Russian Billionaire Agrees That He Can’t Come to an Agreement With Carmelo Anthony

Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian plutocrat owner of the New Jersey Nets, told reporters yesterday that his team was no longer planning to make a trade to acquire superstar Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. The trade in question—a complicated three-team maneuver, which would have dispersed half the Nets’ current roster to Denver and Detroit—had been proposed, refined, and all but finalized, with much public discussion, over a span of weeks. The only holdup was a minor technical or procedural problem: Carmelo Anthony did not want to be traded to the New Jersey Nets.

In a different world, one where basketball players are basketball players, that might have ended everything right there. Anthony is in the last year of his contract with the Nuggets, after which he can become a free agent and go play basketball somewhere else (the New York Knicks would be nice, he has mentioned).

But the Nuggets and the Nets have been operating under the rules of modern sports management, in which players are the embodiment of their contracts, and the contracts are financial instruments to be packaged and repackaged according to ever-evolving investment strategies. The Nuggets’ goal, with the end of Anthony’s contract in sight, is to rearrange their portfolio so that someday, in the medium term, they might be able to reconstruct a collection of basketball talent that’s only somewhat less good than the 2010-11 Denver Nuggets. So for instance, to make the asset-flow of the proposed Anthony trade work properly, the deal was supposed to include Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups—a longtime Denver resident and a fan favorite who has steadfastly said he wants to finish his career as a Nugget:

Should Billups be dealt to the Nets, he could ask the team to tear up his contract after the season so he could return to Denver as a free agent next season.

The main issue, though, as the asset managers see it, is that the Nets would need Anthony to sign a contract extension to make the deal worth their while. That is, the Nets need Anthony to surrender his free-agent opportunity and make a long-term commitment to a team he doesn’t want to play for—a lousy team, a team sleeping on the New Jersey Devils’ couch in Newark while it hopes a Brooklyn arena eventually gets built, a team with its roster gutted twice over, first in a failed attempt to sign LeBron James , and again for the sake of making the Anthony trade.

But at least he’d have Chauncey Billups to keep him company for a few months, till Billups escaped his own contract and went back to Denver.

Here are some words and phrases from an ESPN story analyzing the apparent collapse of the Nets-Nuggets trade:

leverage…use him as a rental…pile of assets…mortgage their future…assets…expiring and insurance-paid contract…trade chips…in their vault…an additional big body…all those pieces

For some unimaginable reason, Anthony refused to go along with this. Everyone has been very put out, except Nuggets coach George Karl, whose job is to win basketball games, and who seems to prefer trying to win basketball games with one of the game’s top players rather than with a pile of roster-scrapings from two of the worst teams in the league. Karl is maybe old-fashioned that way. “We’ve got a fun game, a hell of a team to play against tonight,” he said, after learning of Prokhorov’s statement .

In that game, against the division-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony scored 35 points . The Nuggets won, 112-107.