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Post-Ups: A month in, Nuggets, Nets and Knicks all better off

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Nearly a month after the trade deadline, the time is about right to start evaluating the aftermath for several teams involved in the biggest deals. The natural place to start is the Carmelo Triangle, consisting of the Nuggets, Knicks and Nets.

Denver was going to trade Carmelo Anthony to either the Knicks or the Nets. In the end, the Nuggets chose a package of players and picks from New York that observers believed at the time gave the Nuggets a better chance to remain competitive right away. But nobody -- not even the Nuggets -- predicted they'd be playing this well post-trade. Denver is 9-2 since sending Melo and Chauncey Billups to New York, scoring more than 100 points in eight of those games and playing better defense with all those ex-Knicks than the Knicks ever did with them. The Nuggets are solidly positioned in the fifth playoff spot and once again will be making noise in the early spring.

With Deron Williams getting comfortable, the Nets are recent winners of five straight games. (Getty Images)  
With Deron Williams getting comfortable, the Nets are recent winners of five straight games. (Getty Images)  
Once Denver turned down the Nets' offer of Derrick Favors and multiple first-round picks, Utah jumped in and stunned the league by trading Deron Williams to New Jersey for the shell of the Nets' failed bid for Melo. Already way out of the playoff hunt, the Nets clearly made this move for the future -- hoping to use the other assets they stockpiled for a run at Anthony to persuade Williams to stay beyond his impending flirtation with free agency in 2012. Well, D-Will has made them better now, too, as the Nets recently won five in a row -- including an impressive win over the Celtics.

But by far the most intriguing participant in the Melodrama has been the Knicks, who are 7-6 since the trade, playing worse defense than they did before, and sparking all sorts of impatient, hysterical debate over whether they would've been better off passing on the Melo deal in the first place. Predictably, the heat has been turned up on coach Mike D'Antoni, who some comically believe should be held accountable if he fails to get this revamped, still incomplete roster to the playoffs and make some noise there.

Excuse D'Antoni, who was never crazy about giving up half the team for Anthony in the first place, for going off a little bit Thursday night when he suggested Knicks fans should "take some Prozac." Strangely, D'Antoni faced similar criticism leading up to 2010's free agency, when he and team president Donnie Walsh willingly went into a two-year teardown mode to clean up the mess Isiah Thomas left behind and make a real effort to restore the Knicks to their rightful place among the NBA's elite teams. The addition of Anthony raised the talent level, but nobody in the Knicks organization is under the simplistic impression this is a finished product that D'Antoni should magically be able to mold into a dangerous playoff team in a matter of weeks. Not with Jared Jeffries, a specialized wing defender at best, starting at center or with Billups missing six of the 13 post-trade games with a thigh injury.

Despite the big-splash effect of the Melo trade, the lethal offensive weapons he brings to bear, and the exponential increase in ticket demand and prices (not to mention buzz) at Madison Square Garden, there's only one clear-minded, non-agenda-driven way to look at what the Knicks are: a team that is one significant step closer to title contention, but with several important pieces still missing.

In speaking with one of the shrewdest general managers in the sport this week, I asked if it was too early to begin wondering whether the Knicks made a mistake by acquiring Anthony. Way too early, said the GM, who also doesn't believe the Knicks will regret the Anthony trade in the long run.

If Anthony had gotten to unrestricted free agency this summer, the Knicks obviously could have gotten him at whatever the new max became under the new collective bargaining agreement -- and would've been able to retain Danilo Gallinari and perhaps Wilson Chandler (a restricted free agent) in the process. But it became clear to the teams chasing Anthony, primarily the Knicks and Nets, that he was not inclined to take that risk. Whatever his destination, Anthony wanted the three-year, $65 million extension along with it.

If the Knicks had gambled on Anthony staying in Denver for the rest of the season and tried to get him in a sign-and-trade this summer, such a deal still would have cost them Gallinari anyway. As for Raymond Felton, he was never a long-term solution at point guard for the Knicks; if he had been, the Knicks would've signed him to a bigger, longer-term deal than the modest two years they gave him for $15 million. New York likely would've had to either renounce Chandler or simply not extend him a qualifying offer to clear the space for Anthony. Then, once Anthony was plugged into the Knicks' cap space, they would've been done. Their options for improving the team would've been the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions (if they still existed) and veteran's minimum deals.

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If they'd waited for a postseason sign-and-trade, the Knicks would've been stuck with essentially the same roster they have now, but with far less flexibility to add to it -- and that's without the rules changing drastically in a new collective bargaining agreement. Before the Knicks made the Anthony trade, this was their list of needs: 1) a second superstar to complement Amar'e Stoudemire; 2) a defensive-minded big (preferably a center); 3) a reliable wing defender; and 4) a point guard. The second superstar was always the most difficult asset to acquire, and the Knicks got that plus a championship-tested point guard in the Anthony trade. Since they got those assets in a way that preserved some measure of future payroll flexibility, they can more easily fill in the blanks by adding the other pieces -- which aren't nearly as hard to come by as a bona fide star.

Depending on what happens in the labor talks, the Knicks may also be able to land a third star over the next two years (i.e. Chris Paul) -- an option that would've been squandered by waiting and hoping for an Anthony sign-and-trade. If you're a Knicks fan, which option sounds better to you?

So yes, the Knicks are three games over .500, which is one game better than they were before the trade. Currently, they're in a tough fight to hold off Philadelphia for the sixth seed in the East -- but it would take a major letdown for Indiana, Charlotte and/or Milwaukee to knock New York out of the playoffs entirely. So no, D'Antoni shouldn't be fired if the Knicks get swept in the first round by a superior team that's been together for an entire season or longer. And if you think D'Antoni's wishes don't figure into the Knicks' future plans, then think about why Corey Brewer was released, only to get a three-year deal from the Mavs -- an oddity in the post-deadline buyout landscape. Simply put, Brewer doesn't fit D'Antoni's system and D'Antoni wasn't going to play him. That decision doesn't sound like it was made with knowledge that the coach wasn't going to be there next season.

Now that we've hopefully shed some light on the post-trade Knicks, on to the rest of this week's Post-Ups.

 There's little evidence to refute the notion that Donald Sterling is a disgrace as an NBA owner. Aside from presiding over a perennially inept franchise kept on a shoestring budget despite the resources of a major market, the Donald once again has been cast in a despicable light by revelations that Clippers players paid for then-assistant coach Kim Hughes' prostate cancer surgery in 2004 because the team-sponsored insurance policy wouldn't. None of that, nor Sterling's well-chronicled settlement of a housing discrimination lawsuit or former general manager Elgin Baylor's racial discrimination lawsuit against him, has compelled NBA commissioner David Stern to take action. (Subsequently, Sterling won a housing lawsuit over refusing to accept a Section 8 voucher as rent payment from an elderly widow.) But if Sterling's reign of incompetence and downright meanness continues, there is perhaps one outcome that finally could build enough momentum to overturn, or at least rein in, his dictatorship. Sources say rookie sensation Blake Griffin is closely monitoring Sterling's struggles and is concerned, to say the least, about the owner's unfortunate string of public embarrassments. Under current NBA rules, players on rookie contracts have little power to influence where they play. And from the standpoint of talent and assets, the Clippers are on excellent footing going forward. But Griffin will not be tied to the Clippers forever, and there are indications he will consider not only the Clippers' ability to compete for a championship, but also the kind of owner he wants to play for when he becomes eligible (under current rules, anyway) for an extension on July 1, 2012. Would alienating the most promising player in franchise history be grounds for Sterling to finally be held accountable? The Clippers, still 15 months away from Griffin's extension eligibility, are said to be losing no sleep over the matter for now. But at some point soon, they should.

 Rival executives are watching with great interest as the Cavaliers take an unorthodox approach to rebuilding after the departure of LeBron James. The Cavs have embarked on what one executive called "a rich man's rebuild," taking on Baron Davis' contract in exchange for a prime first-round pick from the Clippers. Look for the Cavs to explore more ways to acquire high picks by taking on money around the draft. Though rival executives believe Cleveland will re-examine its deadline pursuit of Richard Hamilton after the season, a person familiar with the organization's thinking said the team isn't comfortable at the moment with Hamilton's two years and $25 million remaining. Either way, the risk for the Cavs, who would have six first-round picks in the next three drafts if they took on Hamilton or another high-priced veteran for another pick, is that their payroll will be much higher than the typical rebuilding team's. Thus, GM Chris Grant and assistant GM David Griffin will have to hit on those picks. For the record, I like their chances. Either way, it's an interesting example of a team playing to its advantages even in a disadvantaged small market where their resources to acquire picks far outweigh their ability to attract free agents.

 While the Kings are embroiled in the larger issue of an impending move to Anaheim, owners Joe and Gavin Maloof went to great lengths once again Friday to stand behind embattled general manager Geoff Petrie. The Maloofs issued a statement late Friday in response to an item on ESPN.com suggesting their patience may have finally run out with Petrie, who could be swept out of power with the move. The report by Marc Stein echoed a CBSSports.com report from December in which sources made the same assertion about the Maloofs' waning patience with Petrie and even coach Paul Westphal, whose option for 2011-12 was picked up in April 2010. At the time, Joe Maloof told CBSSports.com emphatically that Petrie and Westphal would remain in place through the end of the season regardless of how many games the Kings lost. But next season? The Kings almost certainly will be in a new city, which would be only one of many factors making the time right for an organizational housecleaning. Despite the recurring smoke, the Maloofs said Friday in a statement released by the team: "There is absolutely no truth that we are considering anyone else for our general manager position. We consider Geoff Petrie to be the best in the business and look forward to continuing our resurgence with him at the helm."

 Tournament? What tournament? With March Madness under way, there's a place for those who prefer the NBA game to go and satisfy their one-and-done, tourney-style fix. Check out the Eye on Basketball blog's mock NBA tournament. Our selection committee has seeded a 16-team field and will be simulating an NCAA-style tournament.

MVP Watch: Here's an updated look at my top five in the MVP race.

1. Derrick Rose, Bulls: As explained here, Rose has ascended to the top of my MVP list, and the Bulls' 11-2 record since the All-Star break -- including two impressive wins over Miami -- has done nothing to knock him out of the top spot.

2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers: The champs seem to have righted themselves, going 10-1 since the break and beating every playoff team they've faced except Miami. Despite injury, Bryant has been the driving force during this stretch -- and I'm not even counting his well-publicized shooting exhibition on the American Airlines Arena court after the loss to the Heat.

3. Kevin Durant, Thunder: Durant keeps downplaying his own and the Thunder's success, but the arrival of a legit center in Kendrick Perkins means Oklahoma City is ready to compete with the heavy hitters. If Durant didn't think he was MVP material before, he will be now if the Thunder finish as strong as I think they will.

4. Dwight Howard, Magic: Orlando is only7-5 since the break and continues to be a suspect defensive team after the trades with Washington and Phoenix. But it's not Howard's fault. He's posted a double-double in every game he's played since Jan. 21 -- including seven 30-point games and two 40-point games. I don’t buy this notion that Howard should be excused from MVP consideration because of games lost due to technical foul-induced suspensions.

5. LeBron James, Heat: LBJ was my MVP for most of the season, but the Heat falling into yet another funk a week ago only underscored why he and Dwyane Wade have fallen off my radar.

Quote of the week: The quote of the week is actually a nonquote, as in the silence offered by former Fab Fiver Juwan Howard on the Jalen Rose-Grant Hill controversy. Howard declined interview requests all week from Miami writers eager to get his thoughts on the documentary that aired last weekend on the Michigan freshmen. While Rose was left to squirm under intense criticism for remarks made about Duke recruiting only black players who were "Uncle Toms," Howard refused to come to his former teammate's defense. It's an every-man-for-himself approach that has come to define the Fab Five's legacy.

Tweet of the week: "Knew I wasn't the only one who wants that guy to choke on a really big frog." -- @paintnpdx, replying to my critiques of the Heat's over-the-top public address announcer Michael Baiamonte. (For the record, I wish Mr. Baiamonte no such fate. Just tone it down a little, OK?)

Email of the week: An intelligent reader, Chris, emailed to let me know he agreed with my take on the Fab Five controversy, and also to say he witnessed all of this first-hand, like I did, as a student at Indiana University during the two-year run of the former Michigan stars. Clearly, he got my point: "Michigan's influence is players that look for an excuse, similar to [Chris] Webber, or someone else to blame, like Jalen Rose. To me, the influence that you are talking about are things you see in LeBron today -- whining about the media being too mean or looking to find better teammates instead of developing his own game. If that is the influence you are talking about, then I completely agree that the Fab Five's legacy lives on."


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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