With just nine days to go before the NBA's February 24th trade deadline, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and new general manager Masai Ujiri have a big gamble to make on Carmelo Anthony's future in Denver.
If it's up to him, Carmelo Anthony isn't staying in Denver long-term.
The Melo man will either force the Nuggets into a pre-deadline trade within the next nine days, force the Nuggets into a post-season trade before the current collective bargaining agreement kicks in or sign the Nuggets generous $65 million extension and then force a trade to the New York Knicks on the other side of the NBA's pending lockout with its players.
And thus, the Nuggets only chance of keeping Melo in Denver is to be forceful in their own right: by forcing #15 to stay in Denver by "franchise-tagging" him should the NBA players approve an NFL-type "franchise tag" option in their new collective bargaining agreement with the league. This would work by allowing NBA teams to choose one pending free agent player to force onto the roster for another year - at a top-dollar salary rate - but at least give the team more time to prepare for their future without said player. But even in that scenario, would the organization and the fans who prop it up financially really want a disgruntled Carmelo Anthony in our locker room? We'll deal with the latter question shortly.
First, let's tackle the gamble facing Kroenke and Ujiri. Do they trade Melo within the next nine days (or at season's end) to the Knicks - Melo's "alleged" hand-picked destination - and take back whatever they can get, thereby gambling that no franchise tag will become available? Or do they keep Melo past February 24th and deal him - or keep him - under the terms of the new CBA and get Melo his money, thereby gambling that the new CBA will be very owner-friendly and the threat of a franchise tag will open Melo's mind up to playing in a market other than New York? Do the Nets, Clippers and Wizards suddenly become possibilities for Melo in lieu of getting "franchise-tagged" in Denver? It's certainly possible.
If the best the Knicks can offer is "system-guy" Wilson Chandler, "DerMarr Johnson 2.0" Corey Brewer and a meaningless, late first round pick in exchange for the greatest Nugget since Alex English ran up and down the McNichols Arena floor, then the Nuggets are better off gambling to see how the new CBA is worked out. Why not? I'd rather see the Nuggets threaten to franchise tag Melo or threaten to put the screws to him with a $30 million salary reduction (salaries under the new CBA are expected to be cut by about 30%) than give him what he wants now in exchange for 10-cents-on-the-dollar.
But what if the Knicks were to offer something more substantial? Like Chandler plus Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (I'd reserve his spot in the Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame immediately upon execution of the trade) and Eddy Curry's expiring corpse in exchange for Melo, Al Harrington and Renaldo Balkman? Now we're talking 30-cents-on-the-dollar because of a number of intangible benefits.
For one, the Nuggets would be shedding themselves of the poisonous contract granted to Harrington, a horrible free agent signing in hindsight (I'm convinced the signing of "Big Al" was Mark Warkentien's revenge knowing Stan Kroenke wouldn't renew his contract). Two, the Nuggets would be getting rid of head coach George Karl's least favorite player in Balkman. Three, the ongoing Melodrama would finally be over and the Nuggets could finally begin dealing with the futures of Chauncey Billups, Nene, Arron Afflalo, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith. And finally, the Nuggets would get two serviceable swing players in Chandler and Gallo, plus a giant center with some marginal upside in Mozgov who at the very least would allow Nene to move to power forward while giving the Nuggets someone to match up with Joel Pryzbilla (if we can't find humor here, what good are we?).
On the Knicks side of the ledger, such a deal should be a no-brainer. Remember when the Knicks were borderline cocky about not necessarily needing Melo just a month or so ago? Well, now the Knicks are barely treading water at 27-26 and their fans are chanting "We Want Melo!!" at every home game. As ESPN's Chris Sheridan noted the other day, the Knicks should be desperate to acquire Melo now. Moreover, the Eastern Conference remains so pathetically weak that joining Melo with Amar'e Stoudemire, Ray Felton and a few spare parts is enough to get the Knicks several games above .500 and a decent playoff seed. And then on the other side of the lockout, the Knicks can steal any other player they want via free agency.
Ultimately, save a miracle Melo-to-the-Lakers for Andrew Bynum deal, Melo will likely be a Knick some day. It's the worst kept secret in professional basketball. And while the Nuggets could make a huge bet on Melo staying by force, a disgruntled Melo would be even worse than the distracted-but-trying-to-be-professional Melo we have right now.
Therefore, it behooves Kroenke and Ujiri to prey on the Knicks' desperation to salvage a once promising season and get the best the Knicks have to offer. Which, unfortunately for Nuggets fans, isn't much.
But, at the very least, a deal would allow us fans to move on with our lives.