DENVER – LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) will headline a star-filled free-agent class next summer which should rank as the most impressive in NBA history. Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony(notes) could have been part of that class, too.
He's glad he isn't.
"There aren't going to be a lot of happy people out there," Anthony said. "It's going to be a zoo. … There are too many people."
Three years ago, James, Wade and Bosh all signed three-year contract extensions with an option for a fourth year, making them eligible to become free agents in 2010. The move gives them a chance to make more money by becoming free agents sooner. More importantly, it also gives them the power to leverage their teams into keeping a talented supporting cast around them – and the flexibility to leave if their teams don't.
Given Anthony's poor upbringing in Baltimore, his mother, Mary, told her son she didn't like the idea of leaving nearly $36 million on the table by opting for a shorter contract. Anthony listened and agreed to a four-year deal with an option for a fifth season that totaled $80 million, allowing him to possibly put off free agency until 2012.
At the time, it seemed like a wise decision for Anthony. Off-the-court issues had hurt his image. Five months after signing his extension, he punched New York Knicks guard Mardy Collins(notes), resulting in a 15-game suspension. Trouble never seemed far away. Taking the guaranteed money before he could further diminish his value looked like the safe bet.
Anthony has spent the past year rehabbing his reputation. He helped Team USA win the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, then was thrilled when the Nuggets delivered him Chauncey Billups(notes) – the type of veteran, battle-tested guide he always needed. Together, Billups and Anthony helped take the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1985.
Now, Anthony, who turned just 25 in May, likely would have been one of the top free agents next summer. Miami could have tried to pair him with Wade. The Knicks could have called. Anthony, however, doesn't regret his decision.
"It came down to injuries and my family," Anthony said. "People were saying, ‘You better not leave that money on the table.' I was what, 22 years old?"
Anthony now seems comfortable in Denver. He loves the team assembled around him, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he signed a three-year extension next summer.
"I'd really have to think about it as far as an extension goes," he said.
The Nuggets also have a lot invested in Anthony, having stuck with him through the off-the-court drama and all those first-round playoff exits. When Anthony does retire, he very well could do so as the greatest player in the franchise's history.
"Carmelo is as important to us as any player on any team in the league," said Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman, who acknowledged the franchise likely will discuss extending Anthony's contract next summer.
Anthony acknowledged fears of a possible lockout in 2011; the uncertain terms of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement could spur him to sign an extension next summer. He also said he'd like to be chosen as the Nuggets' representative to the Players Association this season.
"The good is I don't have to deal with that free-agency circus next year; the bad is we don't know what the CBA is going to be like or what the NBA is going to do," he added. "This season and throughout, I'm going to be at the meetings and I'm going to voice my opinion about the situations. I don't think anyone can afford [a lockout]. The NBA can't afford that. I don't think the players can afford that – nobody. We need basketball."
For now, Anthony is only looking forward to this season. The nagging injuries which limited him at times last season are gone. Getting the Nuggets to the conference finals after five straight first-round exits also has rejuvenated him. Anthony said this is the best he's felt mentally and physically since coming to Denver in 2003.
What angers him, however, is the lack of respect he feels his team is afforded. While the Nuggets strongly believe they had the talent to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the West finals last season, few people outside of Denver subscribe to that theory. Anthony thinks most people consider last season's success a "fluke."
Still, that hasn't deterred Anthony & Co. from openly discussing their championship hopes.
"They're always going to laugh at the Nuggets; they always laugh at us," Anthony said. "This is my seventh season. The last six years, I've been asked these same questions. 'How good can we be?' People are saying we are not this and we are not that. We like that, though."
Through their ups and downs, Anthony and the Nuggets say their marriage now stands on solid ground. They'd also like to see it continue.
"We all love 'Melo and believe in him," Chapman said. "We want him to be here as long as he wants to be here."