Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets Play Game of Chicken as Team Sinks
New Jersey, Dallas, Houston -- heck, even Sacramento -- probably seemed like better destination spots for the star small forward late Thursday night, when he sat slumped on the visitor's bench inside Arco Arena and let the unlikely celebration around him sink in. Like it or not, it was time to come to grips with the last 48 hours.
His Nuggets, that team for which he has played for eight seasons and seems sure to leave sometime in these next 48 days, had just fallen flat against two of the worst teams in the league. A 13-point loss at the Clippers on Wednesday night was one thing, but a 20-point, national-television shellacking from the lowly Kings was another.
No effort. No heart. No help against a team they had dominated in Denver just five days before.
Anthony sat deep in thought on that bench, taking it all in while Francisco Garcia walked the length of the floor to lean down and embrace his friend after it was all over. They hugged for what seemed to be an eternity, the Kings swingman whispering in his ear while Anthony nodded ever so slightly in agreement.
So downtrodden was his look, so done was his demeanor, that Kings co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof would have been smart to slip the most unexpected of trade proposals under his drooping chin just to see if he would sign off, perhaps hastily agreeing to the deal and an extension offer in that emotional moment. This car still looked strong, but it sure seemed to be losing its way.
"When you have two games like this, two games that you have to win, there's a lot of things that just start going through everybody's minds," Anthony would finally say some 45 minutes later, breaking the silence of his own solitude that had continued at his locker. "I was just reflecting back on the game (during his time spent on the bench). It was just a ... team (in the Kings) that we should beat. Coming to this game, if we would've just put a little more focus into this game and do what we've got to do and compete and play hard ..."
He has done that, and for the most part so have his teammates. Play hard. It has been the one respectable part of this entire Melo-drama, the fact that the covert trade requests and manipulations and demands didn't lead to a decline in performance. But now comes the hard part, where the big picture of it all is clouded by his competitiveness and the human element comes into play.
Anthony wants the extension and the security and riches that come with it, and he only wants it from New York. That means staring the Nuggets down until the end, forcing them to bypass better offers (see Nets, New Jersey) simply because not blinking could mean losing Anthony for nothing in return. And that, the Nuggets have made abundantly clear for some time, is simply not an option.
But someone's bluff will be called. The Knicks remain confident they will have him in their Garden sooner or later, and all that comes down to is the matter of dueling priorities. Anthony can control his own path via post-expected-lockout free agency, so long as the desire to play in the Big Apple trumps the desire to sign an extension.
Yet with league sources saying the Nuggets fully intend to play their hand until the Feb. 24 end or at least close to it to ensure they see the best proposal that's out there, it's losses like these that set the stage for seven tension-filled weeks. Even before the Nuggets laid down for the second straight night, coach George Karl admitted that the situation which grew so hot and heavy back in training camp has been difficult to deal with.
"There are days, we can't deny that, when the Melo-drama does have a cloudy effect on us at times, but in general, I think we've stayed strong," Karl said. "I don't think drama is good for any team. I think fun, stability and competing is what we like to do."
For the most part, they have.
Before this backslide, the Nuggets had gone 20-13 while dealing not only with the Melo-drama but with the five-game absence of the man himself after the tragic death of his sister. Anthony wasn't having a career year, but he was producing and avoiding any accusations that he was disengaged or disinterested.
But if Anthony is going to stay the course, stubbornly insisting he land with New York to begin the formation of the league's latest super team with good friend Amar'e Stoudemire, then there just might be a penance to pay in the immediate future. His first look at the Miami Heat comes on Thursday, with games against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the Lakers also coming in the next two weeks.
And truth be told, as he well knows, it's not as if the team he's not sure he wants to play for (see Nets, New Jersey) is doing any better. The Nets, whose cupboard will be raided if they do the Anthony deal, especially with first-year Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri's dreamy goal of landing five draft picks , are 10-25. Meanwhile, the Knicks looks more appealing than ever after dominating the Spurs Tuesday and improving to 20-14.
And while so many around the league still believe Houston and Dallas are willing to trade for Anthony without the extension, one source close to the Nuggets points out that Ujiri simply can't afford to risk sending him to a Western Conference rival only to see him spark a deep playoff/title run and ultimately re-sign with that team. What's more, doing so without the extension would almost certainly lower the price tag in terms of assets returned.
"There's really only two things that (Ujiri) can do that will guarantee this comes back on him," the source said. "Not trading him and losing him for nothing is one, or having that happen (referring to losing him long-term to a Western Conference team on the cheap)."
The game of chicken, in other words, isn't over just yet.
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