1. Melo Trade Watch FAQ
George Karl isn't calling it Melo Drama. He's got his own term.
Having survived the fight of his life last spring, Karl doesn't have the inclination or desire to expend energy on coverups. He's been open and blunt in acknowledging the difficulties facing the Denver Nuggets in their quest to keep hold of Carmelo Anthony, after Denver's face of the franchise refused to sign a contract extension over the summer and nearly got traded to New Jersey on the eve of training camp.
Roughly a month removed from that collapsed four-team blockbuster, where are we now in the Melo saga? The season's maiden Weekend Dime gets you up-to-date FAQ-style:
Q: Can the Nuggets realistically get Melo to abandon the idea of leaving?
But it shouldn't be described as an anti-Denver thing. Karl said this week on NBA TV that it's his belief Melo not only likes the city but "might even love Denver." That's not in dispute. Sources close to the situation insist that Anthony -- on top of longstanding rumblings that he has a strong desire to return to the East Coast after growing up in Baltimore -- is most concerned with being somewhere he can realistically (and regularly) contend for championships.
The Nuggets are lobbying him hard and have succeeded somewhat where many naysayers were sure they couldn't, calming the storm that made the final few days before training camp opened feel like the last 72 hours before the trade deadline in February. They are trying desperately to convince Anthony that the West is where he wants to be, two years removed from a closer-than-it-looked West finals series with the Lakers in a conference that currently features no clear-cut top challenger to L.A.
It also must be said that Karl has been a source of cautious optimism amid the openness and bluntness while taking the lead role in Denver's charm offensive, which includes his recent pronouncements about how "Melo and I are together more than we've ever been together." Nuggets legend Dikembe Mutombo has also been in town this week, partly to impart the message that Melo will miss the Rocky Mountains dearly -- as Deke did -- if he chooses to move on.
Melo, though, will eventually have to be convinced that the Nuggets -- with new general manager Masai Ujiri and rookie team president Josh Kroenke -- can do the best job of building a contender around him. And his less-than-clear "it's a time for change" comments this week stand as the strongest hint yet that Melo isn't buying in, no matter how hard the Nuggets -- synonymous with front-office instability for years and likewise regarded in some circles as reluctant spenders -- try to sell him on the idea that he's their John Elway.
What happens when the Nuggets hit their first rough stretch of the season? What happens to Denver's patience if Anthony or the fans get frustrated? What happens when the Nuggets, still without injured big men Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen, go to New York to play the Knicks in mid-December? The season started about as well as it possibly could Wednesday night when they dismantled their division rivals from Utah in Karl's inspiring return from last season's debilitating cancer treatments. But it's very early.
Q: How plugged in has Melo been since reporting to training camp?
As stated, Karl has been frank about discussing his franchise player's uncertain future and how the "Melo turmoil" has to be acknowledged if the franchise has any hope of getting past it. The Nuggets have nonetheless been privately thrilled with Anthony's demeanor and professional approach, when some expected him to try to force things by being distant or disinterested.
Anthony hasn't budged on signing the three-year, $65 million extension that's been on the table for months, but he has consistently doused the tension with mostly benign (or vague) public commentary about his situation. And Anthony is at least listening to the behind-the-scenes pleas coming from Ujiri and Kroenke, which is what Nuggets officials hoped he would as the end of their interminably-long summer approached. They've clung to the belief, na´ve as it might sound, that being around pro-Nuggets voices for the first time in months would soften Anthony's disappointment with the team's swift fall from the West elite last season.
If he played with a sense of detachment, Anthony could perhaps force Denver's hand because of the resulting distractions such disengaged behavior would cause. But there have been no such crises yet. Even a rival executive who would love to trade for the All-Star forward told ESPN.com that it "sure looks from afar that Melo is being a good soldier."
Q: Don't the Nuggets lose trade leverage every day that passes leading up to the Feb. 24 trading deadline?
But that's only a theory. It assumes that the Nuggets are doomed to field lesser offers as the deadline nears because the whole NBA will be able to smell their desperation.
Yet, that's only a theory. Another plugged-in rival executive insists that no one knows for sure, no matter what anyone claims.
The first exec would argue that the Nuggets could "actually gain leverage" by waiting, given that players who signed contracts over the summer become eligible to be traded Dec. 15, potentially adding several new names to existing trade scenarios.
He also contends that the Nets are so determined to win the Melo Sweepstakes that Denver could easily go back to New Jersey in January, if nothing appetizing materializes in December, and still assemble a deal that would land them Nets rookie Derrick Favors and multiple future first-round picks.
One prominent player agent sees another benefit to waiting for the Nuggets. No teams out there have had time to get off to disastrous starts. What if, say, Chicago stumbles badly out of the gate? The Bulls hypothetically might be willing a month from now to part with assets they deem untouchable today.
Q: Can the original four-team deal that involved Charlotte, Utah and New Jersey be revived?
Doesn't look like it.
The Nets, sources say, haven't backed off their pursuit of Anthony one bit. But recent discussions with Denver have focused more on a direct two-team deal with the Nuggets or a multi-teamer that ropes in Portland rather than anything that brings the Bobcats (who wanted Nets point guard Devin Harris) or Jazz (who would have saved significant money by swapping Andrei Kirilenko for Charlotte's Boris Diaw) back to the table.
The Nets and Knicks remain the most fervent Melo chasers. Yet one source close to the situation maintained that the Nuggets -- if they can manage it -- continue to prefer not to send Anthony to his preferred destination in New York should they ultimately concede that a trade is unavoidable.
Whether that's because the Nuggets don't like the idea of Spike Lee allegedly serving as the Knicks' lead recruiter or because they simply don't like what New York has to offer is not fully clear. Yet you can rest assured that the Knicks won't be backing off any time soon.
The Knicks have also been trying to enlist the Blazers' help to put together a package Denver won't be able to resist, since New York needs to manufacture at least one first-round pick and probably an additional asset or two to tempt the Nuggets. The Knicks simply don't have the assets to deal with Denver directly, since their most attractive pieces are Eddy Curry's expiring contract and still-developing forwards Anthony Randolph and Danilo Gallinari.
Q: What does Denver expect in return if it does ultimately surrender Melo?
To go with multiple future first-rounders and payroll relief, Denver would want at least one quality young player that it can sell to its fan base. No. 3 overall pick Favors remains a prime example, as does a more seasoned former lottery pick, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala.
Sources stress that the saving-money element is an underreported key here. The big problem with the original four-team trade was that Denver would have been forced to pay more than $5 million in additional luxury tax at season's end after parting with Anthony, which longtime Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, Josh's father, found unacceptable.
Sources said that the Nuggets have registered strong interest in Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum and would naturally be unable to resist if a trade scenario emerged that enabled them to acquire Favors, Batum and future draft considerations. But the Blazers, sources said, continue to tell the Nuggets and all other interested parties (and, yes, it's a long line) that Batum is not available.
The Blazers do like Harris and almost crashed the September four-teamer with an offer to send Andre Miller to Charlotte to get the Nets' point guard, who was originally Bobcats-bound. But the Blazers dread the idea of parting with the blossoming Batum, especially in a deal that the Blazers don't end up with the best player.
Q: What happens if the Nuggets decide not to trade Melo before the deadline?
It remains difficult to imagine the Nuggets convincing Anthony to suddenly pledge his future to them after he's steadfastly refused to sign an extension that the organization once believed he'd sign in June or July. Hearing that saving money is such a Denver priority makes it even harder to imagine.
So if Anthony finishes the season with the Nuggets, it will almost certainly be because that's a gamle Denver wanted to take, not because Melo has had a change of heart.
And going into free agency without trading Anthony would indeed be a major risk that the overwhelming majority of league observers continues to believe Denver ultimately won't take.
It's widely assumed that Anthony could be forfeiting millions if he doesn't sign an extension with the Nuggets or his potential new employers under the current collective bargaining agreement before June 30. But Denver is more scared of its worst-case scenario -- ending up like Cleveland did last summer -- than it wants to admit.
Could the Nuggets gamble and keep Anthony beyond the trade deadline with the hope that doomsday scenarios about a possible lockout eventually convince him to sign the extension before the June 30 buzzer? Possible ... but far short of probable.
Don't forget Ujiri was hired by the Nuggets from Toronto, where Chris Bosh forced the Raptors to scramble for whatever they could get in a sign-and-trade with the Heat. The prospect of settling for a large trade exception and a consolation fistful of draft picks because its franchise player exercised his right to walk, as Cleveland and Toronto had to do with LeBron James and Bosh, weighs on the Nuggets every day. Especially since the Nuggets have a much clearer idea than the Cavs or Raps had with James or Bosh that Melo is serious about bolting.
"No way they put themselves in a Cleveland position," said one source close to the situation.
2. In Case You Missed It
Decided to stash a few links all in one place containing the various preseason predictions I've lodged at Stein Line HQ, knowing that they can be easily missed amid the countless waves of season-preview copy swamping you.
(And for the record, yes, I am already asking myself why I didn't go with OKC's James Harden as my Sixth Man Award favorite -- since Manu Ginobili and Jason Terry are starting the season as starters -- or give Indy's Roy Hibbert or Cleveland's J.J. Hickson more of a Most Improved Player look.)
• Team-by-team predictions in each conference are here.
• My Most Valuable Player pick is here, along with links to all the other individual awards right underneath the staff-wide MVP selections.
• My championship pick is here, along with links to division winners at the bottom.
• Here's a bonus link to the Power Rankings that will appear (and undoubtedly infuriate many) Mondays throughout the regular season.
3. Eastern Conference
It's one of those questions that typically circulates going into the season but was easily drowned out this time with so much else going on in Week 1: Who are the coaches on the hot seat?
Miami's Erik Spoelstra is a popular nominee, given the expectations on South Beach and Pat Riley's presence. Indiana's Jim O'Brien and Toronto's Jay Triano are other Eastern names that have been tossed out in various precincts, thanks largely to the short-term nature of their contracts.
But the name I hear most in NBA coaching circles in terms of seat warmth is Detroit's John Kuester. The Pistons have no shortage of issues, obviously, in their struggles to reload a roster that generated five straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals from 2004-08, but NBA coaching sources maintain that Kuester is particularly exposed to the threat of change, with Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Illitch closing in on the purchase of the Pistons.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
1: The Heat are the first team in NBA history to field three teammates with at least five All-Star appearances each before the age of 30.
38: At 38 years and 234 days old as of Tuesday night, Shaquille O'Neal is officially the NBA's oldest active player. But Boston began the season ranked as only the fifth-oldest team in the league. Miami is the oldest, thanks largely to the signings of Juwan Howard (37), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (35) and Jerry Stackhouse (35).
11: Paul Pierce's 19 points in Tuesday's win halted a run of 11 consecutive openers for the modern-day Mr. Celtic with at least 20 points, one shy of Karl Malone's all-time record of 12 straight for Utah.
4: The Hawks have won four straight season openers. That is tied with Boston for the league's longest active streak.
3: The East has three of the league's five highest-paid players: Orlando's Rashard Lewis ($19.5 million), Boston's Kevin Garnett ($18.832 million) and Milwaukee's Michael Redd ($18.3 million). The Lakers' Kobe Bryant ($24.8 million) is No. 1 and San Antonio's Tim Duncan ($18.835 million) is No. 3.
Missing the first 10 games of the season through suspension will cost Boston's Delonte West (weapons charges) just over $97,000 in salary. Indiana's Brandon Rush (five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug laws) will lose just over $94,000. ... One of the Heat's better secondary tricks this summer after flanking Dwyane Wade with LeBron James and Chris Bosh was that they're still somehow staying nearly $4 million under the luxury-tax line. That leaves them some wiggle room to sign the extra center Spoelstra appeared to need against the Celtics, although they've already missed out on the ideal candidate, Houston-bound Erick Dampier. ... My favorite tweet of the week, probably because I'm a deranged 41-year-old with two Apollo Creed figurines in my home office, was from Celtics radio play-by-play voice Sean Grande in the buildup to Tuesday night's season opener: "Anyone getting a Rocky IV Drago-Apollo 'this is bizarre' vibe for Celts-Heat? Creed's over the hill and the Russian hasn't fought anyone."
4. Not Quite Record-Setting
Remember all that talk Tuesday night about the Celtics and Heat cramming more former All-Stars into one game than any game witnessed in the NBA for more than 40 years?
The teams actually fell one All-Star short of tying the record because Stackhouse, in his first game since signing with Miami last week, didn't dress.
Miami and Boston could've combined to field 13 players with a combined 75 All-Star selections. For the Heat: James (six), Wade (six), Bosh (five), Ilgauskas (two), Stackhouse (two), Howard (one) and Jamaal Magloire (one). For the Celts: Shaquille O'Neal (15), Garnett (13), Ray Allen (nine), Pierce (eight), Jermaine O'Neal (six) and Rajon Rondo (one).
The last time at least 13 former All-Stars played in the same regular-season game was Jan. 29, 1969, in Philadelphia's 119-96 victory over Atlanta. For the Hawks: Richie Guerin, Don Ohl, Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beatty, Lou Hudson, Walt Hazzard and Joe Caldwell. For the Sixers: Hal Greer, Johnny Green, Chet Walker, Archie Clark, Billy Cunningham and Darrall Imhoff.
In compiling this data for ESPN's NBA team, ace researcher Pete Newmann assembled a list of notable events from 1969 ... which I'll pass along even though he omitted not only my birthday but Manchester City's seminal FA Cup triumph over Leicester a day later.
Jan. 30, 1969: The Beatles give their last public performance, on the roof of Apple Records. The impromptu concert was broken up by the police.
May 15, 1969: An American teenager known as 'Robert R.' dies in St. Louis, Mo., in mysterious circumstances. In 1984, his death is identified as the first confirmed case of HIV/AIDS in North America.
July 20, 1969: The world watches in awe as Neil Armstrong takes the historic first steps on the Moon.
Aug. 15, 1969: The Woodstock Festival begins in upstate New York, featuring some of the top rock musicians of the era.
Oct. 16, 1969: The "Miracle Mets" win the World Series, beating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games.
Nov. 15, 1969: Dave Thomas opens his first restaurant in a former steakhouse on a cold, snowy Saturday in downtown Columbus, Ohio. He names the chain Wendy's after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy by her siblings.
5. Western Conference
Why did the Blazers resist Chicago's attempts to trade for swingman Rudy Fernandez before the season started?
Sources with knowledge of the negotiations told ESPN.com that Portland was prepared to part with the Spaniard in September if the Bulls would have relinquished the first-round pick they acquired from Charlotte for Tyrus Thomas. That pick is lottery-protected in the 2012 draft, but is only protected 1-to-12 in 2013, 1-to-10 in 2014 and 1-7 in 2015.
The Bulls, though, have other first-round picks to peddle and were only prepared to surrender one of their lesser first-rounders in exchange for Fernandez, who wound up shooting the ball fantastically well in the preseason and is widely presumed to be harder to pry away from Portland now despite his well-chronicled determination to relocate.
The New York Post's Peter Vecsey reported earlier this month that Fernandez wants to play in an NBA city that has direct flights to his native Spain more than he wants to return to European ball. I've heard the same, which is apparently why New York, Boston and Chicago have topped Rudy's wish list all along.
Yet as Professor Hollinger explained over the weekend when the Blazers dealt Jerryd Bayless to New Orleans, Fernandez is one of the many trade assets Portland has stockpiled in hopes of making a big, Melo-sized score. Not hard to imagine them keeping Fernandez until a blockbuster materializes.
Some numbers of note from the West this week:
4: Who says preseason basketball is meaningless? Denver's Arron Afflalo was one of just five players in the entire league to average at least 20 points per game in exhibition play -- Amare Stoudemire (25.7 ppg), LeBron James (24.2 ppg), Monta Ellis (21.1 ppg) and Brook Lopez (20.3 ppg) were the others -- and Afflalo (20.4 ppg) scored 22 points in the Nuggets' season-opening rout of visiting Utah.
5: Blake Griffin's 20 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday night for the Clippers made him just the fifth No. 1 overall pick since 1990 to post a double-double in his NBA debut, joining Dwight Howard (2004), Tim Duncan (1997), Shaquille O'Neal (1992) and Derrick Coleman (1990).
8: Vinny Del Negro became the eighth successive Clippers coach to lose his first game in charge in Wednesday's home loss to Portland. The same fate befell Bill Fitch (1994), Chris Ford (1999), Jim Todd (2000), Alvin Gentry (2000), Dennis Johnson (2003), Mike Dunleavy (2003) and Kim Hughes (2010). Bob Weiss (1993) is the last Clippers coach to start 1-0.
2: John Stockton's record for assists on Opening Night (19) was challenged twice in the first 48 hours of the season, with Rajon Rondo racking up 17 assists in Boston's home win Tuesday over Miami and Jason Kidd amassing 18 dimes in Dallas' home win Wednesday over Charlotte.
13: Dallas' 13-game winning streak against Charlotte is tied for the league's second-longest active win streak in any head-to-head series. The Spurs have won 16 games in a row against the Clippers; New Orleans has also won 13 straight against the Clips.
Acquiring Bayless from Portland did nudge New Orleans into luxury-tax territory, but the Hornets have three players on contracts that don't become fully guaranteed until January (Joe Alexander, D.J. Mbenga and Pops Mensah-Bonsu) and would likely reach safety by letting two of those guys go in the event no further trades materialize that take them beneath the tax threshold. ... The Blazers haven't always been willing to surrender Bayless, but they apparently had to make sure they had roster room to keep guard Patty Mills. Reason being: Word is Blazers owner Paul Allen is a h-u-g-e Mills fan and was determined to see him stay. ... Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says that the vest bearing an NBA logo that he wore to Wednesday night's season opener -- believed to the be the first time he's ever sported league gear at a game as opposed to Mavs gear -- was a goody-bag gift for attendees of the recent Board of Governors meeting in New York. "It's my new look," Cuban joked.
6. Rudy Blues
Are the Trail Blazers planning on parting with guard Rudy Fernandez in a trade? (See Box 5.)
7. Marc's Quote
"He's going to get to the line 10 times a game. And he might lead us in block shots."
Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, assessing Wiz rookie sensation John Wall.
Cassell's views actually appeared near the bottom of this piece from Wall's exhibition debut in early October. But they're re-running now in spite of Wall's humbling regular-season debut Thursday night in Orlando because A) they saw virtually no daylight at the time thanks to the first of multiple preseason missteps that night from Gilbert Arenas, B) I'm always eager to hear and discuss Cassell's viewpoint even if he coaching rather than playing, and C) I'm not going to be dissuaded about Wall's potential by one rough baptism against a team that has been absolutely strafing teams for a month already when you factor in Orlando's undefeated preseason.
Cassell works one-on-one with Wall before every game and, like most of us, is awestruck by the speed and athleticism Wall brings to the position. He, too, won't be backing off just because Wall could only manage a labored 14 points on 6-for-19 shooting along with nine assists, three steals and, uh, zero blocks in Orlando's 112-83 cruise.
Any discussion about Wall, though, inevitably leads us back to Arenas and the fact that the huge difficulties Washington faces in trying to trade Gil -- largely because he has three years and $60-some million left on his contract after this season -- are even huger after an October in which fresh doubts were raised about Arenas' mindset, decision-making and health.
Better nights surely await -- and soon -- but Wall's brilliance will only snag roughly half of the spotlight in the best of times (OK, two-thirds of it) as long as Arenas hangs around.
My own suspicion is that Arenas fabricated the story earlier this month about feigning injury to enable teammate Nick Young to get some playing time because he didn't want to have to speak publicly about actually being hurt again. Which is unavoidable now that Gil, on top of longstanding issues with a left knee injury that has required three surgeries, has been shelved at least two games with recent groin and ankle trouble. Yet there's no need for theorizing when it comes to assessing the former Agent Zero's tradeability.
You got it: Zero.
The Wiz need a sustained run of something resembling reliability from Arenas, playing off the ball next to Wall, to have any hope of moving him before the trading deadline in February. Every indication we've seen from Wall so far suggests that fears about Gil being a wayward influence who can mess with the rookie's game or head have been wildly overstated ... but the franchise likewise can't really move on from last season's mayhem if Arenas is still there.
The most pertinent basketball question in the nation's capital, then, is sadly not about Wall's ability to live up to the high praise Sam I Am has for everything including his shot-blocking ability. It's about the Wizards' patience. As in: How long can they cling to the dream of being able to trade Gil before they concede that the odds of a trade are ever-shrinking and that it's time to finally commence with undeniably complicated buyout negotiations?
8. Wonder Wall
John Wall's NBA debut wasn't a slam dunk like Blake Griffin's, but assistant coach Sam Cassell has high hopes for his PG prodigy. (See Box 7.)
9. Chatter Box
10. Three In The Corner
Three random mini-rants (and occasional raves) from our know-it-all perch at Stein Line HQ:
1. There's no question Avery Johnson and Devin Harris had their battles in Dallas, although I'm not even sure you can call them battles when one guy (Avery) is doing all the shouting. But I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why we keep reading and hearing that Johnson already has to do some fence-mending with Harris in New Jersey just because Harris was almost dealt to Charlotte in the four-way Carmelo Anthony deal that collapsed. Isn't it well-established that Harris, despite how hard Johnson rode him at times when they were in Big D, lobbied for Johnson to get the Nets' job before last season had even ended? And is the Nets' lust for Anthony solely Avery's idea ... or doesn't pretty much everyone in the organization with any authority want Melo? Don't quite understand why the Nets' attempts to push the deal with Denver through before other suitors materialize is pinned so exclusively on the coach. Dare I say it actually starts with Mikhail Prokhorov.
2. Another note for the Clippers book more than one Clips survivor has urged me to write: Throughout a Southern California vacation with the family in August, I was mesmerized by the irony and fan-taunting nature -- although admittedly not quite on the level of "The Decision" -- of repeated real-estate ads in the L.A. Times with the claim: "Donald T. Sterling Has A Check For You ... TODAY." In related news, Sterling and Mike Dunleavy are still haggling over an estimated $7 million from Dunleavy's original five-year, $22 million contract.
3. Now that the season has started and we have actual games to dissect as opposed to simply shoveling more hype into the Heat conversation, can we all agree that "Miami Thrice" is just about the worst nickname in the history of nicknames and that a moratorium on any future use of that absolute reach should take instant effect? Not trying to suggest that "SuperFriends" is perfect -- it's not my creation anyway and I'm not even sure who was the first to throw it out there -- but all the thrice stuff has to stop. Immediately.