The New Jersey Nets' months-long pursuit of Carmelo Anthony dragged on for another day Monday and might not reach its widely anticipated resolution this week after the Denver Nuggets again applied the brakes to serious trade talks.
The Nets and Detroit Pistons, according to sources close to the situation, both believed for much of the weekend that they were on the verge of completing a three-team deal with Denver featuring at least 13 players and headlined by Anthony.
Sources told ESPN.com on Monday, though, that Denver now wants to change the structure of the deal, insisting on the inclusion of Nuggets forward Al Harrington in the trade to get salary relief.
The Nuggets are also angry, sources said, with the fact that so many details from the trade talks have gone public.
Yahoo! Sports reported that according to sources, the Nuggets told the Nets that they would trade Anthony to the Knicks if the leaks continued. But sources told ESPN.com that the reported threat never happened.
The three teams continued to talk Monday and the framework for a deal remained in place, despite the varying levels of frustration on all sides and Denver's apparent belief that details of the talks had been leaked in an attempt to increase public pressure on young team president Josh Kroenke and first-year vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri. But little actual progress was made, raising the possibility that this deal -- much like a four-team Anthony trade involving Charlotte and Utah that reached a similar point in the fall -- could fizzle.
Sources said the Nuggets responded Monday to numerous reports of an imminent deal not by pulling out of talks with New Jersey and Detroit but by informing the Nets that Harrington must be included in the deal. With the Nets unwilling to absorb the four years and $28 million left on the New Jersey native's contract after this season, they'll need to the recruit a fourth team that is willing to take on Harrington unless Denver -- which is eager to reduce its luxury-tax bill -- rescinds that demand. Sources said initial efforts to find that fourth team have been unsuccessful.
Said one source with knowledge of Denver's thinking: "The teams haven't stopped talking, but the Nuggets are trying to show people that they aren't going to be rushed into anything."
A level of optimism nonetheless persists among various parties close to the negotiations about the Nets, Nuggets and Pistons ultimately hammering out a trade agreement in principle, since New Jersey appears to be in the rare position to send Denver one of the young players on its wish list.
Sources say there is no young player currently available on the league's trade market who appeals to the Nuggets, for his star potential, more than Nets rookie power forward Derrick Favors.
The Clippers' Blake Griffin is one of Denver's dream targets in an Anthony trade, but sources told ESPN.com that those overtures have been consistently rejected. The Nuggets have also made numerous attempts to acquire the comparatively unheralded Nicolas Batum from Portland but have been repeatedly rebuffed.
The Nets, meanwhile, have been telling Denver for months that they are prepared to part with No. 3 overall pick Favors, 2009 All-Star guard Devin Harris and at least two first-round picks, which is why New Jersey has long been regarded as the league's consensus favorite to strike a trade with the Nuggets, despite Anthony's well-chronicled preference to land in New York.
Sources say that the growing concern within Denver's organization about its players' increasing inability to cope with the daily distraction of the Anthony situation is another factor that keeps alive the possibility of an Anthony deal now as opposed to closer to the Feb. 24 trading deadline. One source close to the situation told ESPN.com on Monday that the negative energy and tension has taken a toll on several Nuggets players -- chief among them Denver native Chauncey Billups. The saga's effects cannot be ignored after last week's humbling loss in Sacramento on TNT and a home defeat Sunday night to New Orleans in which an unusually lethargic Anthony was booed by his own fans in the fourth quarter.
As of late Sunday night, sources said, New Jersey believed it was poised to receive Anthony, Billups and Rip Hamilton from Detroit, with Denver landing two future first-round picks and six players in exchange. The Nuggets' haul was to feature Favors, Harris and Anthony Morrow, with the threesome of Quinton Ross, Ben Uzoh and Stephen Graham included for salary-cap purposes.
Detroit, meanwhile, was operating under the premise that it would receive Nets big man Johan Petro and the expiring contract of Nets forward Troy Murphy, with the Pistons -- working under strict financial restrictions in recent months with the franchise up for sale -- motivated to join in by the $17-plus million in long-term savings they'd earn by shedding Hamilton's contract. In one of Monday's positive developments, sources said, Detroit agreed to take a future second-round pick from New Jersey as an enticement to absorb the two years and remaining $6.75 million on Petro's contract.
The most significant obstacle to an Anthony-to-New Jersey trade, of course, hasn't changed: Anthony himself.
Anthony can scuttle the whole deal by refusing to sign a three-year, $65 million extension as part of the transaction in what is known as an extend-and-trade. The Boston Celtics got the same extend-and-trade commitment from Kevin Garnett when they acquired him from Minnesota in July 2007.
It appeared, after the weekend's many twists and turns played out, that New Jersey actually regarded the Nuggets' indecision and the Petro matter to be greater threats to the trade than the Anthony extension. Sources said that the Nets are convinced Anthony will agree to the extension if they eventually manage to reach a full trade agreement with the Nuggets, despite a report by ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan in December that Anthony will say no to an extension with anyone other than the Knicks.
Sources say that the Nets will lay out a plan to Anthony aimed at acquiring Team USA point guard Chris Paul to join him with the Nets by the summer of 2012. The Nets, sources say, are also banking on the idea that Anthony would be willing to sign the extension with New Jersey because he's highly motivated to lock in his contract before labor negotiations this summer that are expected to establish a much more restrictive financial landscape in the league.
Anthony, though, continues to sidestep questions about his intentions, telling Denver reporters that "I really don't know" when asked how open he is to the idea of signing a long-term extension with the Nets.
Anthony continues to claim that he doesn't expect a trade this week and that he expects to be in the lineup Tuesday night against visiting Phoenix, saying: "That's just my own personal feeling."
The Knicks have always been Anthony's strongly preferred destination, sources say, but Denver has shown little interest in the Knicks' assets (such as Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields and Danilo Gallinari) largely because of New York's lack of available draft picks to add to an offer and has been negotiating almost exclusively with the Nets for weeks.
"New York is playing well right now. I don't think they're looking at me," Anthony told reporters after practice in Denver, according to the New York Daily News. "They wouldn't want me to come in there and mess what they have up. That's what I've read."
ESPN.com reported last month that the Nets have already been granted permission to meet with Anthony face-to-face if a trade agreement is eventually struck with Denver. That would allow Nets billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and part-owner Jay-Z to lead a contingent that would try to lobby the Brooklyn-born Anthony directly on the team's future in Brooklyn, with the Nets planning to move there in time for the 2012-13 season.
The Nets, furthermore, contend that the fact that both Anthony and Hamilton are represented by veteran agent Leon Rose -- and the fact that Rose has been pushing for Hamilton's inclusion in the trade -- is essentially confirmation that Anthony intends to sign the extension. Sources said Monday that Billups, according to a source with knowledge of his thinking, has no intention of holding up the trade despite recent reports about the Denver native planning to ask for an immediate buyout if he is traded away by his hometown team.
The source said Billups, if the trade goes through, would seek a buyout from the Nets if he can't convince them to do a contract extension, which would appear to be a long shot given New Jersey's not-so-secret interest in trying to pry Paul away from the New Orleans Hornets.
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.