The commissioner, the owner, the agents, they're running one big hustle on Carmelo Anthony(notes). Together, they've thrust him into a circumstance where the Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets are holding hostage basketball seasons, and everything's playing out to turn a popular NBA star into a villain.
As NBA commissioner David Stern threatens doomsday labor-talk scenarios – rollbacks of existing contracts, tens of millions of dollars out of the pockets of NBA stars, the nuking of the players union – Anthony is too terrified to go into free agency. And why wouldn't he be, when the commissioner is pushing to someday make himself the highest-paid player in the NBA.
Anthony is forced to leave a terrific basketball market largely because this has become a sport of stars who need to play for great owners and great management teams. He doesn't want to stay with the Nuggets. Stan Kroenke has invested hundreds of millions into the Nuggets, and he fired a past executive of the year – Mark Warkentien – so he could have his 30-year-old son, Josh, and a former international scout, Masai Ujiri, make the trade of his franchise star.
They'll be judged on the results, which is good, because the process has been clumsy. Mostly, it's confirmed the reasons Anthony wants out: The Nuggets are far more farce than they are formidable.
Too bad, too. Anthony likes those fans, that city, and he hates that it had to play out this way. Only, he has no choice. 'Melo lived through the dysfunction and ethical nightmares of Bret Bearup as a force in the Nuggets' front office, and he watched Warkentien have his contract expire and let go without legitimate reason.
When Ujiri had a deal in place with New Jersey and Detroit over the weekend to finally move Anthony to the Nets, he backed away. Why? Stan Kroenke didn't like the deal, a league source said. Never mind the three teams had all but agreed on it. For Kroenke, the Nuggets were taking back too much salary. "Kroenke has laid down a parameter they can't take contracts back and they need to dump as much [money] as possible," a league source said.
Kroenke is someone who Anthony should fear: As an NFL owner, Kroenke loves the hard salary cap and is pushing hard to see it implemented in the NBA. Anthony's playing the game the way Denver's owner and the league's commissioner framed it: Get yours, and get it now.
The consequences of these trade talks dragging on and on have destroyed two seasons – the Nuggets and the Nets. They've insulted paying customers in Colorado and New Jersey, and left Anthony at the mercy of his most dubious decision of all: Hiring Leon Rose and William Wesley of CAA to represent him.
As happened with LeBron James'(notes) inner-circle last summer, there's a growing tension within Anthony's camp over the agendas of the agents. Rose and Wesley – the famous Worldwide Wes – have pushed for the Nuggets to make a deal with the Nets. Wesley is a close associate of Nets minority owner, Jay-Z, and everyone believes he wants a further entrée into the lair of Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Within the league, they all get it: Wes wants access to Prokhorov's empire, wants to get the coaches he reps hired in Jersey and get full access to the franchise.
After they deliver New Orleans' Chris Paul(notes) to the Nets – which could be impossible with Richard Hamilton's(notes) contract clogging the salary cap – Wesley will have what he wants: a franchise to call his own. CAA is selling itself as the powerhouse agency that'll package you with the stars, but that's easy in free agency. How's it worked for Anthony and Paul? How's CAA helped their images? How have they muscled teams into doing deals for them?
Rose is ultimately indebted to Wesley as the recruiting muscle of his agency, but has a unique affinity and loyalty to Hamilton. Hamilton is one of his longest-standing clients, and Rose wants badly to pull Hamilton away from the rebuilding Pistons and partner him with Anthony and Chauncey Billups(notes) in New Jersey. Rose – not anyone else – constructed the idea to send Hamilton to the Nets. How this all benefits Anthony remains a mystery.
Yes, it gets Anthony his $65 million now. It makes him the centerpiece of the 2012 move into Brooklyn and all. Yet, Anthony keeps hearing Ujiri and his agents tell him: The Knicks don't have a deal for you. The Knicks aren't trying that hard (which isn't true). Anthony watched all his free-agent buddies get everything they wanted over the summer – LeBron and Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) – and wonders: Why do I have to settle? Why do I have to become the bad guy this season?
"There are so many different agendas at play in this deal," one league official said. "But there's no question: Leon and Wes want [the Nets] – even if it's for different reasons."
In every way, Anthony is a pawn in a bigger game. He'll be blamed as the reason basketball seasons in Denver and New Jersey have collapsed under the weight of his trade talks. Only, he has no choice. This is his free agency now, and he's trapped from above with the agendas of David Stern and Stan Kroenke, and those below with Leon Rose and Worldwide Wes. In the end, they'll get everything they want out of this lost season.
And 'Melo, he'll probably end up in Jersey.