It’s eerily symbolic that two of Carmelo Anthony‘s final games as a Denver Nugget will come against the team LeBron James leapt to – the Miami Heat – and the team LeBron James coldly deserted, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"The world changed on July 8th."

So said a prominent NBA executive to me in regards to Carmelo Anthony not signing the Nuggets generous three-year, $64 million extension soon after LeBron “Karma” James stuck a giant knife in the back of the Cleveland Cavaliers organization and the entire state of Ohio on national TV.

Indeed it did.

Ever since James’ “The Decision” debacle, superstars like Melo and Amar’e Stoudemire – and soon Chris Paul, Deron Williams and others – looked to take their talents away from the teams that drafted them, developed them and stood by them in good times and bad, and on to the NBA’s sexiest markets. Oh, and they’ve insisted on bringing their superstar friends along with them.

From the start, many of us Nuggets fans were on to Melo’s nefarious plan – inspired by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh colluding to form “The Heatles” in Miami – to bolt Denver as soon as possible…and take his $64 million with him. Others had been in denial until most recently, when it has become all-too-apparent that Melo wants out, and has always wanted out, of the Mile High City. Making matters worse for Nuggets fans, in order to get a semi-decent deal done for Melo, the Nuggets likely have to part with Denver legend Chauncey Billups, too. It’s not enough that we’re losing the best Nugget since Alex English ran up and down the McNichols Arena court, but we have to lose the best leader since Fat Lever played here, too.

While it’s easy to blame James for all of this, that oversimplifies what’s going on here. Melo’s imminent departure and James’ recent escape to Miami are simply microcosms of a sports culture gone awry. Professional athletes are more than just athletes…at least that’s what they think. Coddled since the day they can shoot a basketball better than their youthful peers, the LeBrons and Melos of the world are in search of “global icon” status, assuming that in order to get there they have to have championship rings on their fingers and win them in a big market to boot. What the modern superstar doesn’t realize is that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant became global icons not only because they won championships, but because of how they won championships – i.e. with the teams that drafted them and the supporting casts built around them by the team, not hand-picked by the player. (I’d include Tim Duncan on this list but he’ll never achieve “Global Icon” status because of his personality…although he remains one of my favorite and most respected NBA players.)

James may have moved on to Miami to win a few rings and be Alex Rodriguez to Dwyane Wade's Derek Jeter.  But his endorsement opportunities, other than Nike, are sure to begin disappearing.  A-Rod might be the United States' fifth highest paid athlete, but only $4 million of his $37 million in gross earnings comes from endorsements.  Simply put, A-Rod is an asshole in the eyes of the average sports fan.  And now, so is James.  Aware of the PR backlash incurred by James, Melo is doing everything possible not to come across like an asshole.  But if Billups goes with him, Melo will be Enemy #1 in the eyes of most Nuggets fans.

In a sense, Nuggets fans should be thankful for James' and Bosh's actions in early July.  Had James not left the Cavaliers in the most disrespectful and humiliating way possible – soon after Bosh bolted Toronto despite giving them no indication of a surefire departure all season before – the Nuggets may have been duped into keeping Melo throughout the 2010-11 season hoping he'd re-sign here after all.  Instead, James and Bosh served as a wake-up call to the Nuggets organization and their fans: don't believe a word these players say and get whatever you can for them before it's too late.

And thus, Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri and president (and future owner) Josh Kroenke are absolutely doing the right thing to move Melo now. They’re only going to get 60 cents on the dollar in any deal, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the two cents on the dollar the Cavs and Raptors were left with in the wake of James’ and Bosh’s summer defections.

The problem, of course, is that Melo is being unreasonably picky about where he wants to play. His “wish list” allegedly includes just two cities: New York and Chicago. In reality, it includes just two franchises: the Knicks and the Bulls. Whether the greater New York area will suffice or not, I guess we’ll find out sooner than later if indeed the Nuggets can consummate a deal with the New Jersey – soon-to-be-Brooklyn – Nets.

Most unfortunately, all reports point to Billups having to be sent to Jersey, too. If the deal ultimately goes down and Billups is included, Ujiri and Kroenke will have some answering to do to the fans. Rebuild? Sure, we can handle it. Rebuild without Billups? That won’t sit well with the fans for a few reasons. First, by keeping Billups the Nuggets will be in the unique position to rebuild while remaining competitive. Billups can still win a game by himself and is the perfect mentor for youngsters like Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and whomever else will be coming to Denver. Second, Nuggets fans can get behind a team with Billups here. But it will be pretty tough for fans to justify those overly expensive ticket prices without Melo and Billups around.

Carmelo Anthony's departure is a near certainty.  Chauncey Billups' future in Denver?  About that we're not so sure.  

Either way, what began on July 8th when LeBron James bolted for Miami will come to it's conclusion when Melo gets moved east any day now.  The question now is: will Melo's final game in Denver be against James' current team – the Heat – on Thursday night, or against his former team, the Cavaliers, on Saturday night?

Before scouting the Heat below, please read this email that I received two days ago from a longtime Nuggets fan whose family, like mine, has had season tickets in the family going back more than 25 years.  Why do I think countless other fans are reacting the same way?

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: JB
Date: Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 3:05 PM
Subject: Andy
To: [email protected]

Yo Andy,

Been a long time…hope you are well –
Keep up the good work – been reading you for awhile now…
My family are season tix holders, since ’85. I go to games with my dad whenever I’m home.
I just called/emailed the Nuggs office telling them if they trade Chauncey I’m canceling my season tix. Not sure how much I believe myself…
But yeah, Melo is the reason all this is happening anyway, huh?
Guess that’s just the way things are now…can’t go back to the way things were…


Scouting the Heat

Heat Non-Stiffs

-LeBron James: James may be the NBA's #1 villain right now, but he's embracing the role while playing exceptional basketball.  After getting off to rough start, James is torching the competition and before losing to the Clippers on Wednesday night, the Heat had won 13 straight road games.

-Dwyane Wade: Like James, Wade wasn't his usual self to begin the season.  But other than a 14-point game against the Bucks the other night in a near loss and a 25-point game in a win against the Warriors, Wade hasn't scored less than 30 points in six of his last eight games

-Chris Bosh: The national media jumped all over Bosh for being overrated when he struggled through the Heat's first 15 or so games, but Bosh has amped up his game considerably formed the "Big Three" we all feared when he decided to join James and Wade in Miami.

Heat Stiffs

-Everyone not named James, Wade or Bosh: The Heat's supporting cast has been nothing short of a disappointment.  You'd think by playing alongside two of the NBA's best three players, plus a third All-Star, would improve one's game, but none of the non-Heatles players have stepped up this year.  As a result, James, Wade and Bosh are forced to log heavy minutes nightly unless the game is a blowout…which many of them are.

Final Thought

The Heat's impressive record of 30-10 is a bit phony.  They've only played 16 plus-.500 teams all season long (like the Lakers, the Heat have been the beneficiaries of a very generous schedule plus they have the added advantage of playing in the weak Eastern Conference) and are just 8-8 against those quality teams.  

The Heat lost to the Clippers on Wednesday night, were in an overtime dogfight with the injury-depleted Bucks on Friday night and almost lost at home to the inexperienced Warriors on New Year's Day…I'm sure James et al were hungover from partying in South Beach on New Year's Eve, but still…the Warriors?  

Point being, the Heatles and Beatable and I expect the Nuggets to take them down on Thursday night, especially since the Heat are coming in on the brutal Pacific Coast-to-Mountain Time Zone back-to-back.

Besides, while Carmelo Anthony is still here we need all the wins we can get.