We’ve been down this road once or twice before, but it now seems safe to say that Carmelo Anthony’s days as a Nugget are numbered. It’s generally assumed that Denver will, at some point, bite the bullet and try to extract some value from their most prized asset via a trade, rather than let him walk away when his contract expires next summer. Instead of turning the discussion to unfounded hypotheticals of how this situation will resolve itself, we’ll talk a look at some recent precedents. Melo would hardly be the first
superstar high-volume wing scorer in recent memory to be dealt, so we’ll take a look, with the benefit of hindsight, at how similar moves have panned out for the teams involved.
Penny Hardaway, 1999
Previous Season: 15.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 16.7 PER, .122 WS/48
Trade: Hardaway to the Suns; Pat Garrity, Danny Manning, 2001 #1 (Jason Collins) and 2002 #1 (Amare Stoudemire) to the Magic
Winner: The Magic, reconstructive knee surgeons (really, though–Manning, Hardaway, and Stoudemire all in the same deal? Just eerie.) Both teams were pretty consistently in the middle of the pack for the better part of the next 5 seasons before getting help (for the Magic, Dwight Howard; for the Suns, D’Antoni and Nash). Still, the Magic must feel like they dodged a bullet pulling off this trade when they did. Hardaway had already shown signs that his knees wouldn’t hold up, and during his 4.5-year stay in Phoenix, Penny got paid an average of $11.2 million to play an average of 52 games. And this trade would’ve turned out an absolute steal for the Magic if they’d held on to the pick that ended up being local hero Stoudemire. Instead, they swapped it right back to the Suns a couple years later, packaged with Bo Outlaw, for Jud Buechler, a 2005 #2, and cash considerations. The lesson, I suppose, being never to enter a bidding war for Jud Buechler.
Grant Hill, 2000
Previous Season: 25.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, 24.5 PER, .185 WS/48
Trade: Hill to the Magic; Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace to the Pistons
Winner: The Pistons. At the time, it was a foregone conclusion that Hill was leaving Detroit, with Orlando being his preferred destination. He ended up leaving in a sign-and-trade deal, so he could get max money and the Pistons could get some value in return. Nobody could have predicted that, as the Magic signed off, saying “Who cares? We’re getting Grant Hill!”, the undersized banger they were sending away would become the anchor for a powerhouse that would go on to win one title and make 6 straight Eastern Conference Finals. The NBA is a weird place sometimes.
Tracy McGrady, 2004
Previous Season: 28.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, 25.3 PER, .151 WS/48
Trade: McGrady plus Reece Gaines, Juwan Howard, and Tyronn Lue to the Rockets; Kelvin Cato, Steve Francis, and Cuttino Mobley to the Magic
Winner: Orlando. For all of McGrady’s electrifying performances in a Magic uniform, the team won 43, 44, 42, and 21 games in the seasons he played there. In the NBA, the middle of the pack is the worst place to be from a long-term perspective, so kudos to the Magic recognizing that it was time to start rebuilding and offloading McGrady before he became perhaps the league’s most unmanageable contract. No one could have predicted just how much McGrady’s body would turn on him, but even in his healthy years in Houston, the Rockets never got past the first round with McGrady playing a part. 5 years after the trade, the Magic were in the Finals and the Rockets won their first playoff series in 11 years despite McGrady’s injuries condemning him to be a $20 million spectator. Imagine what the Rockets might’ve accomplished if Daryl Morey had that extra cap space to play with.
Vince Carter, 2004
Previous Season*: 15.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 17.0 PER, .068 WS/48
Trade: Carter to the Nets; Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, 2005 #1 (Joey Graham), 2006 #1 (Renaldo Balkman) to the Raptors
Winner: New Jersey. They were 7-15 before the December trade, but ended up making the playoffs, and Carter even garnered an MVP vote for his role in the turnaround. The Nets reached the second round in each of the next two seasons, and while Carter never shook his reputation as a loafer, he actually enjoyed some of his finer all-around seasons as a Net before getting shipped to Orlando. There’s no doubt that Toronto’s hands were tied when it came to dealing Carter, but they weren’t able to turn the assets they acquired (cap flexibility, picks) into anything meaningful, and they’ve only won 4 playoff games since. Both teams are pretty much back to square one at this point, so the Nets get the edge for their relative success over the past 6 seasons.
LeBron James, 2010
Previous Season: 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 31.1 PER, .299 WS/48
Trade: James to the Heat; 2013 #1, 2015 #1, and option to swap 2012 #1 to the Cavaliers
Winner: The Heat, probably. Wouldn’t it be great if future generations forget that this move only became a sign-and-trade for prosperity’s sake and Dan Gilbert is just remembered as a bumbling idiot who decided to give LeBron away in his prime?
Carmelo Anthony, 2010
Previous Season: 28.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, 22.2 PER, .145 WS/48
Winner: Based on these other deals, it’s a mixed bag, but it certainly doesn’t seem like losing Melo will be a nightmare. In 6 of the past 7 years, the Nuggets have lost in the first round of the playoffs, and as previously stated, that’s pretty much the worst situation an NBA franchise can be in, from a competitive standpoint. Not good enough to contend for a title, not bad enough to get good draft picks, and with too much money tied up in a quality roster to afford a premium free agent. Of the past 7 NBA champions, only the Spurs (in ’05 and ’07) accomplished the feat after 5 straight years of making the playoffs. The rebuilding processes started by trading Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady lifted the Pistons and Magic, respectively, to finals berths within a matter of seasons.
Another issue is that Anthony will command max money when he signs a new deal, but doesn’t produce wins on the same level as similarly paid players. Based on last year’s Win Shares numbers, actually, Anthony was only the 3rd-most productive Nugget, outpaced by Nene and Chauncey Billups, and on a per-minute basis by those two and Chris Andersen. We can expect a trade package for Anthony to include a good young player or two, expiring contracts, and draft picks, suggesting the Nuggets will most likely get considerably worse before they get better. But they have roughly all of this season’s cap tied up just in paying Anthony, Billups, Nene, and Kenyon Martin–they’re not catching up to the Lakers any time soon. Shedding Anthony’s contract now, and with Martin’s coming off the books next summer, they’ll be in enviable position next year with cap space, an efficient veteran nucleus (Billups, Nene), and building blocks for the future (Ty Lawson, young talent/draft picks from the Melo deal). Trading the face of their franchise certainly isn’t a risk-free proposition, but based on past history, the greatest risk might lie in holding on to him for too long.
*Trade occurred midseason, so numbers are for the 20 games Carter played that year as a Raptor. And in Vince’s defense, he really wasn’t trying.
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