1. Melo's Big Five
By Marc Stein
This week's visit to Denver by the New York Knicks, accompanied by the the famously smothering New York media, came with precisely 100 days to go before the trading deadline.
So you had to know we were going to make a contribution to the countdown.
Here, then, are a few fresh nuggets from the Carmelo Anthony trade watch, which we're indeed contractually obliged to refer to as the NBA's Melo Drama inside the first three paragraphs of any such update.
1. The myth
You've heard it a zillion times already this season: No team out there is going to be willing to trade for Melo unless he also commits to a contract extension as part of the transaction.
Consider this your invitation to forget what you've heard.
The theory implies that Anthony will ultimately be able to force his way to the Knicks before the Feb. 24 trading deadline -- if that's indeed where he wants to be, as is widely presumed -- because the other 28 teams wouldn't dare consent to merely renting Melo for the rest of the 2010-11 campaign this close to his free-agent summer, thereby leaving Denver with no choice but to work with New York.
Yet that's just not so.
"Ridiculous," said one Western Conference general manager.
A handful of team executives consulted this week by ESPN.com believe there are more than a few teams in circulation that would be willing to trade for Melo without getting his name on an extension, even though the risk of losing Anthony without compensation in July is precisely why countless league observers believe the Nuggets will eventually have to give in and give him up.
How is that possible? As another GM explains, there are always teams willing to bet that a star like Anthony will like their situation if they can just get him to town.
I know of two such risk-taking teams in Texas alone -- Dallas and Houston -- that would take on Anthony sans extension if their assets proved sufficiently attractive to construct a three-team (or more) deal palatable to Denver. Orlando is also presumed to be another such risk-taker, given the obvious lure of pairing Anthony with Dwight Howard. And Charlotte, with Melo's buddy Michael Jordan in charge, has been suggested as another willing Melo dice-roller by various front-office sources.
The Nuggets, if and when they reach that point, would obviously prefer to trade with a team Melo wants to join long term because they'd get more in return. Assets of the highest quality will be harder to score in a deal that isn't an extend-and-trade, as the GMs call it.
The fact, however, remains that the extension is not everything as I once believed, too.
2. The back pocket
Another reason why Denver won't be obligated to deal only with the Knicks if it ultimately concludes that a trade is unavoidable?
Numerous executives still believe that the main pieces that were Denver-bound in the original four-team trade construction that surfaced and then collapsed in late September -- Nets rookie Derrick Favors and at least two future first-round picks -- remain available to the Nuggets and will be available from now until the trade deadline.
Not sure I agree unreservedly, since parting with Favors strikes me as surrendering the sort of young asset that the Nets can't give up without an extension in place. But that is the consensus on the GM grapevine.
3. The preference
My man Ric Bucher said it in a chat last Friday and I've heard the same: Anthony is more than content to play the entire season in Denver as opposed to being traded in the next 90-something days. And the Nuggets know it.
Melo's reasoning makes plenty of sense, too. Sticking it out with the Nuggets for the rest of the season would allow him to pick his next destination without restrictions in free agency -- once we get past the pesky obstacle of a potential lockout next summer -- and also prevents the team he chooses from being decimated by what it would have to surrender in a Melo deal.
Says one West exec: "The hard part won't be finding teams that are willing to gamble on Melo. The hard part is having what Denver wants and being able to complete a trade without killing your team. You can't kill your roster and just take him back. That's just guaranteeing that he'll leave."
4. The latest target
Perhaps target isn't the best word choice, because the Nuggets have made it clear they're not presently pursuing deals for Anthony.
Not since longtime Nuggets adviser Bret Bearup was ousted earlier this month, completing a front-office purge that earlier claimed Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman, and, in Bearup's case, ushered away the organization's loudest pro-trade voice.
Sources close to the situation maintain that Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and new personnel chief Masai Ujiri won't even consider the prospect of moving Melo before Dec. 15, when players who signed new contracts in the summer become eligible to be added to trades for the first time. And word is even mid-December is a lot sooner than the Nuggets are prepared to move, with team officials clinging to the hope -- remote as it sounds -- that they'll start looking like more of a hard-to-bolt contender around that time once big men Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen have returned from their respective knee injuries.
Yet there are a few names known to intrigue the Nuggets in those moments when they force themselves to contemplate contemplate life minus Melo, as detailed in this cyberspace a few weeks back when their interest in Blazers untouchable Nicolas Batum was detailed.
Another name on the Nuggets' list of fantasy targets in a three-team (or more) trade scenario, I'm told, is Indiana's Danny Granger. But sources say that Granger, just like Batum, bears an "unavailable" stamp.
The Pacers, as you'd imagine, have made it clear they have zero interest in serving as the third team in a deal that costs them Granger and lands Anthony somewhere else. And Indy isn't one of those teams willing to trade for Anthony without a signed extension, which only adds to the notion that Granger is unattainable.
Just like Batum.
5. The optimist
It can't be a huge surprise after what he's been through in his battle against neck and throat cancer, but it is another fact: Nuggets coach George Karl dispenses positivity about his team, in spite of its plight, more readily than ever before.
Cynics would say that Karl's own desire for an extension factors into that stance, but Karl simply won't surrender the belief that Anthony can still be swayed to commit to the three-year, $65 million extension that has been on the table since June. Team officials were cautiously convinced around the time of the draft that Melo was on the verge of signing it ... until LeBron James and Chris Bosh landed on South Beach soon thereafter to flank Dwyane Wade and alter not only the league's landscape but also the way Team USA's biggest names look at team-building.
The undersized Nuggets are scuffling along at 6-6, having dropped four successive road games since a quality Nov. 6 win at Dallas. But Anthony has been a true, committed pro and Karl has helped him stay engaged -- Melo's averaging 24.1 points and a career-best 9.3 boards -- amid questions and scrutiny and speculation that won't go away.
"I'm enjoying it, man," Melo told me two weeks after the road win over the Mavs. "When we're winning, I'm enjoying it."
"He's been great," Karl insists.
The stunning 54-point third quarter Denver surrendered at Indiana on Nov. 9 appeared to be the first warning sign to support the thinking of know-it-alls like me who came into the season convinced this team would not be able to withstand the Melo Drama and eventually unravel ... except that the Nuggets rallied at home two nights later to deal the Lakers their first loss.
"I've been energized by last year a little bit," Karl said, "and the passion to come back on the court. But I've never understood why [the Nuggets were dismissed by so many experts] when we knew -- and I think most basketball people knew -- that Ty [Lawson] and Arron [Afflalo] were going to be better than they were last year. We get Al Harrington as a shooting 4, which with the way we play ... it helps us. It magnifies the good things that we do.
"The injuries, yeah, we're probably not going to be as good without Kenyon and Chris, but you can survive in the season. ... I think there's an excitement in our team that I don't think people have given us credit for. Even though we have some things that people could look at and say, 'What the hell is going on?' ... it hasn't gotten in on the practice court or in the games."