- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Denver Nuggets blamed their counterparts in New Jersey for every press leak, accused the Nets of trying to pressure them into a deal before they were ready, and were generally just as spent as the Russian playboy billionaire sounded at his Nets news conference after five months of Carmelo Anthony trade talks managed to produce only two collapsed trades.
That, though, is not the whole truth.
Don't forget the part about how much the Nuggets are going to miss the Nets if rookie owner Mikhail Prokhorov wasn't bluffing with his repeated insistences Wednesday night that he's ceasing all interest in Anthony.
There's a reason why the Nuggets -- for all their frustrations with the public nature of negotiations and the long-standing doubts about whether Melo could ever be convinced to sign an extension with the team that toils in the Knicks' shadow -- negotiated almost exclusively with New Jersey since autumn.
Reason being: New Jersey has been the only team in the league willing and able to provide the Nuggets with two lottery picks and payroll relief in addition to prized teen bruiser Derrick Favors, along with the very useful likes of Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow, in exchange for Anthony. There isn't an available young player in the league that the Nuggets rate higher than Favors, with available being the key word.
The Nuggets can make the legit claim that they were not completely blindsided by Prokhorov's abrupt withdrawal, since they were always fearful that Anthony's refusal to sign the extension would eventually bring a halt to talks with the Nets and force them to look elsewhere. But it's an undeniable blow for them, too, to get hit with this now if New Jersey really does have the discipline and pride to suddenly bow out of the Melo Sweepstakes with 30-odd days to go before the trade deadline -- and stay out.
Sources close to the situation say the Nuggets were convinced that the Nets were never going away as a potential trade partner, because the Prokhorov regime is that desperate to have a face from Anthony's stratosphere to sell to its ticket-buying audience in Brooklyn starting in 2012-13. And that's why Denver's motivation to drag the talks out did not purely stem from the idea that every Nets loss potentially sweetened the quality of the first-round draft pick they'd be sending to Denver.
The Nuggets, sources say, increasingly hoped that Anthony would gradually warm to the idea of signing the extension with the Nets if a trade agreement was reached closer to the Feb. 24 trade deadline, based on the idea that securing an extension before the expected lockout this summer means even more to Anthony than winding up with the Knicks. The most common estimate of how much Anthony is likely to lose if he doesn't have his extension done before the next collective bargaining agreement is $40 million. Two or three weeks from now, if you buy this theory as much as Denver apparently did, that threat would have been more real to the All-Star scoring machine and nudged him to see the Brooklyn-bound Nets as a palatable compromise.
Yet it's a moot theory now unless the Nets -- as some understandably weary followers of the long-running Melo Drama suspect -- don't have the spine to live up to Prokhorov's declaration and get dragged back into three-team talks that also featured the Detroit Pistons because of that Brooklyn desperation. We should note that NBA talks presumed to be dead, when they go on for this long, more often than not get revived.
Denver, though, is obviously a "deliberate team" in the words of one rival exec, so taking a step back to reassess all of its options is a likely Step 1 for the first-year management duo of Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri. Word is Denver, furthermore, does now concede that negotiating more seriously with the Knicks is unavoidable, as our own Chris Sheridan has laid out, since New York is still the only team that Anthony is definitely willing to extend with.
Serious talks between Denver and the teams that are willing to gamble on an Anthony trade without his signature on a contract (headlined by Houston and Dallas, as we've been discussing in this cyberspace since Thanksgiving) will also begin in earnest this week. That's especially true if you buy the notion, as some teams do, that the NBA's next labor agreement will contain an NFL-style "franchise tag" provision, which will only encourage risk-taking teams like the Rockets and Mavericks to try to swing a trade for Anthony even without an extension.
The problem there, of course, is that no one can predict anything with any certainty when it comes to the next CBA. Sources close to the situation nonetheless continue to say that the Rockets in particular loom as the Knicks' new biggest threat, since Houston would appear to be the team that can come closer than any team outside of New Jersey -- with its combination of quality draft picks, trade exceptions and Yao Ming's expiring and insurance-sweetened contract -- to furnishing Denver with the long-term savings and assets needed to start over (starting with the 2012 first-rounder swiped from the Knicks last February).
That potentially changes if the Clippers are prepared to join the bidding, with a season-ticket holder of theirs who is somewhat familiar to ESPN.com readers helpfully suggesting via Twitter on Wednesday night that the Nuggets wouldn't be able to refuse an offer of Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, Minnesota's 2012 first-round pick (which the Clippers possess from the long-ago Sam Cassell trade) and the requisite expiring contracts to absorb Al Harrington along with Anthony.
(NBA front-office sources continue to stress that Chicago, by contrast, will not emerge as a factor unless the Bulls are prepared to put Joakim Noah on the table, which they've consistently said they have no intention of doing.)
This much, however, is certain: Whatever's out there isn't going to excite the Nuggets like the various New Jersey scenarios did. No matter how worn out and queasy the Nuggets might have been from an emotional roller-coaster ride that began all the way back in September with the original near-trade involving Charlotte and Utah -- and fed up just like Prokhorov -- they were floored by such a firm public squelching from the Russian.
An undeniable sense of pessimism, furthermore, continues to emanate from the Nuggets when it comes to somehow convincing Anthony to just sign the extension if a trade can't be worked out with the Knicks and stay with the only NBA team he's ever known. You'd have thought the chances of Melo staying in Denver might have increased with the Nets walking away, but that's not the word we're getting. Definitely not given the consistent boos greeting Anthony at every home game now and his increasingly open admissions about wanting to get back to the East Coast.
Anthony even let it slip to Denver-based reporters Wednesday night after Prokhorov's decree, possibly for the first time, that he's indeed expecting to be dealt somewhere before the Feb. 24 trade buzzer.
"I think so," Anthony said. "I think so."
Melo's coach, meanwhile, might have had the line of the evening. Referring to Prokhorov, George Karl told those same reporters that "my billionaire friend from Russia has kind of thrown another curveball or knuckleball into the process."
Unless this all turns out to be "a ploy" or "a negotiation" from the Nets, to use more of Karl's words, call it a full-fledged screwball flung at the Nuggets that just cost them a good slice of leverage they never imagined losing this soon before the deadline.
8hMatt Walks, ESPN.com