Masai Ujiri, the Denver Nuggets new GM hire, just walked into basketball operations hell. Relentless fire and brimstone, doomsday talk has enveloped the franchise with 2011 free agency’s crown jewel. Carmelo Anthony wants out, multiple reports suggest, and the Nuggets must weigh trading him now versus losing him for nothing when the market opens.
A three-year, $65 million max extension remains on the table. Anthony can forego free agency—with a league-wide Armageddon, also known as a lockout or work stoppage, looming—and sign it anytime before July 1.
David Stern and his owner buddies want the new collective bargaining agreement to mandate shorter contracts and lower player salaries. No one with sense would criticize Anthony for choosing security over uncertainty. He starred in the 2009 Western Conference Finals, and the Nuggets did not hesitate to execute blockbuster deals for Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups—reasons for him to stay put.
If, however, Ujiri cannot reconcile the franchise’s fractured relationship with Anthony, he should keep Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey on speed dial and broker a transaction.
Yahoo Sports! NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski suggested in a column last week, via an “unnamed source,” that Anthony would prefer Houston, not New York as a landing spot. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix cited another anonymous source who said ‘Melo would welcome an extension from the Rockets, should Denver consign him to Houston.
No GM in the Western Conference boasts more tradable assets than Morey. No franchise yearns for a perimeter superstar more than the Rockets, given Tracy McGrady’s forsaken stint alongside Yao Ming. A Denver-Houston trade partnership makes sense for several reasons.
What the Nuggets Want
Billups’ 34-year-old body boasts an NBA odometer that includes a Motown championship stop, FIBA competition, and loads of paramount postseason contests. His experience, gamesmanship, and veteran know-how make him an attractive buy for any title contender. Keeping his $13 million salary on the books makes sense for Denver only if Anthony stays until his contract expires July 1, 2011.
The Nuggets sans Anthony will not challenge for a Finals or playoff berth. Billups is a win-now player, not a rebuilding piece. Even if Ujiri opts not to package Anthony and “Mr. Big Shot,” he will want to secure a younger starting point guard with potential. Denver acquired Ty Lawson in a 2009 draft night trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and George Karl might prefer to cajole the former Tar Heel in an expanded reserve role.
No team’s front office can expect to net equal value when it dumps its superstar and franchise face. The Nuggets, however, should demand an All-Star caliber talent in return.
Owner Stan Kroenke will seek financial flexibility, often a euphemism for the boss wanting to slash payroll and pocket some extra cash. A combination of expiring contracts, though, would afford Ujiri the cap space necessary to orchestrate a proper roster remodel. First-round draft picks in 2011 and 2012 would also accelerate the dreaded overhaul.
The Nuggets might also want to jettison perennial malcontent and coaching headache J.R. Smith. The vainglorious assassin has resided in Karl’s doghouse more than any canine, and his propensity to mope has him on a short leash. His expiring $6.7 million contract remains valuable to Ujiri as one of many precursors to cap space, but Smith’s volatile temperament may earn him a speedy ticket out of town.
What Denver wants matters more than Anthony’s own wishes. No amount of pouting, back channel maneuvering, or outright demands will change that. If the Kroenkes and Ujiri can stomach sending Anthony within the conference (and that may become a significant issue), The Rockets could provide felicity for both sides, and here’s why.
A Look at the Rockets’ Trade Assets
Aaron Brooks—One of the NBA’s five fastest players comes cheap at just $2 million. Even if the Nuggets did not retain Brooks’ Bird Rights, several trades proposed below would impart Denver the cap space necessary to lock him up long term before his contract terminates next summer. He represents the Nuggets’ best chance to solicit a Billups replacement via an Anthony deal.
Kevin Martin—The ultra-efficient scoring guard boasts one of the best combined shooting percentages—free throw, three-point, and overall field goal accuracy—of the previous five years. He remains on the cusp of stardom, and at 27, still has a year or two to fulfill that unrealized potential. His bloated deal, with three years left of eight-figure payments, makes him a less attractive acquisition. Morey also dealt fan favorite Carl Landry to score Martin’s services, one reason not to jettison him after one half season.
Jermaine Taylor—The UCF product will struggle to earn regular playing time in Rick Adelman’s rotation. He will make less than $2 million in the two years remaining on his rookie deal. Given the athleticism and scoring prowess he flexed in spurts last year, he qualifies as cheap labor and a potential gem.
Jordan Hill—The New York Knicks selected the Arizona forward with the eighth pick in the 2009 draft. In his brief tenure as a Rocket, Hill has flashed the stunning athleticism and wiry frame that made him such a tantalizing NBA prospect. With one year and $2.6 million left on his contract, he also delivers at a bargain rate. As a youngster with years to develop, he ranks as a low-risk, high-reward procurement.
Shane Battier—His $7.3 million expiring contract would afford Denver cap pliancy, especially if paired with Jefferies’ similar deal. Battier is a winning locker room influence, a sure-fire spectator paramour, a passable long-distance shooter, and a stingy, studious defender with a few years of dynamite coverage left in his career.
Jared Jefferies—His $6.8 million expiring contract would entice the Nuggets for similar reasons. A capable, sedulous defender, Jefferies would do more in Denver than just wipe salary off the books come July 1.
Chase Budinger—Morey and Adelman paltered Trevor Ariza without hesitation because they remain high on the Arizona guard-forward. He might rank as the Rockets’ best dunker, a ravishing revelation for a squad loaded with high-motor athletes. He shoots the three at a respectable rate but must ameliorate his free throw shooting and decision making. He projects as Adelman’s reserve small forward, even after an insufficient Vegas Summer League showing. I did not include him in any prospective exchanges for reasons that will become apparent below.
Trevor Ariza trade exception—This $6.3 million return works like a gift card. Morey has one year to spend it or let it expire. He told the Houston Chronicle that Owner Leslie Alexander authorized him to utilize it if he can cultivate more elite talent. Anthony, without question, qualifies as elite talent.
The New York Knicks’ picks—To obtain more cap space, this summer’s holy grail, Donnie Walsh surrendered a 2012 first rounder and pick swap in 2011 that could pay handsome dividends. The 2011 pick is top one protected, meaning the Rockets could not trade draft positions if the Knicks won the lottery. The 2012 pick is top five protected.
If Amar’e Stoudemire and the Knicks, however, miss the playoffs and land any selection slot from two to 14 in 2011, the Rockets (or Nuggets if this helps engineer a transaction) can barter. Say New York falls to the lottery and selects fifth or sixth and the playoff bound Rockets reach the postseason and pick somewhere in the 20s. That bandy becomes an ultra-valuable roster augmentation tool.
Why the Rockets are Window Shopping
Anthony can fill it up like a cement truck and do so in a hurry. Remember his 33-point quarter two seasons ago? The NBA’s finest pure scorer represents the perimeter muscle and starpower the Rockets thought they had secured in McGrady. He delivers in the clutch and ranks as one of the deadliest post players in the league. He bombards the rim and can earn more free throw trips by himself than all the opponent’s players combined. He plays stingy, trenchant defense when the mood suits him.
Adelman and Morey think Martin and Brooks possess some of the above qualities. They would trade those two in a nanosecond, though, for someone who has proven he bears those gifts.
Alexander’s willingness to spend liberally should also give Morey the confidence to think he can nail down Anthony with a lucrative extension. Unlike with Stoudemire, a full or half-season rental would prove worth the risk of losing him via free agency.
If Morey channeled John Cusack’s character in Say Anything to woo Chris Bosh and Marcin Gortat, he should play The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” on loop in his Anthony pursuit. Yes, Mr. Ujiri, he’ll be watching you.
I decided not to include any assets off-limits today in this discussion. Morey signed Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and Brad Miller as free agents. He cannot trade them for three months, or until Dec. 15, whichever comes first.
The GM can deal away Courtney Lee, whom he fetched in a four-team trade in early August, after October 11 in a one-for-one exchange but not in a multi-player package. It makes little sense, though, for Morey to dangle the adhesive defender and perimeter contributor he has coveted since draft night in 2008.
To snatch Lee, he surrendered role player extraordinaire Trevor Ariza, billed last summer as a project and a key rotation cog for the next five years. So much for that.
Yao Ming remains the franchise’s foundation. Morey and Alexander do not want to ship him out, and the Denver front office should oppose a star swap involving a center who has suffered debilitating injuries in five straight seasons.
Yao, like Anthony, becomes a free agent next summer. Does Ujiri want to kick-off his thin-ice tenure by exchanging a player reluctant to sign a max extension for a street clothes-prone big guy who might harbor the same stay-in-Colorado resentment?
The Proposed Deals
1. The Rockets get: F Carmelo Anthony
The Nuggets get: SG Kevin Martin, F Jared Jefferies, and 2011 draft pick
In the simplest scenario, the Nuggets would take back Martin’s monstrous deal and rapid-fire scoring faculty, Jefferies’ expiring contract, and the right to swap picks with the Knicks should the conditions outlined above come to fruition. This trade seems unlikely, since, it seems, any discussion would start with Brooks.
2. The Rockets get: F Carmelo Anthony
The Nuggets get: PG Aaron Brooks, Trevor Ariza trade exception, F Jared Jefferies, 2011 draft pick and SG Jermaine Taylor
In another “just Anthony” deal, Ujiri and Karl would obtain a Billups surrogate to pair with Lawson, a valuable spending chip, a potential lottery talent, and a bargain basement, athletic guard with mouthwatering upside. Lowry would take the reins as the Rockets' full-time starter, while Morey would need to pursue a backup point. Can Lowry start on a productive playoff team, much less a championship-caliber one?
3. The Rockets get: F Carmelo Anthony, G-F J.R. Smith
The Nuggets get: PG Aaron Brooks, SG Kevin Martin, F Jared Jefferies, F-C Jordan Hill, F Mike Harris, a 2011 draft pick, and SG Jermaine Taylor
In this more complex scheme, Denver would dump Smith and land both Brooks and Martin, a readymade starting backcourt on a playoff contender. Ujiri would welcome some financial flexibility, and Hill and Taylor’s young legs and potential. Harris is a throwaway addition—but by no means a useless player—to make the money work.
4. The Rockets get: F Carmelo Anthony, PG Chauncey Billups
The Nuggets get: PG Aaron Brooks, SG Kevin Martin, SF Shane Battier, F Jared Jefferies or Trevor Ariza trade exception, F Jordan Hill, 2011 or 2012 draft pick, and SG Jermaine Taylor
The final two proposals would wipe out all or most of the Rockets’ trade assets. Morey would do it if he could attain Anthony. This scenario supposes that Denver wants to package Anthony and Billups, not Anthony and Smith. Since Anthony and Billups make $17 million and $13 million, Morey would need to submit all of the above pieces to make salaries match.
5. The Rockets get: F Carmelo Anthony, PG Chauncey Billups, and SF J.R. Smith
The Nuggets get: PG Aaron Brooks, SG Kevin Martin, SF Shane Battier, F Jared Jefferies, F Jordan Hill, 2011 or 2012 Draft Pick, Trevor Ariza trade exception, and SG Jermaine Taylor
This “kitchen sink” scenario supposes Ujiri wants to package all three players in an Anthony exchange. It takes a lot of Houston assets to match the $30 million Morey would get back in this deal. Again, I think Morey would do it to fetch a performer of Anthony’s caliber.
After a further examination of the rules, I should note that three of these trades would not garner league approval if executed as published. A team cannot add a trade exception to a deal to make the finances work. Think of these ideas, then, as discussion starting points.