Denver Nuggets brass watched this summer with lumps in their throats as LeBron James and Chris Bosh left for greener pastures, wondering whether the same fate awaits them next year. Carmelo Anthony, a member of the same 2003 draft class as James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade, opted in 2006 to sign a longer extension than his colleagues -- locking himself in with the Nuggets until 2011. But 2011 is quickly approaching, with Anthony and the Nuggets growing increasingly restless.
The threat of players moving on when their time comes puts pressure on teams to act sooner to avoid the risk of being left nearly empty-handed like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. An extension for Anthony is on the table in Denver, but remains unsigned. If he intends to stay in Denver, the reasoning goes, why not lock in the financial security now? The clock is ticking, and every passing day leaves Nuggets management more and more nervous.
Rumor and innuendo continue to float around Anthony: He wants out; he wants to go to New York; he wants to form his own super team like Wade, James and Bosh did. But maybe the answer is more mundane? The Nuggets have a management void after the team parted ways with GM Mark Warkentien and assistant GM Rex Chapman earlier this month. Perhaps Anthony is simply waiting until new leadership is in place, so he can have a serious conversation about the team's future before committing to Denver for an additional three years?
It also would seem that even if the Nuggets are willing to entertain a trade, the chances are remote that they would do so before a new GM is hired.
Anthony signed a four-year extension in 2006 that took effect in 2007 and runs through the 2010-11 season (he has the option of extending for one additional season, through 2011-12). In contrast, James, Bosh and Wade elected to sign shorter extensions so as to become free agents this summer rather than next. The difference is potentially staggering -- this summer marks the last free-agent market under the purview of the current collective bargaining agreement. When Anthony becomes a free agent, it will be under the terms of the next agreement.
This could represent very bad timing on Anthony's part. The next agreement isn't expected to do the players any favors; the owners are seeking significant changes such as some form of hard cap and a dramatic decrease in the percentage of revenues paid to the players. Should Anthony become a free agent in 2011, his chances of being paid commensurate to the extension he turned down might be nil.
So unlike Cleveland with James, Toronto with Bosh and the Phoenix Suns with Amare Stoudemire, the Nuggets have a trump card. They can leave their extension offer on the table, refuse to entertain trade offers and wait Anthony out. It would then be up to Anthony to choose between a bigger payday and playing for the team of his choosing.
But such a strategy would be very risky, so the Nuggets could decide to mitigate their risk and deal Anthony this season -- which also avoids the chemistry issues that go with having an unhappy superstar on their roster.
Anthony reportedly has a list of teams to which he would prefer to be dealt, a list to which the Nuggets are under no obligation to cater. But for any team not on his list, the risk of trading for Anthony would be significant. His new team would be in the same situation as the Nuggets -- with an unhappy superstar who is poised to leave at the end of the season.
Any team that seriously entertains the notion of trading for Anthony would therefore want a guarantee that he would stay long term. Ideally, this means an extension will be in place when the deal happens. The collective bargaining agreement provides a mechanism for doing this -- the extend-and-trade. Like its cousin the sign-and-trade, an extend-and-trade allows the player to sign with his former team, quickly followed by a trade to a specific team. If the trade to the specified team does not follow within 48 hours, the signing is void.
Such a deal would be feasible only with a team on Anthony's approved list, as Anthony would have to willingly sign on the dotted line -- which he would do only if it resulted in a trade to a preferred destination. But once the move was completed, Anthony would be on a team of his choosing, his new team would have Anthony locked in to an extension and the Nuggets would get something in return for their departing superstar.
So who are the suitors for Anthony's services? Reports vary, but the New York Knicks are said to be Anthony's team of choice, with the New Jersey Nets, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets also on the radar. But for any of these teams, an equitable deal would be difficult to construct. New York's ESPN Radio 1050 reported that the Knicks had offered a package including Danilo Gallinari and Eddy Curry -- a proposal in which the Nuggets were said to have zero interest.
But the final decision likely will be up to the Nuggets' next general manager. Former Suns executive David Griffin is considered a strong candidate to assume the vacant post. If he does, he will inherit a similar situation to the one he faced in Phoenix with Stoudemire. Stoudemire jilted the Suns this summer, signing a five-year, $100 million deal with the Knicks. But that was during the free-agent frenzy of 2010, not in the frigid climate that might befall the 2011 market. If presented with an opportunity for a do-over with the Nuggets, would Griffin choose to cut his losses and trade his superstar while he can? Or would he use his leverage to wait out his unhappy superstar?
It might come down to who blinks first.