From "nyet" to "hello 'Melo?"
New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov's astonishing "no" to Carmelo Anthony made Wednesday's contest between the Knicks and Rockets a bit juicier. The New York-Houston front office tussle means even more now.
The Rockets' 104-89 victory did not settle a trade, but it was impossible to watch the two teams joust and not think about the three-team transaction the previous February that saw Kevin Martin, Tracy McGrady, Carl Landry, Jordan Hill and a handful of draft picks change addresses.
The Sacramento Kings remain irrelevant in this discussion, and GM Geoff Petrie cannot like his chances of selling Landry on a long-term future in California's capital city. The Rockets and Knicks, however, are still trying to win a deal that may still take years to decide. Houston stole the first round, but New York hopes to soon land a knockout blow.
These two franchises, one a short boat trip from the Statue of Liberty, the other a half hour from the Gulf of Mexico, now indisputably want the same player. They crave the same return to postseason relevancy. Both coaches, Mike D'Antoni and Rick Adelman, know they will never hoist a championship trophy with their current rosters.
They need much more, and the next stage in the race for a franchise pillar will continue through February and perhaps into the sweltering summer. Whether Anthony qualifies as a sturdy foundation is debatable. He often naps on the defensive end and attempts so many head-scratching shots his new coach will need special shampoo to counteract the bleeding and dandruff.
He has driven George Karl crazy at times, and promises to do the same if he lands elsewhere. Anthony is the perfect cornerstone for Denver's combustible cast of tattooed, explosive personalities. The Knicks and Rockets, though, will keep chasing him until a superior option becomes available. Superstar-caliber talents are as sparse in the NBA as Prokhorov's attendance at Nets games.
Anthony lacks the sense necessary to dispose of William Wesley and Leon Rose, the two agenda-driven, self-serving figures that threaten to torpedo his image while flexing their cronyism and authority. He should stay in Denver and hope Stan Kroenke and the other cost-conscious owners do not win collective bargaining agreement negotiations in a rout.
That common sense scenario, of course, will never happen. The NBA's bloodthirsty, hard-cap hounds have delivered a vehement battle cry that has Anthony convinced he cannot test the uncertain free agency waters without paying a steep price. The fatuous ego stroking and unrest in Denver's power structure did not help the franchise's chances of retaining its star.
James Dolan has been demonized and disgraceful as the Knicks boss. Leslie Alexander has been unlucky. Both owners have established an open wallet policy that allows them to pursue Anthony at all costs.
The three-team deal in February 2010 was a precursor to this. The casualties are as easy to spot as the triumphs.
As the Nuggets continue to rebuff the Knicks in trade talks, it figures that Donnie Walsh would love to have the two first-round picks he donated to Daryl Morey back. The Rockets wish they had a healthy star to entice Anthony. Amar'e Stoudemire's asking price was asinine, and the Knicks' decision to shower him with $100 million approached insanity.
Still, the Knicks remain Anthony's preferred destination, and Stoudemire's central occupancy in the MVP discussion does not hurt New York's pitch to the former Syracuse standout. Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola, or Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and the Big Apple?
The Nuggets boast a better record than the Rockets and a roster better equipped to win a playoff series. A rare defensive clinic by Houston did not change that.
The Rockets need Anthony to undergo a viewpoint transformation fit for the movie Inception. It would also help if Denver's decision makers Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke had the slightest interest in Houston's assets. The Rockets would trade anyone, even Scola, in an instant. Can anyone believe otherwise?
The Knicks need much of the same. Ujiri and Kroenke have examined what Walsh can offer and said "no thanks." Prokhorov's frustrated pullout and Derrick Favors' sudden unavailability means something's gotta give.
Morey dumped McGrady's expiring contract and parted with fan favorite Landry to nab the efficient scoring dynamo he coveted and stash more riches to throw at Toronto. The Rockets did everything possible to woo Chris Bosh.
The Knicks brass decided giving away two valuable draft picks and the eighth overall selection was worth the chance to throw gobs of cap space at LeBron James.
Bosh and James teamed with Dwyane Wade in Miami, forcing New York and Houston to go full steam ahead with "Plan B." The Knicks scooped up Felton to feed Stoudemire, while the Rockets executed smaller moves and hoped Yao Ming's return from reconstructive foot surgery would make the difference.
After the first meeting in November, the Rockets seemed to hold the upper hand. The Knicks were losing and Stoudemire was struggling to cope with the pressures of starring at Madison Square Garden. A lot has changed since, and none of it helps the Rockets' cause.
A stress fracture in Yao's left ankle might end his career. As I opined just after the announcement, it should. Stoudemire amassed a tear of 30-point games not seen in New York since Patrick Ewing roamed the interior. The Knicks are now safe bets to make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference.
If the Rockets continue their current pace, they will pick higher than the Knicks in June, and the ability to swap with New York will be rendered meaningless. A lot can still change.
The Knicks have discovered that winning is tougher when the schedule turns from cupcake to callous. The Rockets also reached that conclusion.
New York has dropped four straight, while a three-game winning streak and a more manageable February slate keeps a postseason berth within Houston's reach. The Knicks could still fall to the lottery, and the Rockets might shoplift the seventh or eighth seed.
Wednesday did not determine the victor in last season's trade proceedings. Hill has a long way to go before Walsh will ever dub him the one he let get away. Still raw and wildly inconsistent, Hill tallied three points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes of daylight. He would not have shored up the Knicks' woeful rebounding or sponge-like interior resistance.
It is doubtful he could have prevented Kevin Love's monster 31-point, 30-rebound effort.
If Hill ever fulfills the promise of his talent and does it in Houston, Walsh will lament the larceny he propagated. Otherwise, Morey did not surrender much to give Hill a test drive.
Both teams benefited from the transaction. The Rockets love Martin's convincing up-fakes and faculty to put the ball in the basket. They just wish he could play some defense.
The cap space New York augmented by trading for McGrady's contract became Stoudemire, and his presence and MVP candidacy has the Knicks three victories above .500. Not since Ewing started opposite Hakeem Olajuwon have I seen so many Knicks jerseys at a Rockets game.
The ultimate winner, though, will be the franchise that builds a championship-caliber roster first. Morey and Walsh see Anthony as the key piece in that quest.
From "nyet" to "hello 'Melo?"
Hayes harassed Stoudemire into five turnovers and forced him to earn his 25 points. If only he could make the same difference for the Rockets in the Anthony sweepstakes.
That clash, unlike the one Wednesday, is still up for grabs.