It was a mere 20 minutes after the final horn sounded in Washington on Friday night when four members of the Knicks -- Eddy Curry, Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph and Timofey Mozgov -- marched quickly out of the locker room and headed toward the arena exit.
For the conspiracy theorists who witnessed it, there was no use in trying to suppress the thought that perhaps those four players were leaving quickly for a reason. Perhaps they had just been told they were being traded. Perhaps for Carmelo Anthony.
On this night, that was not the case.
But with the amount of time the Knicks have spent on the phone with the Denver Nuggets, and with the amount of trade speculation that has been taking place regarding the one superstar out there that everyone in the NBA knows is available, it was not quite that far-fetched a thought.
"That's where he wants to be, not Jersey. But Michael Jordan is pushing to get him, too, and save the Bobcats' season," a league source with knowledge of the trade discussions told ESPN.com on Friday night.
Anthony has missed the Nuggets' past two games with what the team is calling knee inflammation, and he will step into a cauldron Sunday at noon when he either does or does not play as Denver makes its one and only trip to Madison Square Garden this season.
Chances are, the "We want Melo" chants will outnumber the "M-V-P" chants that Amare Stoudemire has been drawing the past few days, and then we'll all see where things go from there.
The Nuggets have a three-year contract extension worth nearly $65 million sitting on the table awaiting Anthony' signature, and they have not given up hope that he will sign it rather than risk the uncertainty of becoming a free agent under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement that might include new rules reducing the amount of total dollars available.
But with each passing day, the chances increase that Melo will flex his leverage and leave Denver with two choices: Move him for the best offer they can get, or risk losing him for virtually nothing as an unrestricted free agent -- which was what happened to Cleveland and Toronto in July when free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami.
Anthony was nearly traded to the Nets in a four-team deal prior to the season that also involved Charlotte and Utah. New Jersey was prepared to surrender Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and two No. 1 picks in that deal, and the Nets could still put a similar attractive offer on the table, replacing Harris with Troy Murphy to make the salaries match.
But the Nets would not make that move unless they are assured Anthony is willing to sign the extension with them and be the centerpiece of their eventual move to Brooklyn in 2012.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh has acknowledged he is willing to make a major trade that elevates his team into the NBA's elite, but he has cautioned that he will not gut the roster to do so. That would leave him in the same place he was last summer when he cleared nearly every single long contract off the books in what turned out to be a futile effort to attract two maximum-salary free agents.
The Knicks have won seven consecutive games and 12 of their past 13, and Walsh still has Curry's expiring $11.3 million contract to use in a trade to help make the salaries come within 125 percent of each other to conform with league rules. Walsh has several young players he could add to the mix, most notably Danilo Gallinari, Randolph and rookie Landry Fields. Also, as ESPN.com reported earlier last month, the Knicks have a deal lined up that would net them a first-round draft pick that they would then include in a trade with Denver.
But the Knicks are not the only team trying to acquire Anthony, as noted by the source who said the Bobcats are trying to trade for him (the source did not reveal exactly what Charlotte was offering). Also, the pool of available players will increase substantially on Wednesday, when players who signed contracts over the summer become trade-eligible.
For teams that Anthony would not be willing to sign a long-term extension with, the acquisition would likely turn into what amounts to a half-season rental before Anthony bolts as a free agent. The Knicks would not be terribly unhappy if such a scenario played out, because they would then be able to add him next summer without sacrificing members of the young core they have surrounded Stoudemire with. But if they have a chance to get Anthony sooner at the right price and lock him up long term, they'd do it.
"That's Donnie's decision, that's why he's more removed from the situation," coach Mike D'Antoni said, speaking generally about trades. "I don't think coaches have a good perspective on when you need to do it and don't need to do it. Coaches get involved emotionally, where a general manager is more cold-blooded and does what's best for the organization, and he'll do that, I don't have any doubt. But bottom line is whatever's better for the Knicks, that's what you've go to do.
"I always hate that. As a coach you get attached to a lot of guys, and you'd hate for anything to disrupt anything. But you've been in the business long enough to do what's right, and Donnie will do that."
Chris Sheridan is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.