NEW YORK -- The most popular man on the Madison Square Garden floor Sunday morning wasn't Amar'e Stoudemire. It wasn't Raymond Felton or Wilson Chandler, Chauncey Billups or Carmelo Anthony. No, the man who drew the biggest crowd was Masai Ujiri, Denver's first-year general manager, whose job has quickly evolved into the most difficult in the sport.
The reason, of course, is Anthony. Drama has enshrouded Anthony since the summer, when he first turned down the Nuggets three-year, $65 million contract extension. Since then Anthony's future has become an endless storyline, with speculation centering on his desire to play in New York. The rumors developed a little more teeth on Sunday, when ESPN.com reported that the only team Anthony would sign an extension with is the Knicks, a decision that, if true, would appear to limit Denver's options, as no team would be willing to part with significant assets if they didn't have Anthony locked up to a long-term deal.
All of this has fallen on Ujiri, who has been down this road before. As an assistant GM with the Raptors last season, Ujiri watched as speculation about Chris Bosh's future splintered the team and ultimately saw Bosh skip out of town.
"There was plenty I learned going through that experience," Ujiri said.
But while the rest of the league has wondered where Anthony is going, Ujiri has been trying to convince him to stay. The relationship between the two dates back to 2003, when Nigerian-born Ujiri first came to Denver as an international scout. In four years with Denver, Ujiri forged a bond with Anthony, a bond he has leaned on during many discussions.
"I have a special relationship with him," Ujiri said before Sunday's 129-125 loss to the Knicks. "In your mind, you wish [the situation] was different. But the situation is what it is. I understand him and I understand the situation. But I love the kid to death."
Eventually, Ujiri will be forced to make a decision. He has time. Players signed in the offseason become eligible to be traded on Wednesday and the trade deadline isn't until Feb. 24.
"I don't know if there is a deadline in my mind but we will do what is best for the organization," Ujiri said. "I have to do the best for the organization. We'll see how it works out."
As he debates his next move, Ujiri knows he still has some leverage. Despite Anthony's reported desire to play in New York, league sources maintain that signing that $65 million extension remains Anthony's top priority, a belief that Anthony seemed to confirm on Sunday when he said that "whatever decision I make, [the extension] is going to be the first thing that gets done."
Why? Because Anthony knows the new collective bargaining agreement will likely slash the maximum salaries, which could cost Anthony between $15-20 million over the course of the contract if he simply signs with the Knicks outright after the season. Faced with that possibility, multiple league sources believe if Anthony is still a Nugget in February, he will expand his list.
It could reach that point, too. The Knicks have some attractive assets (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields) but don't have a No. 1 draft pick to deal Denver until 2014. The Nets have a standing offer of Derrick Favors, Troy Murphy and two No. 1 picks. Houston, Dallas and Orlando have been in the mix before and could get back in down the road.
In the meantime, Ujiri continues to work. He says that while he fields calls for Anthony he is busy making calls of his own, trying to find ways to improve the team while Anthony is still around.
"I am very active," Ujiri said. "Whatever way we can get the Nuggets better is something we talk about every day."