A busy weekend of roller-coaster activity on the Carmelo Anthony trade front has ushered the New Jersey Nets to the brink of a deal for the superstar forward for the second time, according to sources close to the negotiations.
Thanks to the recruitment of the Detroit Pistons as a third-party facilitator, New Jersey's long-standing attempts to pry Anthony away from Denver are "further along" than any trade scenario that has been discussed since the Nets' near acquisition of the All-Star in late September, sources close to the negotiations said Sunday.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the talks expressed optimism Sunday that a three-team deal involving the Pistons featuring at least 15 players -- with Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups winding up in New Jersey with Anthony -- could be completed in the next day or two.
Denver, however, elected to play Anthony and Billups in its home game against New Orleans on Sunday night, suggesting that the Nuggets might not be ready to sign off on the trade and, according to sources, frustrating both the Nets and the Pistons at the end of a chaotic 72 hours.
A similar scenario played out in the September deal, when the Nets and Nuggets hammered out the framework of a four-team swap with Charlotte and Utah, only for the Nuggets to decide that they weren't ready to end their relationship with Anthony and back out of the deal.
Anthony reiterated after practice Monday what he said after Sunday's game. But he added that he regrets Billups' name has come up.
After totaling just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting and looking lethargic throughout the Nuggets' 96-87 loss -- during which he was booed by Denver fans in the second half -- Anthony dismissed the idea of a looming deal with New Jersey as "speculation as of right now" and told reporters that he doesn't think he's played his last game for the Nuggets.
"Not at all," Anthony said at his locker when asked if he thought that the New Orleans game was his Nuggets farewell. "Not at all. Not at all. Not at all."
Sources told ESPN.com on Monday morning that one of the newer obstacles in trade talks is Denver's determination to send Al Harrington to New Jersey as part of the three-team deal.
The Nets, sources said, are reluctant to absorb the four years and $28 million remaining on Harrington's contract, which means that a fourth team willing to trade for Harrington will be needed unless the Nuggets, who are trying to reduce their luxury-tax bill, abandon the idea of trying to include Harrington.
As of late Sunday night, sources said, New Jersey believed it was poised to receive Anthony, Billups and Hamilton, with Denver landing two future first-round picks and six players. The Nuggets' haul would feature Nets rookie Derrick Favors, former All-Star guard Devin Harris and Nets sharpshooter Anthony Morrow. In addition, the Nuggets would bring in the New Jersey threesome of Quinton Ross, Ben Uzoh and Stephen Graham included for salary-cap purposes.
Detroit, meanwhile, was to receive Nets big man Johan Petro and the expiring contract of Nets forward Troy Murphy, with the Pistons motivated to join in by the $17-plus million in long-term savings they'd earn by shedding Hamilton's contract.
But Denver's decision to play Anthony and Billups against New Orleans and a Bergen Record report Sunday night that the Nuggets want to make changes to the latest trade layout clearly rankled the Nets.
The Record of New Jersey quoted an unnamed team official within the league as saying: "The deal is close. But Denver is looking to hit a home run."
Earlier Sunday, one source close to the talks told ESPN.com that Sunday's proposed trade was "on the 10-yard line." Said another source with knowledge of the state of negotiations: "Almost there."
One spark to the suddenly fast-moving nature of weekend negotiations, sources said, is the fact that Detroit is no longer being asked to surrender a first-round pick for the right to trade away the two years and $25 million left on Hamilton's contract. Another key was Denver's lopsided loss Thursday night in Sacramento on TNT. Sources said the embarrassing defeat finally began to convince Nuggets management that the drama surrounding what is widely regarded as the inevitable trade of Anthony had crushed the team's resolve.
When the talks involving Detroit as a potential third-team facilitator were first reported Friday night by the Record, sources told ESPN.com that the Pistons were balking largely because they were being asked to surrender a first-rounder.
Yet at least one potential snag remained from the Pistons' side as well: Detroit's ongoing reluctance to take back Petro. Even though shedding Hamilton's contract in exchange for Murphy and Petro would represent an overall savings of roughly $17 million, sources say New Jersey spent much of the day trying to find a fourth team willing to absorb the $6.75 million owed to Petro over the next two seasons.
Sources said Monday that Detroit is likely to receive a future draft pick to convince the Pistons to take on Petro, although it has not yet been determined whether it will be a first- or second-round pick.
The biggest potential holdup, of course, is Anthony's ability to 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.
But it appeared, after Sunday's many twists and turns played out, that New Jersey regards the Nuggets' indecision and the Petro matter as 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 the belief that Anthony wants to draw this process out for the entire season if possible to increase the free agent-to-be's chances of winding up with the New York Knicks. Anthony could end up a Knick either via trade or by trying to convince the Nuggets to keep him for the entire season and then heading to New York in free agency.
Nets officials have remained quietly confident for months, and received further assurances Sunday, a source told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan, that Anthony ultimately would agree to the extension -- no matter how much he'd prefer to play with the Knicks -- to ensure that he locks in his contract before labor negotiations this summer that are expected to establish a much more restrictive financial landscape in the league.
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.
But one source close to the situation insisted Sunday that the Nets believe a face-to-face meeting with Prokhorov might not even be necessary to get Anthony's signoff if New Jersey can indeed acquire Billups and Hamilton. Sources said that the two former Detroit teammates would ease some of Anthony's concerns about joining a team that, despite the presence of promising big man Brook Lopez alongside Harris (for now), is 10-27.
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 the Nets are likewise unconcerned by Denver native Billups' reported determination to ask for an immediate buyout if he is traded away by his hometown team.
The Nets long ago committed to send Favors, Harris and at least two first-round picks to the Nuggets in exchange for Anthony. But they have been looking for third- or fourth-team facilitators for months after the collapse of their original deal in September, holding extensive talks with Cleveland, Minnesota and Portland before turning to Detroit.
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) and has been negotiating almost exclusively with the Nets for weeks.
With Favors and a cache of first-round picks it can move, New Jersey has a far more attractive war chest of trade assets. The Nets have also made it clear that they would not abandon their pursuit of Anthony until they're told directly by the All-Star forward that he would not sign an extension with them, which is the message some sources close to the process still believe New Jersey will get, as reported in December by ESPN.com.
The Nets and Nuggets, meanwhile, have not stopped looking for other teams beyond Detroit that would be interested in joining the trade. This is a result of Denver lacking a strong need for Harris with young guard Ty Lawson on the roster. New Jersey and Denver have likewise continued to discuss trade possibilities with the Nuggets that don't involve any other teams since the collapse of the original deal with Utah and Charlotte, which called for the Bobcats to acquire Harris and Jazz veteran Andrei Kirilenko to land in Denver.
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.