How are NBA trades negotiated?

They are brokered in all kinds of ways, as shown by the Knicks’ 2011 deal for Carmelo Anthony

This newsletter is from my new book The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA.

In the summer of 2010, Carmelo Anthony met with Denver Nuggets president Josh Kroenke to demand a trade. Anthony told the Nuggets that he wanted to be moved to a franchise in a big market, and that the New York Knicks were at the top of his list. 

The trade negotiations between Denver and rival teams would wander on for six months. The bartering was managed by a 40-year-old retired player from Nigeria named Masai Ujiri, who had been hired as the new general manager of the Nuggets shortly after Anthony had asked to be moved.

Having fallen in love with the game as a 13-year-old in Nigeria, Ujiri, a 6 foot 4 inch guard, had emigrated to America as a young man. After enduring the cold winters of Bismarck, North Dakota, for two culturally (and meteorologically) shocking years of junior college, Ujiri played professionally in Europe’s smaller leagues for a half-dozen seasons at a salary of no more than $5,000 per month. In those days all Ujiri wanted was to become an NBA scout with the power to travel back home to Africa, in hope of discovering young players who could live out their dreams in America. Instead Ujiri had networked his way up through the NBA to earn management control of the roster in Denver. It was an amazing story.

Rival team executives were hoping to fleece the rookie GM from Nigeria. Some of them expressed condescending pity for him, telling reporters how sorry they were to see Ujiri’s new career being sabotaged by one of the NBA’s best young players. Ujiri expressed nothing but gratitude for their sympathy. He had a young face, an easy smile and a native rhythmical accent that extended his vowels, and if his peers were patronizing then he would take no offense. He did not mind being underestimated. 

Ujiri viewed the trade demand of Anthony as an opportunity to retrieve assets that would enable him to reinvent the Nuggets. Of course he didn’t want to let go of his biggest star, and throughout his opening months on the job he kept trying to change Anthony’s mind – with the understanding that he couldn’t possibly net equal value in return for him. At the same time, Ujiri wasn’t going to enable the departure of Anthony to ruin his franchise in the way that the 2010 loss of LeBron from Cleveland had buried the Cavaliers, who plummeted to last place in their conference. 

This was the job of his dreams, to run his own team in the NBA, and now that he had it there was no feeling sorry for himself. At night Ujiri would wait for his fiancée to fall asleep in their five-story Denver townhouse and then sneak downstairs to plot strategy and return emails at 3 or 4 in the morning. “I have to get it out before I feel good about myself,” he said of his work. “I won’t be able to sleep until I get it out.” He was able to grasp Anthony’s perspective of wanting to play on a bigger stage; it was for the same kind of goal that Ujiri had devoted years to working around the clock, apart from the four hours of sleep he needed each night, to earn this opportunity he had now in the NBA. “Carmelo’s mind was set with what he wanted, and do you blame him for that?” said Ujiri. “I don’t.”

He would hear complaints that Anthony’s trade demand was a warning to NBA owners that they were losing their leverage against the players, but Ujiri didn’t see it that way either. In addition to his negotiations with the Knicks, Ujiri was also pursuing offers from the New Jersey Nets, the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Lakers and other teams in belief that Anthony would agree to a three-year contract extension worth $65 million with any large-market team that acquired him. The financial terms of that extension were likely to be reduced at the end of the season, after NBA commissioner David Stern made good on his threat to lock out the players, and Anthony admitted that his priority was to get the money while he could.  

During his job interview to become GM of the Nuggets, Ujiri had told Josh Kroenke that the trade for Anthony needed to be turned into a bidding war between the Nets and the Knicks, because they were rivals within the New York market who each needed Anthony and couldn’t bear to see the other team claim him. Ujiri also warned Anthony that if he wanted to play for the Knicks, then he would need to make things right with Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, who had attended Anthony’s wedding in New York that summer.

During Anthony’s wedding reception in July 2010, when guests were invited to toast the bride and groom, LeBron James stood up and changed the subject to himself. A few days earlier, LeBron had revealed that he was taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Heat. “If you want any chance against us in Miami,” he joked during his wedding toast to Anthony, “you’d better team up with Stoud in New York.” 

LeBron was referring to All-Star power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, a free agent who had agreed to a contract with the Knicks shortly after they had failed to land LeBron. Then LeBron’s close friend Chris Paul, the All-Star point guard of the New Orleans Hornets, saw LeBron’s toast and raised it: Paul announced that he and Anthony would indeed be forming their own Big Three with Stoudemire’s Knicks at Madison Square Garden. This set off a new series of toasts throughout the hall that further encouraged Anthony, a 26-year-old All-Star at small forward, to leave the Nuggets in order to move back home to New York, where he and his siblings had been raised in the Red Hook Projects of Brooklyn until he was eight, at which time they were moved to Baltimore by their single mother. 

Sitting among the 320 guests at the reception and absorbing these aftershocks of The Decision were Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh. It was a wedding unlike any they had attended. Not only was it being filmed for a reality TV series, but many of the toasts were focused less on the happy couple and more on how Anthony should escape his obligations in Denver. After the Kroenkes had sat through a number of humiliating statements involving their team, word was relayed to their table that Anthony wished for Stan Kroenke to stand up and make a toast of his own that would let everyone know of his and Josh’s presence, in order to put a stop to their embarrassment. The experience of the Kroenkes at Anthony’s wedding would contribute to a new idea spreading among the NBA’s owners that The Decision had ignited a soft coup against them – by which NBA stars like Anthony were happy to receive huge salaries while plotting against their employers. 

The story of their humiliation at the wedding had become public, positioning the Kroenkes in the middle of the larger negotiating standoff between the players and the owners for a new collective bargaining agreement. Ujiri wanted Anthony to understand that he was a partner with the Kroenkes in this business, and that he needed to be sensitive to the difficult position in which they had been placed. 

“I said, `Melo, I think you really need to apologize to the Kroenkes,”’ recalled Ujiri. “I said, ‘I think you need to talk to them and say, “Hey, it wasn’t the way I thought it would be; people were drinking a little bit, and even then people should not talk like that.” And apologize and take responsibility for it.’ I said to him, `Melo, we’re trying to make this thing easy on everybody. I don’t know which way it will go. I couldn’t tell you where you will be traded to. But I could tell you one thing: Let’s make good steps, and this is a good step to make.”’

In this way Ujiri was trying to protect his team’s owner as well as the player who wanted to leave. Anthony would apologize to the Kroenkes by text message. It wasn’t the face-to-face statement that Ujiri was seeking, but it was important nonetheless, because the Kroenkes liked Anthony very much, and they had been wounded by the events at the wedding and his ensuing demand to be traded.

Six months after Anthony’s initial trade demand, on the day before the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, a meeting was held with Knicks owner James Dolan that included Anthony, his agent Leon Rose, Josh Kroenke and Ujiri. In that meeting in L.A., Ujiri declared that the Nuggets were considering a trade of Anthony to the Nets; the accompanying silence of Anthony and his agent served as tacit affirmation that Anthony would be willing to sign an extension with the Nets if they acquired him. Dolan would respond by increasing the Knicks’ offer, though still not to Ujiri’s liking.

The next morning, hours before the All-Star Game, I called Ujiri’s cell phone. I had developed a longstanding relationship with him in my job as a writer for Sports Illustrated and so, on the condition that I tell no one, he explained that the best potential outcome for his team would be to send Anthony to the Knicks. The problem, as he saw it then, was that the Knicks’ proposal wasn’t convincing. The Nets were offering four first-round picks in addition to rookie power forward Derrick Favors, who had been the number three pick in the draft, All-Star point guard Devin Harris, rookie guard Ben Uzoh and the expiring contract of Troy Murphy. That trade would leave the Nuggets with young talent and cap space with which to rebuild for the long term. “If you’re trying to break it down and go completely younger and rebuild, then you go with the New Jersey route,” Ujiri told me. “If you are trying to reload and get good talent and find the upside on some kids, then the Knicks deal is the one you want.”

The Knicks’ deal was built around a trio of established young players: small forward Danilo Gallinari, point guard Raymond Felton and small forward Wilson Chandler, in addition to a pair of second-round picks and a future first-rounder. There was no potential for recovering a new franchise star from the Knicks’ package. If the Nuggets wanted to gamble on discovering the next Carmelo Anthony, then they would seize on Favors, the draft picks and the cap space to be gained from the Nets. 

Ujiri preferred the bird-in-the-hand offer of the Knicks, whose young role players could be plugged into the Nuggets’ rotation to keep them in the playoffs for the next several years, despite the absence of a marquee star like Anthony. But the offers were so competitive that Ujiri wasn’t sure which one the Kroenkes would prefer, especially since it would be natural for any NBA owner to not send Anthony to the Knicks in order to avoid the appearance of surrender. 

“That is why the big kid in New York has to be in it,” said Ujiri.

The big kid was Timofey Mozgov, a 7 foot 1 inch undrafted center from Russia who had no potential to become a star. He had not joined the NBA until the summer of Anthony’s wedding as a 24-year-old rookie who signed with the Knicks for $3.6 million. He was averaging 11.6 minutes and 3.6 points per game as a rookie for the Knicks, and only in the larger context of these trade talks could a benchwarmer like Mozgov have been seen as a difference-maker: His inclusion might convince the Kroenkes to side with the offer from the Knicks.

After we hung up, I found myself thinking about Isiah Thomas. I called back to ask Ujiri for his permission to run this information by Thomas, the former team president of the Knicks who continued to have a close relationship with Jim Dolan.

Thomas was living in Miami, where he had become the men’s basketball coach at Florida International University in 2009 after leaving the Knicks. I told him of the competing offers, and that the Knicks might lose Anthony to the Nets unless they included Mozgov. He listened and then said, bluntly, that he wanted no part of the negotiations. 

I had called him in belief that he would want to know the status of the trade talks, on behalf of his ongoing friendship with Dolan. Thomas and I had been sharing information for years, he had provided me with insight on the new generation of AAU players who were seizing control of the NBA, and I believed he would be interested in hearing about Anthony.

But Thomas was gunshy. It had been three years since his departure from the Knicks and he was still being criticized in New York as if he had never left. He said he didn’t know Ujiri, and the last thing he needed was to have it leaked that he was involved in the talks for Anthony. He made it clear that he no longer had authority within the Knicks organization, which meant he had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Thomas could see how this would play out: The trade with the Knicks would collapse, word would get out of his involvement and he would be the scapegoat. “I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.

I explained why I had assumed that he would be interested in hearing about the negotiations. Anthony had stuck out his neck to force a trade to New York, and if the trade was doomed to fall apart because the Knicks weren’t willing to include a back-end player like Mozgov, then it wouldn’t only be Anthony who would be furious. Anthony’s fellow NBA stars – his close friends – would be angry with the Knicks too, and it would become more difficult than ever for the Knicks to recruit another star in years to come. The future of the Knicks mattered not at all to me, but I figured it would be important to Thomas. He said he agreed with my point of view, as I knew he would, since he had helped me to understand this dynamic over several years of conversations. 

Thomas thanked me for the call and then insisted that he was going to keep out of it. His goal was to get on with his own life. If the Knicks were going to make the trade, then let them figure it out. 

That evening I attended the All-Star Game at the Staples Center.

It was during the second quarter that my phone buzzed with the call from Isiah Thomas. “Well, I passed on the information,” he said, without saying to whom it had been passed. “Now we’ll see what happens.”

The next morning, the news broke that Timofey Mozgov had been included in the Knicks’ offer to Denver. That night the trade was completed. Carmelo Anthony was moving to New York, and Isiah Thomas was not, for this one time, the villain.

Buy The Soul of Basketball here.