York -- on a Knicks team that wouldn't have to give up any assets to get him?
Against this complicated backdrop, sources say the Nuggets and Knicks have continued to discuss trade proposals -- as they were even before Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled his team out of the talks Jan. 19. Those talks between Denver and New York are expected to become "more extensive" during the upcoming All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, when executives will have a chance to meet face to face, according to a person familiar with the dialogue between the teams.
The Nuggets and Nets have not had any direct contact since Prokhorov pulled the plug, sources told CBSSports.com. According to one source, Denver officials "are not counting on" New Jersey re-entering the talks.
As CBSSports.com reported Jan. 26, Nuggets officials have dropped their opposition to including Knicks big man Anthony Randolph in a Melo deal and have come to view the 21-year-old as a player who could flourish if given an opportunity to play. The possible inclusion of Randolph in a trade that would send Anthony to New York is the only reason Randolph hasn't already been traded to Minnesota for a late first-round pick. Outside of a three-way Anthony framework, Minnesota would take on Roger Mason ($1.4 million) and waive him as part of a one-on-one deal with the Knicks. That deal is on hold until New York and Denver decide whether they're doing business or not, according to a source.
While Denver officials remain engaged with other teams and are focused on finding the best deal for Anthony before the deadline, they also are optimistic they can find a solution that would keep Anthony in Denver for the rest of the season -- even if he doesn't commit to the extension by the 24th. Such a plan includes significant effort on the Nuggets' part to explore other trades that could upgrade the roster, sources say.
Though Denver has lost four of its last six, team officials privately are expressing optimism about how well the players and coaching staff have weathered significant injuries and the Anthony firestorm. With two games left before the All-Star break and three before the trade deadline, the Nuggets are tied for the sixth seed in the West -- with struggling teams all around them. Utah, Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston and Golden State all have issues of their own, and none has proved demonstrably better than Denver when the Nuggets are healthy.
Some high-ranking personnel in the organization believe that without injuries to Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and Chauncey Billups -- not to mention the persistent trade rumors and the games Anthony missed due to the tragic death of his sister -- the Nuggets might very well be as high as third in the West. Team officials also are pleased with Anthony, who is averaging 29.5 points per game since the Nets walked away from the negotiating table -- including a 50-point game and a 42-point game. Given the circumstances, and the added value of home playoff dates with a lockout looming, the best course of action might be to keep Anthony and find ways to improve the roster without taking on future money.
Several players on expiring contracts who could help Denver are expected to be available in the coming days. According to league sources, Portland is expected to entertain offers for several of its older players, including Joel Przybilla, who would provide some much-needed depth on Denver's front line. Same for Indiana's Jeff Foster, as Pacers president Larry Bird has publicly stated that he will explore cashing in expiring contracts for assets as opposed to waiting for free agency. The Rockets, one of the few teams willing to take on money, could make Shane Battier available if they can upgrade their talent. Battier would give Denver coach George Karl another dependable and versatile wing defender.
If Anthony still didn't sign the extension, the Nuggets would have until June 30 to complete an extend-and-trade -- though they wouldn't be able to import any expiring contracts in a trade executed after the season. Another option would be to deal Anthony in a sign-and-trade after the new CBA is in place, but that seems unlikely. Nobody knows what the sign-and-trade rules will be in the new agreement, and under the current rules, Cleveland and Toronto settled for sign-and-trades in parting with LeBron James and Chris Bosh but got little in return.
In 10 short days -- or long days, depending on your perspective -- we'll have most of our answers.