Monday February 18th, 2008

The Lakers, Suns and Mavericks have made major upgrades in the last two weeks, but that doesn't mean the trade talk is done. More big moves remain open to negotiation before Thursday's deadline, including the possibility that Sacramento's Ron Artest could end up in Denver.

This move would create strong opinions on both sides, from those who believe the Nuggets would spontaneously combust as well as from those who think Artest could provide them with a great opportunity in the playoffs. Put me in the latter group: Trading for Artest is something the Nuggets must try to do. He would elevate them to championship contention.

Will it happen? The Kings maintain their weekend giveaway of Mike Bibby was not the beginning of a trend; instead, they sent him to Atlanta in order to erase their luxury-tax burden for next season and to create minutes for Beno Udrih, enabling them to decide if he should be their starting point guard next season. It's also true that the unhappy Artest-Bibby marriage couldn't go on much longer.

Sacramento's ultimate goal is to build salary-cap space for the summer of 2010. With Artest indicating he'll opt out this summer, however, the Kings might want to leverage him for a couple of inexpensive assets moving forward.

That's why they're letting it be known that Artest may be available in exchange for a young talent and a first-round pick. The Nuggets surely wouldn't mind giving up their pick in this year's draft, but will they yield 23-year-old forward Linas Kleiza? The Kings are expected to demand him in a deal for Artest. But the Nuggets can make a reasonable argument that they can't afford to include a talent like Kleiza in exchange for Artest, who might walk after a half-season.

In theory, other potential partners in a trade for Artest would include Houston, Golden State and Orlando. (Magic coach Stan Van Gundy professed enthusiasm for Artest during his job interview with the Kings last summer.) But it's unlikely any of those teams will be as hot for Artest as the Nuggets, who should be far more willing to up the ante on this season for the following reasons:

• Artest will help them in the short term. When Artest was traded to Sacramento in January 2006, the Kings won 14 of their next 19 games to surge into the playoffs. He would have a similar impact on the Nuggets -- though with much higher stakes involved.

• His contract makes sense. Artest is making $7.4 million this year, and if he doesn't opt out, he has only one more year left in excess of $8 million. So the potential damage will be limited should he revert to unreliable form.

• He is needed at both ends. Imagine Artest guarding Manu Ginobili with Marcus Camby protecting the rim behind him. The Nuggets' defense -- already fifth in the league in points per possession -- would improve tremendously. As a point forward capable of initiating the Nuggets' offense, he would ease some of their ball-handling issues.

• They must win now. Everyone from Carmelo Anthony (who has never won a playoff series) to Allen Iverson and Camby (approaching the ends of their careers) to coach George Karl is under pressure to win now. The Nuggets made a big investment in Iverson last year, and they have an untenable salary structure, so why not do everything possible to win before it has to be demolished?

Karl is the right kind of coach to embrace a bold gamble like acquiring Artest, and owner Stan Kroenke has already shown he is willing to gamble in search of the big prize. If Artest had four years remaining on a max deal, he would not be nearly so attractive. But few stars influence the game like Artest. Considering where the Nuggets stand, they'll forever regret it if they don't try to grab him.

• The Grizzlies are fielding numerous offers for shooting guard Mike Miller. One possibility would be to send him to Indiana for power forward Ike Diogu and guard Marquis Daniels, which has been discussed in the last week. Word around the league is that point guard Kyle Lowry and others in Memphis could also be available.

• While other rebuilding teams have been giving away their stars, it appears that the 76ers are maintaining a higher standard with point guard Andre Miller. They win either way: If Cleveland (with help of a third team) or another suitor is willing to meet their price, then they'll move him; otherwise, they'll be happy to keep him and make a run at the playoffs, as the Sixers (23-30) are tied with Atlanta for the final spot in the East.

• With the Hawks having entered the All-Star break on a four-game losing streak, no one in Atlanta was surprised by the trade for Bibby. The Hawks gave up little in the exchange while filling their needs for shooting and leadership at point guard. Bibby can reclaim his good name by bringing order to this young team.

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