The Denver Nuggets are pressing Carmelo Anthony for a long-term commitment, because if he declines a three-year, $65 million contract extension now on the table, the team must consider trading its leading scorer.
Trade Melo? Would the Nuggets really part ways with a 26-year-old forward in the prime of his NBA career? Denver might not have any choice.
With an eye on how megastars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have held the league's competitive balance in their fickle hands and turned this summer's free-agency period into a three-ring circus, the Nuggets seem determined not to let Anthony do the same in Denver.
While their offer of a hefty contract extension proves the Nuggets hope Anthony will remain the face of the franchise for years to come, the team is prepared to trade Melo rather than let him walk as a free agent next summer, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
At a salary of $17 million, Anthony is committed to play for Denver during the upcoming season. But here's the rub. Anthony can opt out of his contract next summer, and free-agency might appear all the more tempting after seeing the league-wide groveling James has instigated.
As a proactive move, the Nuggets have quietly tried to secure the services of Anthony through 2015 before losers in the pursuit of this talent-laden class of free agents can begin dreaming of Melo.
While Denver has obsessed with the contract status of football stars Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey, the negotiations between the Nuggets and Anthony might have already reached a more critical stage, because management of the local NBA franchise has shown it's not afraid to make trades involving a marquee player.
At a time when pro basketball superstars have never wielded more power in how league rosters are built, it seems to me Anthony must apply whatever leverage he can to determine to what extent the Nuggets are willing to improve his supporting cast.
Often treated as a bigger star on the road than at home, Anthony could find riches and live like a king in almost any NBA city from New York to Los Angeles. He genuinely likes Denver, but at this point in his career, what should motivate Anthony is finding the situation that gives him the best chance to win a ring. I have advocated he not sign any deal with the Nuggets unless the team can give assurances that help is on the way.
These negotiations are not really about money so much as the talks force both Anthony and the Nuggets to examine if they can live happily ever after.
Although Stan Kroenke craves a championship, the Nuggets owner is a tough negotiator who isn't going to play a game of My Wallet Is Bigger against Mark Cuban in Dallas or Mikhail Prokhorov in New Jersey.
It's hard to envision any business run by Kroenke allowing an asset as valuable as Anthony walk away for nothing. Either the i's will be dotted and the t's will be crossed on a new deal with the Nuggets long before the trade deadline next winter, or you can color Melo gone from Denver.
Unwilling to use coach George Karl's battle with cancer as an excuse, Nuggets management saw the team's first-round flameout in the playoffs as proof the current roster is unlikely to win a championship.
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With guard Chauncey Billups approaching his 34th birthday, forward Kenyon Martin facing recovery from yet another knee surgery and the distinct possibility of labor strife interrupting the 2011-12 season, it's not too early for everybody to begin long-term planning and ask a tough question:
Does Denver have a future as a serious NBA contender with a nucleus of Anthony, promising guard Ty Lawson and frustrating center Nene?
Without a solid commitment from Anthony, the Nuggets might feel as if they have no choice except to blow up the roster and start over.
(Mark Kiszla is a sports columnist for The Denver Post.)