Nuggets Still Hopeful Carmelo Anthony Will Sign Extension
Count the Denver Nuggets among the massive contingent of Miami Heat haters who want nothing more than to see the new Big Three turn into the Big Bust.
It's nothing personal against LeBron James & Co., but the latest developments on their respective fronts -- six straight wins for the Heat and two straight losses for the Nuggets -- are doing little to help their mission of retaining Carmelo Anthony.
While a source with knowledge of the Nuggets' thinking says it is almost certain Anthony will be traded by the Feb. 24 trade deadline if he doesn't agree to the three-year, $65 million extension which was offered during the summer, Denver -- much to the surprise of so many around the league -- remains optimistic about the chances of Anthony signing the deal and remaining in the Mile High City. But that complicated confidence may be wavering at the moment, the source said, because it's partially tied to the Heat's shockingly-slow start (8-7) and the message the team hoped it would send Anthony's way.
The logic, or at least the hope, was that the sight of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh struggling while playing under a blinding and brutal spotlight might prompt Anthony to rethink the Super Team approach that is clearly so intriguing to him (see Chris Paul's toast at Anthony's wedding). The Heat's losing ways would serve as the latest lesson learned about the merits of team basketball, from the value of a strong supporting cast to the importance of chemistry.
Additionally, the Nuggets have been successful at stabilizing their operation internally while decreasing the amount of dysfunction that they believe was helping push Anthony away. To review, longtime team adviser Bret Bearup was forced out of his position in early November in a move that sources said was well received by Anthony. Bearup, as Anthony was well aware, was the most vocal advocate of trading the small forward rather than make the sort of attempts to keep him that are currently taking place.
Having parted ways with executives Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman, the Nuggets hired vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri from Toronto in late August. The 39-year-old executive and former Nuggets scout had just seen Chris Bosh leave the Raptors via free agency. Despite receiving two future first-round draft picks and a trade exception via a sign-and-trade with Miami, the general consensus was that the Raptors had missed an opportunity to get more had they traded him before the February trade deadline rather than wait for his decision.
That back story, make no mistake, has everything to do with the fact that Ujiri has no plans to see another superstar skip town for nothing -- or even next to nothing -- in return. He won't be the loudest voice in those discussions, however, as 30-year-old Josh Kroenke is in his first season as team president as part of his family's transition of ownership and operation. His father, longtime Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, purchased the St. Louis Rams in late August, and per NFL requirements must give up his control of the basketball team by the end of this year and give up his majority ownership stake by Dec. 2014.
Some of Denver's positive thinking is also tied to the progress Ujiri is believed to have made with Anthony and his wife, LaLa, away from the floor. According to the source, Ujiri has spent the sort of off-court time with Anthony and LaLa that he wasn't able to during the summer when Anthony kept the organization at an arm's distance. While only Anthony truly knows whether the many moves and maneuverings will impact his decision, the Nuggets believe the calming of these waters coupled with the omnipresent allure of securing his finances now rather than later after an almost-certain lockout could inspire him to stay on board this once-sinking ship.
There may be more stabilizing forces on the way as well, as Denver and coach George Karl are discussing a long-term contract extension and both sides seem determined to get a deal done soon. Locking up Karl, one would think, would help Anthony with his vision for the future should he decide to stay. Karl, like any coach, can't score the ball or defend on his own, though, so helping Anthony see a future on the personnel front remains key as well.
Yet while the 2011-12 roster in its current state appears thin at first glance, there is also the potential for the team's core to remain -- albeit at a high price tag -- should he stick around. Al Harrington, Chris Andersen, Renaldo Balkman and Ty Lawson are the only Nuggets guaranteed to be on board unless they are traded, but the necessary contractual flexibility exists to keep the core should Anthony remain.
Veteran center Nene is owed $11.6 million next season but has an early termination option at his disposal; Anthony favorite/point guard Chauncey Billups will earn $14.2 million if Denver decides to keep him but can be bought out for $3.7 million (with a June 20, 2011 deadline, according to FanHouse's Chris Tomasson); fourth-year shooting guard Arron Afflalo has a team option for $2.9 million. If the Nuggets stood pat on the trade front and were able to secure every player on their roster who has an option of some sort for next season (labor situation and the vast unknown it presents notwithstanding), their payroll would stand at $62.6 million.
And then there's the fan/fun factor. Collecting superstars in a city in which you have no background or roots, the argument goes, only leads to less loyalty from the fans and a less enjoyable experience. To many, including the Nuggets' brass, the Heat's early woes underscored the value of being beloved in a place like Denver where an athlete can reach local legend status like John Elway once did. That part of the pitch, for what it's worth, appeared to fall on deaf ears when Warkentien took the same approach before his exit.
But it certainly doesn't help this in-house recruiting campaign if the Heat get hot, which is precisely what they are at the moment. Their 111-98 win over Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night gave them a 15-8 record while the Nuggets, who had won seven straight games before falling to Charlotte on Tuesday, lost to defending Eastern Conference champion Boston without Anthony taking part and are now 13-8. Anthony sat out with inflammation in his right knee, marking the first time this season he hasn't played.
Should Anthony, as so many around the league predict, decide against signing the extension, the Nuggets' top priority in any potential trade remains acquiring a power forward for the future. That means New Jersey rookie Derrick Favors would seem to be atop the wish list, although it is unclear whether Anthony would sign the extension with the Nets that is a precursor to any such deal. The trade options will grow on Dec. 15, when players who were signed as free agents last summer can be traded starting on that date and the Nuggets are expected to take a long look at the expanded landscape.
Yet unless the Nuggets find a workable scenario with a team to which Anthony is willing to sign the extension, their apparent determination to move him regardless of such factors would obviously result in very little leverage and could ultimately mean doing a deal with very few assets of interest coming back in return. The Nuggets, however, aren't ready to think in such terms just yet.
They'll move forward with the measured approach, hoping their optimism proves, in the end, to be warranted.
E-mail Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.