DENVER — Just how much longer will Carmelo Anthony play for the Denver Nuggets?
He can opt out of his contract after the upcoming season and become the headliner of the 2011 free-agent class or he could play out the final two years of his contract and put off the wine-and-dine tour for a year.
He could sign a three-year, $65 million extension that’s been on the table all summer and would keep him in Denver through 2015.
Or maybe he’s already played his last game for the Nuggets, who don’t want to be spurned like the Cleveland Cavaliers were when LeBron James went on national TV to divorce them for a fresh start in Miami.
The All-Star forward who won a national title as a freshman at Syracuse and a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics — but has been able to guide Denver out of the first round of the playoffs just once in his seven NBA seasons — could be dealt before the season starts if team owner Stan Kroenke decides to jump-start a rebuilding program.
With a sign-and-trade deal, ‘Melo would get the money he may not be able to earn with a new collective bargaining agreement while the Nuggets land players to help them get on with life after ‘Melo.
Kroenke might choose to deal the face of his franchise at the February trade deadline, too.
The secluded owner likes to operate out of the public limelight, so his intentions aren’t clear.
Neither are Anthony’s.
Some observers, however, see plenty of signs pointing toward his exit:
• He didn’t jump at the chance to sign his extension.
• He’s put his 25,000-square-foot mansion in suburban Denver up for sale.
• At Anthony’s New York wedding to television personality LaLa Vazquez this summer, New Orleans point guard Chris Paul reportedly toasted the newlyweds by predicting a future Knicks dream team made up of himself, Anthony and Amare Stoudemire to counter the one in South Beach featuring James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Anthony, who grew up on the East Coast, dismisses the Big Apple speculation as “rumors.”
“I’ve been hearing that for five years. So, rumors,” he said last weekend at his annual basketball camp. “I’m a Denver Nugget. I’m here. I’m with the Nuggets. I don’t become a free agent until next year, if I decide not to take that extension.”
Like any competitor, Anthony wants to win a ring, and the Nuggets have slipped back into the pack a year after reaching the Western Conference Finals, where they had the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers on the ropes.
When coach George Karl had to take a sabbatical in March to fight throat cancer, the Nuggets floundered under assistant Adrian Dantley and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Utah.
They parted ways this month with Mark Warkentien, the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2009 after engineering the Allen Iverson-Chauncey Billups trade, and Rex Chapman, vice president of player personnel, and they have yet to replace them.
Karl hopes to return to the sideline in September, his fitness and stamina permitting, and he’ll find a team struggling to regain its own health.
The Nuggets don’t know when Kenyon Martin and Chris “Birdman” Andersen will be recovered from offseason knee surgeries, so their desire for a big man took center stage this summer.
They were unable, however, to move back into the draft this summer to grab a big man, then struck out in their dogged pursuits of free agents Jermaine O’Neal, who went to Boston, and Udonis Haslem, who stayed in Miami.
So, they decided to change the way they play.
They signed Al Harrington, a power forward who likes to run and shoot and will start at power forward with Nene, who is coming off a leg injury in the playoffs, moving to center.
That means the Nuggets will have to play a run-and-gun style like Mike D’Antoni’s old Phoenix Suns teams when the season starts.
In which case, they’d love to have Anthony’s 28 points a game.
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