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NBA stars know they better bank money now

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

Carmelo Anthony(notes) isn't a romanticist thinking about Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) and the New York Knicks, but a stone-cold pragmatist with a clear agenda for hesitating on signing his Denver Nuggets contract extension. He has always wanted to be the basketball John Elway of Denver, only now he wants to make sure the Nuggets bring him the running game the old quarterback finally found to make him a champion.

"Why would he take the team off the hook and commit when the team hasn't done anything to improve itself yet?" one official close to Anthony said. "He's going to sign. What choice does he have?"

This isn’t fantasy basketball, where Anthony dares risk $30 million or $40 million on leaving his next contract to the mercy of a player-toxic collective bargaining agreement. Near Madison Square Garden, there's a tower lording over Madison Avenue where NBA commissioner David Stern and an army of attorneys are working relentlessly to save bellyaching owners against their worst enemies to profitability: themselves.

"That's taking a risk," Anthony told Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears recently about the prospect of passing on the Nuggets' offer.

Free agency will never be the same again because the owners are determined to restrict freedom in Draconian ways. Shorter contracts, less money and far less incentive to search out employment elsewhere. This is the perfect July circus for Stern: Everyone runs around, makes a big stir and ultimately returns home in the end. These days, it feels like Stern has much more control of a new crop of young stars than he does a new wave of owners.

Anthony is holding back on signing that contract not out of indecision, but the only leverage a superstar has: Pushing his team to spend money, make moves and give him the strongest possible supporting cast. For all the talk of New York pursuing Anthony in 2011, sources say Knicks owner Jim Dolan hadn't been so willing to give president Donnie Walsh the luxury of such patience. They had waited long enough, the owner insisted, and he wanted the Knicks to make their move this summer.

The Knicks aren't worried about years four and five with Stoudemire's uninsurable knees, because jobs and legacies are on the line in years one and two. The Knicks are out of it with LeBron James(notes), and sources say the Chicago Bulls are livid with World Wide Wes for selling them on a wired deal that doesn’t appear to be so wired.

Anthony could've made this an even wilder summer, but it should be telling that three years ago he chose a guaranteed fourth season of $18 million over his freedom in 2010. As a child that remembers empty plates and empty mouths in his Baltimore housing project, the idea of turning away more money now for almost an assurance of less later has never made sense to him.

So, Anthony's going to leave $30 million on the table and wait out a lockout where the commissioner and owners have outlined a plan designed to obliterate the earning power of the league's players? They want a restrictive system that'll lower the length and amount of max contracts, and with the way this union always caves, they'll probably get it.

The Knicks are willing to pay $100 million for an immensely talented player with uninsurable knees. Stoudemire is a long-term gamble the Knicks have to take, because there are no superstar free agents willing to gamble on them. Stoudemire can be a difference-maker for the Knicks with the proper surrounding cast, but the easy part was outbidding the league on him. They can't do that with James, Wade or Chris Bosh(notes). New York has to earn those players, and that's the real job that begins now.

Anthony wants the Nuggets to get better, and they've shown a willingness to be creative on the market, find bargains and gems, and, when necessary, invest in a big-ticket item. He has a good thing there, and deep down, he knows it. The Nuggets get coach George Karl back next season, and they'll likely stay right with the Western Conference elite. Nevertheless, the lockout is coming and Carmelo Anthony is smart enough to understand his peers don't have the staying power to fight these owners to the bitter end. They never do. The league wants blood this time, and the smartest of stars understand they better get the money available to them now, because David Stern and these owners are hell-bent to make sure it won't be there later.