The Carmelo Anthony trade has turned into a puzzle that's taking an annoyingly long time to complete. It's mostly finished, yet everyone is looking for the one piece the dog ate.
But is it really that bad of an idea for the Nuggets to hold on to Melo through the February 24 trade deadline?
It's unlikely, but it might not be as unwise as assumed.
New Jersey once played the role of that puzzle-piece-eating dog thanks to a reported offer that included trump card in young forward Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and useful guards in Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow. Once the Nets backed out, however, the New York Knicks became the most logical suitor. But its pieces pale in comparison with those from the Nets.
A package from the Knicks centers on either Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry's expiring contract, one first round pick and spare-part players. If that offer leaves Nuggets fans less than ecstatic, they have something in common with Nuggets management. Throw in reports by CBSSports.com's Ken Berger that some members of the Knicks' management are unsure how much they want to acquire Anthony and one wonders how likely it is that this deal will happen.
Potential trades with the Houston Rockets or Dallas Mavericks -- teams that are willing to trade for Melo with no guarantee he will sign an extension -- are likely to be less enticing than a proposal from the Knicks. The Texas teams would give up less because they don't know if Anthony will be anything more than a rental for the remainder of the season.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently commented on his willingness to sign an All-Star without a guarantee he would sign a contract extension. Without mentioning Anthony by name, Cuban indicated he would be looking for a bargain: "I can't talk about other teams' players, but I'm always trying to be opportunistic," Cuban told the New York Post. "If someone wanted to offer me a perennial All-Star for a second-round pick, I'm going to say yes."
So with the trade options looking about as appealing as Nuggets season tickets for next year, maybe the team and Melo should just ride it out. Melo himself made back-and-forth comments after the game against New Jersey and implied he still hasn't ruled out coming back to Denver. In addition, coach George Karl recently said he believes there's a decent chance Melo will remain in Denver for the entire season.
If Anthony isn't shipped before the trading deadline, his two most likely moves are to opt out of the final year of his contract and enter free agency or sign the three-year $65 million extension the Nuggets have had on the table since the summer. With the uncertainty of the next collective bargaining agreement, in which player salaries are expected to be reduced, the Nuggets would be betting Melo values the guaranteed money of the extension more than heading to New York via free agency. He can't have both if the Nuggets don't trade him.
It's not that risky of a gamble, considering that some observers estimate Anthony would lose around $40 million by passing on the extension. Also keep in mind that the Knicks as currently constructed don't have the cap space to sign Melo to a max contract. They would have to move some players (read: weaken the team) to make room for Melo. And a shaky supporting cast seems to be part of the reason Melo wants out of here.
Another option after the season would be a sign-and-trade in which Anthony signs the extension and is then traded, presumably, to the Knicks. But this is unlikely, because players with expiring contracts can't be included in sign-and-trade deals -- so the cap relief Eddy Curry would provide through an in-season trade goes out the window.
The final option, and the one fans fear the most, is that Melo becomes a free agent and signs elsewhere, with the Nuggets getting nothing in return. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri would seemingly want to avoid this at all costs, as he was the assistant GM of the Raptors last year and saw Chris Bosh take his talents to South Beach while leaving the cupboard bare in Toronto.
The difference between Denver and Toronto is that if Melo jets at the end of the season, there are more crumbs than there were in Toronto. The Nuggets could go forward with a core of Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson, Aaron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Birdman and Nenê -- unless Mr. Hilario chooses to opt out of his contract and seek another team willing to pay $11 million for a soft big man who averages seven rebounds a game (good luck with that).
Depending on the salary cap next season (if there is one), this team could have in the neighborhood of $20 million to spend on free agents. The Nuggets could clear even more cap space by buying Billups out of his contract, which could save the team around $11 million.
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The problem with banking on cap space? This summer is not last summer. The top free-agent to be? None other than Carmelo Anthony. Jamal Crawford, David West, Zach Randolph and Kendrick Perkins headline the rest of the class. But at least the Nuggets have the option of exploring free agency.
Something else to pay attention to are rumblings that the new CBA will include a "franchise tag" similar to what the NFL has. This would allow the Nuggets to keep Melo in Denver next year and guarantee his salary. Who's up for another season of Melo trade rumors?
While it might seem next to impossible that Melo is a Nugget past February 24, it also seemed highly unlikely he would suit up in Denver at all this season a week before it began -- and look at us now. It's not necessarily desirable, but retaining Melo through the season might not be the unthinkable option most believe it to be.
More from our Sports archive: "Carmelo Anthony trade: Can L.A. Lakers challenge New York Knicks for Melo's services?"