How much leverage does Carmelo really have?
BREAKING NEWS: Carmelo Anthony wants out of Denver.
Wait, what? We’ve known this since last fall? Oh.
Shortly after the free agency bonanza of 2010 began in early July, it was widely reported that Anthony was likely to sign a three-year contract extension worth about $65 million with the Denver Nuggets.
It was believed that, with the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on June 30, 2011, there was no way Anthony would risk leaving that much money on the table should he opt out of the final year of his current contract, worth $18.5 million after the 2010-11 season.
With player salaries expected to drop with a new deal, Anthony would’ve risked losing out on millions.
However, Anthony’s own leverage was overlooked at the time.
If he were to opt out of that final year, he would be free to sign with any team that he wanted.
So, like what happened with Chris Bosh and the Toronto Raptors last season, the team would be risking losing out on their star player without receiving maximum value in return.
This put the majority of the pressure squarely onto the shoulders of the Nuggets’ front office.
Complicating matters was the fact that much of Denver’s front office was in transition last summer.
Former owner Stan Kroenke was forced to turn control of the Nuggets (as well as the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche) over to his 30 year old son, Josh, in order to gain approval from NFL owners during his attempt to purchase the St. Louis Rams last August.
Earlier that month, the team opted against renewing the contract of general manager Mark Warkentien, who had won the NBA Executive of the Year Award for the 2008-09 season.
On August 27, the team hired Masaj Ujiri, a former scout, to succeed Warkentien.
The brand new tandem’s first order of business? Trading the team’s franchise cornerstone and arguably one of the 10 best players in the league.
No big deal, right?
For months, rumors have swirled with regards to Anthony’s potential suitors. We've heard:
“He wants to team up with Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Paul in New York to try and rival the Miami Heat.”
“Houston is the front-runner for Carmelo. He’d sign an extension with the Rockets immediately upon arrival. ”
“The L.A. Clippers would give up Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman for Carmelo. How could the Nuggets say ‘no?’”
“He has to go to Chicago. They can put the best team around him.”
“New Jersey is close to an agreement for Anthony.”
Good lord. Most of those rumors even surfaced prior to the beginning of the season.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard tons of speculation regarding a possible three-team deal between Denver, New Jersey and Detroit that could involve as many as 15 different players, not to mention draft picks.
The Nets would reportedly be parting with Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow and several future first-round draft picks.
Upon arriving in New Jersey, Carmelo would be teamed with young center Brook Lopez (who has recently become allergic to rebounding), veteran guards Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, as well as bunch of scrubs.
So, is Anthony, as a player, really worth mortgaging so much to acquire?
On the surface, he’s an attractive player.
For his career, Anthony averages 24.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. The Nuggets have also qualified for the playoffs in each of Anthony’s seven NBA seasons. He won an NCAA Championship in his only collegiate season at Syracuse.
Denver’s most recent playoff appearance prior to drafting Anthony in 2003 came during the 1994-95 season.
However, the Nuggets won a total of four playoff games in a span of five playoff series from 2004-2008 and were only able to advance once Billups was acquired from Detroit shortly after the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
So, with Denver’s run of relative success since Carmelo has been in town, why does he want to leave?
Don’t the Nuggets, as currently constructed, have a much more realistic shot at winning a title than a New Jersey team featuring the aforementioned new parts?
Oh, wait. Who said Carmelo was ever interested in winning?
Haven’t we heard the phrase, “defense wins championships” about eight trillion times?
Well, they don’t say it for nothing.
Since 1999, the Lakers have won five championships. The Spurs have won four. The Pistons and Celtics have each won one title, while appearing in the Finals once more.
Shockingly, every one of those teams could be considered “elite” on the defensive end of the floor.
‘Melo’s Nuggets? Nah.
Anthony is arguably an elite offensive player, but he didn’t make a noticeable attempt to improve his defense until Billups showed up.
During the 2007-08 season, the Nuggets ranked next-to-last in the league in opponent points, allowing about 107 per game; Denver was swept in the first round by the Lakers.
The next season, when Billups arrived, Denver rose from 29th to 19th in that same category and allowed just over 100 per game.
While 19th isn’t great, it’s an amazing improvement considering how little the team’s roster changed from one year to the next.
That team won two playoff series before taking the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.
Crazy how guys can succeed on defense when they’re actually trying, huh?
Last week, Anthony told ESPN that his “ultimate dream” is to play in New York. He was born in New York and grew up in Baltimore; Anthony’s wife, LaLa Vazquez, whom he married over the summer, is also from New York.
In the same interview, Anthony also said, “I got to feel like I have a chance of reaching my ultimate goal of a championship. Going to a bigger market is cool, but if I feel like I have a chance of winning a championship here in Denver in the next five years, then I’d sign the extension.”
Ah, makes sense!
So, if Anthony were to accept a trade and a contract extension with New Jersey, he’d be willing to commit to a Nets team with no legitimate chances of winning a title anywhere in the foreseeable future, along with a few players tied into contracts that make them relatively inflexible, as well.
To do this, he’d want to leave a Nuggets team two years removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance with a decent crop of talent around him.
There’s also a chance that Denver winds up with a good amount of salary cap space this summer, as Anthony, Nene and Billups could potentially all be coming off the books.
Either that, or LaLa just wants to live in New York.
Hmm…wait a second, where is Carmelo’s leverage again?
Clearly, the Nuggets’ first choice would be for Anthony to sign the three-year extension with them and live happily ever after.
However, much has been made of the potential trade to New Jersey hinging on whether or not Anthony would be willing to sign the extension with the Nets.
It is widely believed that Carmelo’s first choice is to team up with Amar'e Stoudemire and the Knicks (which would make New York an even more abysmal defensive team than they already are), but Denver reportedly doesn’t have much interest in what the Knicks can offer in return.
This is where teams like Houston become very dangerous.
The Rockets have accumulated a bevy of assets in preparation for a potential franchise-altering move over the past few years.
GM Daryl Morey has made no secret of his intentions to try and acquire a true franchise player, especially now that Yao Ming’s career is largely in question.
If Anthony is unwilling to sign with the Nets immediately, New Jersey very well could balk at risking their future just to rent him for a few months before losing him in free agency.
Apparently, Houston is a team that would be willing to deal for Anthony without agreeing on an extension with the player before completing the trade, with hopes that they could eventually convince him to sign prior to becoming a free agent.
So, while Houston’s trade package may not hold as much appeal to the Nuggets as that of New Jersey, Denver could still deal Carmelo to the Rockets (or any team willing to risk rental) and receive a decent haul in return.
This means the Nuggets can forget about the headache that has been this entire situation, and start focusing on rebuilding themselves.
If Anthony isn’t willing to sign with them, why should they care about whether or not he’s going to lose himself money elsewhere?
Denver can hold onto him up until the deadline and then ship him to the highest bidder. They’re getting something in return, regardless.
Then, the ball is back in Anthony’s court.
As mentioned above, he’d have to either sign the three-year contract extension with the new team worth a guaranteed $65 million, or decline the player option for the final year on his current contract to become a free agent and risk losing millions once the new collective bargaining agreement is worked out.
Anthony can tell us that money isn’t the driving force here, but when it comes down to the wire, would he really be willing to leave that much cash on the table?
I don’t think so.
So, Carmelo, you’re basically locked into three options here.
You can re-sign with the Nuggets and continue on as the face of a Western Conference contender year-in and year-out.
You can accept a trade to the Nets and sign an extension with them. You’ll probably make the playoffs a few times with New Jersey, but, for now you’re still probably worse than Miami, Orlando, Chicago and Boston in the East. But hey, at least you’re getting paid, right?
Or, you can refuse to sign with New Jersey, causing them to rescind their trade proposal, and be dealt to a team willing to risk it like Dallas or Houston. Then, if you refuse to sign with them, you can enjoy losing yourself millions.
It’s up to you, ‘Melo.