From his office halfway around the world, Mikhail Prokhorov observed the goings on in New Jersey with a scowl. He watched as his top basketball officials, general manager Billy King and assistant GM Bobby Marks, carefully crafted proposal after proposal for Carmelo Anthony only to be rebuffed by the Nuggets each time. He watched as agents and various power brokers infected the process, making each new incarnation of an Anthony trade less palatable than the one before it. He watched as media outlets around the world covered the minutia of the negotiations like it was a presidential election, all while his $250 million investment stumbled to the bottom of the NBA standings.
On Wednesday, Prokhorov decided he couldn't watch anymore. In front of a bank of cameras and a crush of media, the Russian billionaire announced he was ending the Nets pursuit of Anthony, grinding a five-month long process to a merciful halt.
"I am not happy with the way this deal has gone until now," Prokhorov said. "It has taken too long. It has been played out in public. The uncertainty has taken a toll on the players. I believe that has cost us several games. I think the management of the team did a great job but there comes a time when the price is simply too expensive. I'm instructing our team to walk away from the deal and the meeting which was supposed to be held by our management tomorrow in Denver with Carmelo is hereby cancelled."
"The decision to walk away is my own decision. I'm not day-to-day with the team. Being one step removed from the day-to-day business gives me a clear understanding, a clear view of what was needed to be done."
It was a bold move by a neophyte owner, and one that is sure to be controversial. Indeed, the Anthony negotiations have been both long and complex ("In all my years, 16 years in the NBA, I have never seen anything like this," King said) but indications were that the two sides were making real progress.
On Monday, the Nuggets granted the Nets permission to fly representatives -- including Prokhorov and King -- to Denver to meet with Anthony, though the Nuggets' denied ever green-lighting a visit. Over the last few days the Nuggets had been pushing for New Jersey to swallow the remaining four-years and $28 million of Al Harrington's contract, sources said Denver had accepted that they would not be able to shoehorn Harrington into the deal. Could it have gotten done? Maybe. Maybe not. But Prokhorov wasn't willing to wait any longer and he wasn't interested (or so he says) in Anthony's input. Both Prokhorov and King were asked repeatedly whether there was any wiggle room, whether they would reconsider if the Nuggets tried to lure them back to the table.The answer was always the same: No
"It's been too long and too expensive," Prokhorov said. "We need to be a little bit patient. I don't want us to make a serious mistake."
Prokhorov is serious, too. It would be natural to view his statement as a negotiating ploy, as another strategic move in the NBA's most drawn out chess game. Or that Prokhorov got wind of Anthony's desire not to be traded to New Jersey and arranged for a press conference to try and save face in a messy situation. Except no one believes that. Few Nets officials knew of Prokhorov's decision before he addressed the media and the ones that did made it clear that Prokhorov wasn't interested in allowing this circus to go any further.
"He doesn't mess around," said a team source.
Speculation on Anthony's future will now simply reboot. Prokhorov said he is not concerned about possibly clearing Anthony's path to Manhattan, but he should be. Assuming the Nets really are out, the Knicks suddenly become the frontrunner. New York has long been Anthony's preferred destination, and despite not having a blue chip prospect like Derrick Favors, they do have young talent (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields) and a large expiring contract (Eddy Curry). And if the Knicks can somehow secure an unprotected 2012 first-round pick for Anthony Randolph, they will have the ability to trade their first-rounders in 2011 and 2013, a sneaky end run around the Ted Stepien rule that prevents teams from trading picks in consecutive years.
Will it be enough? It doesn't hurt the Nuggets might be even more inclined now to deal with New Jersey's cross-river rivals. Sources say Denver was stunned by the news that the Nets were pulling out and "extremely upset" at the abruptness of the decision. That would be disastrous for the Nets, who have desperately tried to position themselves as rivals when they move to Brooklyn in 2012.
The Nuggets could opt to re-open the bidding, too, and league executives believe that with Favors no longer in the equation, teams like Houston, Dallas and Chicago could jump back in. "Favors was the big chip," said a Western Conference executive. "No one could match that."
Wednesday morning Favors was a chip; now he is a key part of the Nets' future. King said he would keep working the phones to try and find another trading partner but teams offering an Anthony-level talent are few and far between. New Orleans isn't trading Chris Paul as long as David Stern is signing off on transactions, and Orlando has performed reconstructive surgery on its roster in an attempt to satisfy Dwight Howard.
No, New Jersey may have to rebuild the old fashioned way. They will have to invest everything resource they can in Favors and hope the sleepy-eyed rookie has a beast lurking inside. They will have to use their glut of first-round picks -- five in the next two years -- to acquire capable talent and hopefully one star along the way.
It's not what the Nets expected when they started negotiating with Denver last September. But in the end, it's what the owner decided he wanted.