A decade has past since one of the biggest trades in franchise history
Ten years ago today, while the NBA was returning for it’s recess for the All Star break, the Denver Nuggets made what some argue is the biggest trade in franchise history. After seven straight years of leading them to the playoffs, Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets reached an impasse. The Nuggets wanted their young star to re-up and sign the maximum extension, spend his prime with the team that drafted him third overall. Melo wanted different things. Oh he wanted that max extension alright, just not in Denver. He left the Nuggets with a choice: trade him to a team of his liking, or lose him for nothing in the offseason.
It was the end of an era that had in some ways quite literally saved basketball in Denver. It was a deal that shipped off not only the best player the Nuggets had since Alex English, but also the hometown hero in Chauncey Billups. It was a baptism by fire for gm Masai Ujiri. It was the the start of a rebuild that would take nearly a decade to complete. It was a trade that in the end everyone won and no one did.
The wheels for Carmelo’s eventual departure from Denver were set in motion the season prior, almost one year to the day prior to the trade happening. Coming off a Western Conference Finals trip and returning largely the exact same roster the Nuggets were once again primed to make a run at a title behind Melo and Billups. They spent the first half of the season chasing the Los Angeles Lakers in the standings but found themselves solidly in second place in the Western Conference. Then things took a turn for the worse.
On February 16th, 2010 George Karl announced that he was battling throat cancer and was going to undergo radiation treatment. He stated at the time his desire was to do whatever he could through treatment to help the team but it quickly became apparent Karl was not able to stay on the bench coaching the team. He ended up stepping away to focus on treatment and lead assistant Adrian Dantley took over the reigns. The Nuggets tumbled. They spent all of March fighting off the Dallas Mavericks for the two seed in the West and eventually succumbed at the end of the month. The tumble continued to close the season with the Phoenix Suns also overtaking the Nuggets, leaving Denver in a tie for fourth with the Utah Jazz.
The wheels coming off the Nuggets championship train manifested themselves in other ways as well. Kenyon Martin was dealing with chronic knee injuries and receiving platelet rich plasma therapy while not able to play during that season. Martin’s treatment plan was entirely focused on getting him ready for a playoff run. A few weeks before season’s end teammate J.R. Smith played an ill advised April Fool’s joke on Martin, filling his vehicle (with white interior) with butter popcorn. Martin was upset to say the least, and threated to not return for the playoffs because he was so upset about the gag. The clearly disjointed locker room without their coach ended up bowing out of the playoffs quietly, falling down three games to one to the Jazz in the first round before losing the series in six.
The Lakers went on to win their second straight title behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol that year. The Nuggets watched from home after exiting the playoffs in the first round for the sixth time in the past seven years. Shortly thereafter LeBron James made his infamous “Decision” and a super team, built through free agency with superstars teaming up in one place, was born. It was a massive event, complete with it’s own TV Special and everything. Everyone was paying attention to what LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were doing, the other players in the league, including Melo, certainly not least among them.
For their part the Nuggets offered Melo the max extension as soon as the offseason began but there was another big event happened that summer that had his immediate focus: he got married to long time girlfriend and MTV celebrity LaLa Vasquez in her hometown of New York City. It was at Melo’s wedding where the infamous Chris Paul “super team in New York” toast was made and the realization for Denver’s front office and fans began to set in: Melo probably wasn’t going to sign that extension.
By the time the season was set to begin the elephant was far too prominent in the room to be ignored by national media. Carmelo Anthony was in the final year of his deal, had a max extension on the table and he wasn’t signing it. It was clear the Nuggets and Melo were headed for a breakup. With the massive free agency summer of 2010 in the rearview mirror the Melodrama, as it became known, dominated the NBA news cycle. Meanwhile with coach Karl back in the fold the Nuggets were trying to undertake a return to the conference elite while also going through a front office change. Denver had finally moved on from their weird triumvirate of executives running the team (Bret Bearup, Rex Chapman, Mark Warkentein) and instead went with an upcoming but relatively unknown (see: cheap) first time GM in Masai Ujiri.
The Nuggets were stuck in a tough roster situation. They were filled with aging veterans like Billups, Martin, Nene and Smith, all part of a roster specifically built around Melo, and they were about to have to blow the whole thing up. They were also losing leverage by the day. With the cat out of the bag that Melo wanted out, and with his ability to hold the Nuggets and their potential trade partners hostage due to his impending free agency, the Nuggets list of suitors was extremely limited despite having a superstar in his prime on the market. The New York Knicks were the obvious choice for Melo’s ultimate landing spot but there were a couple of other teams rumored to have a shot. Ultimately it came down to the Knicks, the New Jersey Nets and the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls never gained much traction as a true suitor. They didn’t have enough to offer to beat the Knicks or Nets’ trade package and the fact that Melo wanted to be in New York was the worst kept secret of the 2010-2011 season. The only question was would he be willing to wait it out in New Jersey while the Nets made their transition to Brooklyn. This is the part Nuggets fans never give Melo credit for. I don’t think he ever had any intention of playing for the Nets, but he played along with that idea. He gave Ujiri a team to play against the Knicks. He gave him leverage and Ujiri navigated it masterfully.
Masai played the two teams against each other so hard it even made then Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov publicly pronounce in January that the Nets were out on a Melo deal because the asking price had become too steep. They of course weren’t really out and the Melodrama drug on for another month, culminating with Melo patting himself on the back for how he managed to stay focused during the distractions he had created himself. Finally, on February 21st, 2011 as teams were heading back from All Star break the news broke: Carmelo Anthony had been traded to the New York Knicks.
Ujiri would go on to say that he felt like he had to make the deal as big as possible to truly be able to remake Denver’s roster. That was his reason behind adding Billups to the trade. When the dust settled Melo and Billups were Knicks (along with bench players Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Shelden Williams) and Denver got a haul of prospects and picks in return. Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov highlighted the deal as the four players coming back from New York. Kosta Koufos also landed in Denver with the Minnesota Timberwolves playing a small part as a third team in the deal. It was hailed as a haul for Denver, but the Knicks landed the two best players. At the end of the day it was a win-win given the situation.
The Knicks never did get their Melo, Paul, Amare Stoudemire super team. New York couldn’t manage to secure the Paul part of that triumvirate, but they built a solid roster around Melo, with multiple of his former Denver teammates joining him in New York at some point. It didn’t result in a title, or even a conference finals appearance, but it did give New York three straight playoff appearances which remain the only consecutive postseason births the team has had since Patrick Ewing played for them. They are also still the most recent playoff appearances for the franchise. The peak of Melo’s time in New York was the Knicks first round victory over the aging but still potent Boston Celtics. That first round victory for New York in fact ended up being the end of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce era in Boston.
It fell apart shortly thereafter. Melo missed half of the next season with a knee injury, Stoudemire’s health and play fell off a cliff, Billups was long gone. The Knicks leadership proved to be largely incapable of reloading around their star and the price they had paid to acquire Carmelo, and later fellow star…*checks notes*…Andrea Bargnani, left them bereft of draft picks or young players needed to retool the roster. The roster ultimately aged out and underwhelmed. Melo left New York unceremoniously in a trade in the summer of 2017. The Knicks have never recovered.
The Nuggets didn’t really skip a beat, at least at first. The end of the Melodrama gave their roster a boost, and not just in the form of new players. Both the players who remained on Denver’s roster and the one’s who were added felt a sense of relief now that the rumors that had swirled around themselves and the franchises they played for came to an end. The Nuggets surged post All Star break and once again made the playoffs, this time as a six seed. They once again found themselves losing in the first round, this time to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but there was validation in the fact that they had just traded the face of the franchise and still were able to return similar results.
One can argue that the Melo trade actually set Denver up for even more success than they experienced with Anthony. Two years after the trade, largely behind the play of Danilo Gallinari, the biggest piece they got in return for Anthony, the Nuggets set a franchise record for regular season season wins with 57. They looked as dangerous as any team in the NBA going into April, but disaster struck when Gallo tore his ACL mere weeks before the playoffs. That ended up being the catalyst for the whole thing falling apart. The inevitable rebuild that truly started with the Melo trade came full force the year following Gallinari’s injury.
Perhaps the biggest effect the Melo trade had on the Nuggets was with the man who was the mastermind behind it. Ujiri was a relative unknown when the Nuggets hired him, but his navigation of the Melodrama, the spotlight the trade was under, the widely praised return and the sustained success the Nuggets had after the deal vaulted Ujiri from unknown to one of the fastest rising stars among executives. When the Toronto Raptors, who employed Ujiri previously as an assistant GM, had an opening for their top decision maker they knew just who to go for and were willing to pay whatever it took to get him. Despite being rumored to have a handshake agreement on an extension with Denver, Ujiri left after 2013 and has been the top man in Toronto ever since.
Denver hired Tim Connelly to replace Ujiri and he’s the architect behind the current team who is coming off of their first trip back to the Western Conference finals since Melo led them there in 2009. The remnants of that Melo deal were some of the building blocks Connelly used to create this roster. Gary Harris might not be here if the Nuggets didn’t have an extra pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to give up when Ujiri traded for Andre Iguodala. Jamal Murray was selected with the pick swap Denver received as the final part of the Melo trade. Connelly traded Mozgov for two first round picks that later helped him get off Ujiri’s one mistake in Denver: the Javale McGee contract, and move on from disgruntled Jusuf Nurkic. Gallinari and Chandler ended up being the lasting original pieces to stay with the franchise, transitioning from the 57 win team to the rebuild that eventually brought Nikola Jokic to stardom and the Nuggets back to relevance. They both moved on with no significant return to Denver (the Nuggets in fact had to pay a draft pick to get off of Chandler’s contract) but were the veteran foundation that made the transition to the new era possible when Jokic and Murray were fresh faced rookies.
That’s really the story of the Carmelo Anthony trade: a win for everyone in the short term, and an insignificant demise in the long run. Both teams kicked a rebuild can down the road a few years but didn’t avoid one. The Nuggets ended up coming out the other side better off, but the Knicks had slightly more playoff success in the immediate aftermath. Melo eod some stardom and more national prominence in NYC, but nearly dropped out of the league for good trying to find a home after New York. For a trade that was viewed as such a blockbuster at the time, it ultimately ended up being a box office flop.