Monday January 31st, 2011

The Carmelo Anthony trade saga has been going on so long that you can catch the first rumors in syndication five nights a week. Mostly, the talk has been about what 'Melo wants, what 'Melo needs and where 'Melo might end up.

Anthony and his Nuggets visit New Jersey on Monday, and the story is mostly about the potential marriage between Anthony and the Nets. But as Larry King can tell you, getting married is easy. Divorce is what's hard.

Anthony and his Nuggets have won four of their last five, but as with all things Nugget these days, they all seem like brief interludes between trade rumors. The Nuggets will all tell you they're handling it well. This is what they say: "We're handing it well." It is like their season has some sort of infection, and they can't really do anything about it, and nobody knows when it will go away. But they're handling it well.

"I think everybody had different expectations and thought processes," Nuggets coach George Karl said last week, "and I think 'Melo stayed above the line every night."

Maybe so. But it's a bad situation that won't go away until he is dealt, and while everybody continues their 'Melo-this, 'Melo-that conversation, my question is about the Nuggets.

See, we know Carmelo Anthony is very good at his job. We can't say that for the Nuggets' front office. And once Anthony goes -- wherever and whenever he goes -- the Nuggets' story won't be about him anymore. Rookie general manager Masai Ujiri has to show that he knows what he is doing. And in so many ways, this Carmelo saga is a franchise-defining moment.

Being an NBA general manager is not what we like to think it is. You don't just watch a bunch of games and try to make trades. You have to know people and what motivates them. You need to read agents' minds, get a feel for the market and play 19 games of poker at once.

For so many reasons, the Nuggets should be in a bad spot here. Anthony can become a free agent after the season. Everybody knows he won't re-sign with Denver, despite his protests that he hasn't really decided what to do. Anthony has made it sound like he had a bunch of paperwork on his desk and there was no rush -- like he might get around to signing his $65 million extension as soon as he finishes paying the gas bill and renewing his subscription to Good Housekeeping.

Meanwhile, everybody knows that Anthony is trying to pick his team, and by "team" I mean "market." One of these days, an NBA player is going to sign with Miami or New York or L.A. and be shocked when he realizes there are actually TEAMS in those cities, not just clubs. Anthony is determined to go to New York, Chicago or whatever that state is just west of New York. He'll figure it out when it's tax time.

So a new general manager has to trade his best and most popular player to one of three teams. This kind of situation never ends well.

But timing is everything in life, and the Nuggets have it on their side. If this were 2010 or 2012, the Nuggets would be in big trouble. But this is 2011, and the NBA is getting ready for a nasty labor stoppage. Superstars -- who are already underpaid, relative to their real market value, because of contract caps -- won't be able to make as much money. A $65 million player might become -- gasp! -- a $50 million player. I shudder to even talk about it. It's just so heartbreaking.

Anthony wants to sign a three-year, $65-million extension before he becomes a free agent. But he wants to do it with the team of his choosing. He may prefer the Knicks over the Nets, but is he willing to leave millions on the table to wait for this summer? Or can the Nuggets push up against the Feb. 24 trade deadline and make a deal with the Nets, figuring Anthony will give in at that point and sign a deal with New Jersey?

That is the end game the Nuggets must want. Forget the grandstanding by Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov; the Nets can say they're out of the Anthony sweepstakes, but who is really buying it? We know this much about the Nets: It doesn't matter if they're owned by a Russian billionaire, a hip-hop mogul or a group of nameless taxidermists in Secaucus. They're obsessed with getting noticed. When the Nets put up that famous billboard of Prokhorov and Jay-Z down the block from Madison Square Garden, it was supposed to signify the new Nets, but it was really the most Net-like move in the history of the franchise. If the Knicks would just acknowledge them, the Nets might raise a banner to celebrate.

The Nets still want a star, and the deal they offered the Nuggets is far superior to anything the Nuggets will get anywhere else.

You can start to build a team around Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round picks in addition to your own. The Nuggets would actually be in good shape if they did that. Nothing the Knicks or Bulls will offer is likely to approach that deal.

Now: How well do the Nuggets know their superstar? Do they know what motivates him? Can they massage the situation to get what's best for them, while making Anthony think he is getting what is best for him?

Last year, the Raptors apparently figured out too late that they would lose Chris Bosh -- they should have traded him midseason. The Cavaliers figured they would keep LeBron James right up until the moment they lost him (though it's not like the Cavs would have traded James during the season anyway -- they were trying to win a title). Meanwhile, the Heat knew all along that Dwyane Wade was more likely to lure other stars to Miami than join them somewhere else.

Carmelo Anthony won't be a Nugget next season. But he has been one for almost eight years. This is where we find out how well the Nuggets know their man. And it is when Nuggets fans find out about the people running their franchise.

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