It might not have seemed that way when George Karl came back from cancer to coach the team, only to find that his star player wanted out. It might not have looked great when newly appointed team executives Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke repeatedly walked down the aisle in trade talks only to break away before reaching the altar. But by not leading the Nuggets to believe he would remain, they could get busy planning for life without him, and in the end the Nuggets came out with as much as could be expected for a team that traded a superstar. They wound up with four functional players who have workable/movable contracts, three draft picks and $3 million.
The Nuggets did well for themselves ... which is more than the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors could say when LeBron James and Chris Bosh bolted for South Beach. The Cavs and Raptors made last-minute sign-and-trade deals for picks and trade exceptions, but those are just possibilities and cap space. The Nuggets have more tangible assets. They have three players averaging at least 16 points per game in Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari and a 7-footer in Timofey Mozgov. They got a first-round pick and two second-round picks. I know the Nuggets were attracted to all of the first-round picks the New Jersey Nets offered, but I'd rather have the known in proven players than the unknown in picks of undetermined order. Plus that $3 million, in addition to the $13.2 million in luxury tax payments they're no longer on the hook for, plus whatever cut they'll receive from the taxpaying teams.
This is the reward the Nuggets get for holding out until the end, for refusing to yield to pressure from around the league and a weary NBA media and fandom to just put this to a halt. This whole process dragged on longer and had more false endings than "The Return of the King." But the Nuggets benefited from the early start, getting the initial lowball offers out of the way before Thanksgiving, learning what the minimum was and working from there.
They knew all along that they were the ones holding the coveted asset. The Nets had to do everything they could because they might not get another chance to land a superstar, which would force them to sell fans on their new building in Brooklyn without any players who can sell tickets. Even after Mikhail Prokhorov proclaimed the Nets were out of the bidding, the Nuggets knew better. They were right.
The Knicks could have played it cool and forced Anthony to become a free agent if he wanted to join them. But every day that passed without Anthony outright eliminating the Nets as a possible team where he'd sign an extension put pressure on the Knicks. Once again, Carmelo helped out the Nuggets, even if his only interest in sitting down with Prokhorov might have been to meet the billionaire and get a free meal. When New Jersey jumped back in with a bucket of first-round picks, the Knicks had to step up their game. The Nuggets kept asking for more and more, finally pushing for Mozgov (I'm not sure if it was the four points or three rebounds per game they coveted most) and getting him.
No matter what the outcome, the Nuggets weren't going to win the trade. I call it the Headline Rule: In the NBA, the team that gets the player whose name is in the headline normally wins the trade. But in this case at least the Nuggets can say they won the inevitable loss.
Carmelo wins, too. He gets the team he wanted and the money he desires, as the Knicks now have the rights to offer the three-year, $65 million extension that Melo turned down from the Nuggets to start this whole process last summer.
He'll lose a lot of the fans who rooted for him during the first seven and a half seasons of his career in Denver. He'll lose the respect of fans around the league who don't care about the Nuggets or the Knicks, but were sick of this story that at times dominated the first two-thirds of a regular season that was bulging with great storylines around the NBA. But they'll love him in Madison Square Garden, and that's the only crowd he needs to please now.
One thing the Nuggets fans can't say is that he bailed out on them on the court this season. He put up 25 points per game, a shade above his career average. He frequently showed exactly why he was so coveted by teams from coast to coast, with the scoring flurries that come so easily for him. I hung around the Nuggets in the first week of the season and they were actually pleased with Carmelo's work habits. They think the ongoing saga probably cost the team a few games -- but how do you precisely divvy up the damage between the MeloDrama and all of the team's injuries?
The Knicks gave up a lot. For now. But they got other solid players in Chauncey Billups and Corey Brewer, in addition to the others they need to fill roster spots and make the salaries match. This wasn't about this season. This was about taking advantage of a rare opportunity when a superstar came on the market, and they grabbed him while they could. It's about making the team that much more attractive should the potential trio of stars -- Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul -- hit the market in 2012.
Will this be the league's last power play by a player? Will the new collective bargaining agreement contain a franchise player tag that allows teams to latch onto a chosen superstar? Will the hard salary cap be so restrictive that it limits player movement?
I don't think there will ever be a system that completely eliminates the option of a player going somewhere else for less money. Remember, that was the play Carmelo used. He said he was willing to walk away from the $18.5 million left on the final year of his contract. He said he would take the chance on becoming a free agent and taking something less than the $65 million extension under the new CBA. The Nuggets believed him, at least enough. They couldn't have liked what they heard.
But in retrospect, they have to appreciate the timing.