Thursday February 21st, 2008

Rivals have been speculating all week about another blockbuster that would send Sacramento's Ron Artest to Denver before the trade deadline Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.

Here's my question: What is taking so long?

It's a simple equation. If the Nuggets trade for Artest, they become a contender to run the table. If they don't make this trade, they'll be a second-round team at best, and more likely a loser in the opening round for a fifth-consecutive year.

Everybody in the league knows what Sacramento is seeking from Denver: young forward Linas Kleiza, the expiring contract of Eduardo Najera and a draft pick. The key piece is the 6-foot-8 Kleiza, a former No. 27 pick who in his third year is averaging 11.9 points in 25.5 minutes while filling in early this season for Kenyon Martin and later for Nenê, who suffered a thumb injury followed by a diagnosis of testicular cancer. (Doctors are optimistic of Nenê's recovery because the cancer was discovered in its early form.)

Kleiza is a good prospect, but he isn't going to help the Nuggets play deep into May. Artest, on the other hand, is capable of making the biggest difference: He could nullify the opponent's top scorer defensively, then provide ball handling and a versatile scoring option at the other end of the floor. He would provide defense and toughness to a finesse team.

Of course, Artest will be another high-maintenance player for the Nuggets, but Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are already on record that they want to play with him -- which means they will share in the responsibility for making it work.

You may hear other reports today that the trade talks are dead, that there is no chance of an Artest trade to Denver. But I'm not buying it. The Nuggets have the third-highest payroll in the league with a big luxury-tax bill to pay this summer. It's an untenable salary structure unless they go deep in the playoffs. So why not take on the additional risk of acquiring Artest when they've already gone this far with their payroll? The big money has already been committed, and Artest gives them a chance of turning their investment into a championship. Why back off now? Trading for Artest would be a bold move, but the Nuggets have to go for it.

The Nuggets have been in the middle of all kinds of trade rumors. Another involves a deal that would bring Zach Randolph to Denver, apparently for Nenê -- but only if Denver fails to make the trade for Artest.

This secondary proposal has a lot of people in the league scratching their heads because of Randolph's nefarious reputation. The Trail Blazers improved this season after dumping Randolph on the Knicks, who are now trying to move Randolph or Eddy Curry to open up their offense.

The difference in Denver is that the Nuggets have a personal relationship with Randolph and are convinced he will help them. Nuggets VP of basketball operations Mark Warkentien, who is overseeing all trade talks as de facto GM, was the executive who drafted Randolph for Portland with the No. 19 pick in 2001. Warkentien tells friends around the league that Randolph used to babysit for Warkentien's children in Portland.

Then there is Denver assistant Tim Grgurich, who coached Randolph in Portland as well as at Grgurich's annual summer camp in Las Vegas. Grgurich believes Randolph would provide a big lift to Denver's front line and has shared his opinions with coach George Karl in the strongest terms.

Randolph's reputation has taken a beating in recent years, but Warkentien and Grgurich remember him as a true 20-and-10 producer who will accept hard coaching while helping to further space the floor for Anthony, Iverson and Marcus Camby, whose shot-blocking and defense will help obscure Randolph's limitations (much as Rasheed Wallace did when he shared the frontcourt with Randolph in Portland).

On top of everything else, close to 30 percent of Randolph's contract is deferred, which would help alleviate the financial stress of acquiring him. Based on their personal insight, the Nuggets are convinced Randolph could elevate their playoff chances -- but only if they don't trade for Artest.

Word spread around the league Wednesday that Memphis has taken Mike Miller and Kyle Lowry off the table. Though they were receiving decent offers for both players, the Grizzlies would prefer to wait until this summer -- when the heat subsides from their controversial trade of Pau Gasol to the Lakers -- before considering new proposals.

This is not to say that the Grizzlies won't be listening Thursday if a team offers a sensational deal for Miller. But for the time being, they've shut down active negotiations.

• I can confirm that the Cavaliers are indeed pursuing a big "mysterious'' trade Thursday, though it is unlikely to be consummated.

• Chicago and Indiana have been active in conversations on a variety of fronts. So too has Miami, as the Heat probably cannot afford the long-haul approach of building cap space because they would risk losing Dwyane Wade to free agency as early as 2010.

• The Nets continue to seek a new home for Vince Carter's contract, though prospects were looking dim.

• The Magic were interested in Kurt Thomas, as coach Stan Van Gundy has sought to increase his team's toughness. But the Sonics sent Thomas to the Spurs on Wednesday.

Check this out: Seattle originally yielded a second-round pick to Phoenix in the preseason while agreeing to take on Thomas' salary in addition to a pair of first-rounders from Phoenix. Adding that to the haul they received from San Antonio, the Sonics have ultimately netted a trio of first-round picks as well as Francisco Elson, Brent Barry and cash -- all for one conditional second-round draft choice.

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