Now or never for Carmelo Anthony trade

The Carmelo Anthony rumors are back on the front burner this week. However, the sides appear to be locked in the same stalemate, with the New York Knicks being Anthony's preferred destination, while his current team, the Denver Nuggets, would prefer doing business with the New Jersey Nets.

Neither the Nets nor the Knicks have any plans to wait patiently while the Nuggets make up their minds. ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan reports that Knicks GM Donnie Walsh is attempting to trade for at least one first-round draft pick, a prerequisite to any Melo deal. Meanwhile, the Nets have the parameters in place for a blockbuster deal that also includes the Detroit Pistons, and are trying to set up a face-to-face meeting with Anthony to convince him of the virtues of being a Net.

The other 27 teams are most likely out of the picture for now. Few teams will be willing to give up significant assets for the superstar forward without a commitment that he will stick around past June 30. Without a signed extension, any team trading for the superstar forward risks losing him as a free agent this summer.

While Anthony still has not definitively ruled out remaining with Denver long-term, Nuggets executive VP Masai Ujiri nevertheless faces a ticking clock. If he does not work out a suitable deal for the forward by the Feb. 24 trade deadline, Ujiri risks losing his franchise cornerstone to free agency -- without compensation. As fans in Cleveland and Toronto will attest, this isn't an outcome he wants to contemplate.

Some people have speculated that if Ujiri fails to pull off a blockbuster trade by Feb. 24 he will have another chance after the season ends, such as on draft day. But this is highly unlikely, due to quirks of the rules and the structure of Anthony's contract.

Ordinarily a team is free to make trades once its season ends, and can continue to make deals through June 30. But teams are precluded from moving players whose contracts are ending in postseason deals. This also applies to players whose contracts might end by virtue of an option. If there's any chance the player could become a free agent, then he's officially off the postseason trade market.

Ordinarily, the player or team can simply pick up the option in order to make the player tradable -- with the option invoked that the contract would no longer be ending. However, Anthony possesses an early-termination option. With an ETO, the contract doesn't end unless the ETO is invoked.

Why is this important? Because there's no way to not invoke an ETO, other than by running out the clock. The player can either exercise his ETO and become a free agent, or wait for the deadline to pass on June 30. There's no mechanism to officially notify the team and league that he's not going to invoke his ETO.

So after the season players with ETOs are always considered potential free agents, and so can't be traded. The only way to trade such a player after the season is if the team and player mutually amend the player's contract to remove the ETO. The player would then be locked-in through the following season, and at that point a trade is possible.

But there are several disadvantages to the Nuggets in a postseason trade, decreasing the likelihood of such a scenario:

• Ujiri can't take back expiring contracts like he can before the trade deadline. A Melo trade would signal the retooling of the Nuggets franchise, and one of Ujiri's goals in such a trade would be to gain financial flexibility. This is usually achieved by acquiring expiring contracts, which drop off the books at season's end. If Ujiri wants to acquire an expiring contract, then he has to do so before the trade deadline, not after the season.

• Because he can't take back expiring contracts, many trades that would be available at the trade deadline would be illegal after the season. For instance, a deadline trade with the Knicks would likely include the expiring contract of Eddy Curry. Since Curry couldn't be included in a trade after the season, the teams would have to find another combination of players to fulfill the league's salary matching requirements. Curry would need to be replaced in the deal with a combination of players that includes Raymond Felton and either Ronny Turiaf (if he picks up his player option) or Timofey Mozgov.

• An after-the-season trade would not change the Nuggets' luxury tax position. Tax numbers are locked-in at the end of the regular season, and do not change with any subsequent trades. The Nuggets are currently slated to pay about $13.2 million in luxury tax, and would like to leverage a Melo trade to reduce or eliminate their tax burden. This would not be possible if the trade occurred after the season.

• Anthony's ETO can't be eliminated unless both he and the Nuggets agree. This means Ujiri would have to secure Anthony's consent for any postseason trade. The control Anthony currently wields over his own destiny would greatly increase, as he would be empowered with what amounts to a no-trade clause.

Bottom line -- if Anthony isn't traded by the Feb. 24 trade deadline, then it's unlikely that he will be traded before June 30. If Ujiri wants to maintain any control over the situation, then he has to move his superstar before the trade deadline. He can't rely on getting a second chance after the season ends. So an Anthony trade needs to take place by Feb. 24 -- or not at all.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ. Follow him on Twitter.