As the dust has more than settled on one of the most drawn out trades in NBA history, I am reflecting back on the past 7 years as a Nuggets fan, and I am finding myself to be a small part melancholy and a growing part ecstatic.
On February 21st, 2011, Carmelo Anthony – the Denver Nuggets definitive franchise player since being drafted in 2003 was traded to the New York Knicks. The Nuggets received Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, the Knicks 2014 first-round draft pick, the Warriors’ 2012 second-round pick, the Warriors’ 2013 second-round pick and $3 million in cash. Kosta Koufos was a late addition from Minnesota with the Nuggets giving up an unprotected 2015 2nd round draft pick to acquire the 7 footer.
Departing the Nuggets with Carmelo are Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman. When this process first started, I was mostly sad that the Nuggets didn’t seem to be able to work out a deal that made Carmelo want to stay. One early story that came out was that Anthony didn’t want to stay because the Nuggets hadn’t made enough effort to acquire a big man to help in the low post or stand up against the Lakers trees in the playoffs. Another common story heard throughout the blogosphere was the toast by Chris Paul last summer when he attended Carmelo’s wedding to LaLa. Chris Paul allegedly said “We’ll form our own big three” in reference to the trio that had just formed in Miami with Wade, Bosh, and James, and putting it out there that Anthony and Paul might try to join up with Stoudemire in New York.
Carmelo then played it cool for many months not saying much at all on the subject, especially after seeing the backlash LeBron received when he announced his free agency decision for the whole world to watch live on ESPN. As the months went on, it became more and more clear that Carmelo had long ago decided he was ready to move on from the Nuggets to the bright lights of Broadway and nothing the Nuggets could do was going to do anything to change that.
This was all set in motion about 9 months ago, when the Denver Nuggets offered Carmelo Anthony a 3-year, $65 million dollar contract extension. In 7 great seasons with the Nuggets, Carmelo had become the team’s 3rd all-time leading scorer (behind Alex English and Dan Issel) and led the team to the playoffs every single year. For all that success though, there were frustrations. The Nuggets first five playoffs runs with Anthony went like this:
1 win in first round against Minnesota T-Wolves in 2004.
1 win in first round against San Antonio Spurs in 2005.
1 win in first round against LA Clippers in 2006. The LA Clippers!!!!
1 win in first round against San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
0 wins in first round against LA Lakers in 2008.
So the regular season success was obviously there, but the playoffs eventually became frustrating due to the lack of forward progress. It wasn’t for lack of effort on the Nuggets part – Carmelo had good talent around him each and every year, including a still dominant Allen Iverson for two of those playoff runs. It finally changed in 2009 when Iverson was replaced early in the season by Chauncey Billups and the Nuggets went on to win their division, and knock out the New Orleans Hornets and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 in each series.
They they took the Lakers to a 2-2 series tie before it seemed like Chauncey’s legs finally ran out of gas and the Nuggets bowed out after two more losses. With Chauncey a year older in 2010, the Nuggets went backwards – losing 2 games to 4 against the inferior Utah Jazz who had been decimated with injuries yet still found a way to send the Nuggets packing in the first round again. So, even with all that success, voices began to circle each offseason about how Carmelo wasn’t this or wasn’t that – why couldn’t he lead the Nuggets further in the playoffs?
Snap back to present day, late in the 2010-2011 season as the Nuggets and Knicks both make their playoff pushes after the deal was done.
Knicks are 10-12 since the trade. They are 38-38 and 7th in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Until this week, the Knicks had not won back to back games since making the trade and had slipped below .500 for the first time since November. Carmelo was well received on arrival in New York. Chauncey has had some big games for the Knicks and has contributed to many of their wins. Surprisingly, several of the “throw-ins” have played and contributed in recent wins for the Knicks – namely Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams. Carter had rarely played all year, and Williams’ minutes had gone way down in recent months. Balkman continues to not get any playing time, but he seemed excited to head back to his old team.
The Nuggets are 15-4 since the trade. They are 47-29 and 5th in the Western Conference playoff race. They have, quite unexpectedly… gotten better since the trade. This is not just because the Nuggets management team of Josh and Masai were able to miraculously maximize this trade (more on that shortly) by getting a bunch of young talent from the Knicks, but mostly due to the fact that the Nuggets, now without there best offensive player since Hall of Famer Alex English, are simply better offensively. Carmelo Anthony is a top 5 offensive talent in the NBA. He is nearly unstoppable down on the low block when he is willing to pass the ball and trust his teammates – he can get around and thru most defenders because of his combination of size, strength and speed. He is a decent passer when willing to trust his teammates, and if the defenders choose to foul him, he’s a high percentage free throw shooter. But, with all that said, Carmelo is also a volume shooter, and the Nuggets had run their offense thru him since nearly day one of his arrival in 2003. Coach Karl’s constant rally cry over the past few years was “trust the pass” but the offense flowing thru Carmelo could be “sticky” and predictable at times. Carmelo had many amazing games as a Nugget, that is without question, and his game winners over the years are legendary, but in the playoffs the Nuggets were eliminated easily in the first round every year but once since 1994. Why? Because the Nuggets were easy to scheme for and stop in the playoffs. Stop Carmelo, and you would stop the Nuggets. Our success in 2009 was due to great games by Carmelo, and one Chauncey Billups playing like he had for many years in Detroit – hitting clutch three after three and running an efficient offense.
Carmelo quote before his first game in New York – “I’m going to do something I never did in Denver – play intense defense”. Wow – that one kind of hurt actually. So, are you saying you weren’t always giving it your all here in Denver, Carmelo? A little less surprising is the fact that the Nuggets are now are better defensive team without Anthony. The numbers simply don’t lie – they are giving up 10 points less a game (95 now instead of 105) and they went from being out-rebounded by 1 a game, to out-rebounding opponents by 5.8 a game.
Nuggets management was not without fault during the whole process, but my admiration grew for them thru the process, especially towards the end. Remember – they were young and quite new. Josh Kroenke was handed the keys to the Cadillac by his father Stan. Masai Ujiri came over from the Suns less than a year ago to be the GM of the Nuggets, replacing the spot vacated by the forced removal of Mark Warkentein over the summer. With the way Carmelo’s trade demands began to play out as the 2010 season got underway, it was clear to many teams that they could just wait until Carmelo truly became a free agent at the end of the season and then enter a bidding war then. This made it tough for Josh and Masai to conjure up much competition between teams to make strong offers for Carmelo *before* he became a free agent. Luckily, they were able to work New Jersey, with its young and rich new owner looking to make a splash for his new team against the Knicks desire to finally return to respectability after many years without making the playoffs in the 2000′s. The only thing I would have liked to see differently was more communication from the Nuggets front office but maybe they were concerned that any leak of info might jeopardize their position and what tiny bit of leverage they had. Still, much of the 2010-2011 season was tough to be a part of as a fan – the energy in the Pepsi Center was either low, or sometimes downright ugly when the fans started taking to booing Carmelo when they started to became tired of the ongoing drama of the pending trade/free agency. All this while the Nuggets continued to be successful and somehow stay in the playoffs hunt. Pretty amazing when I look back on it all now.
Meet the New Nuggets
George Karl must be in heaven. He loves multiple point guard lineups, and he loves his Tarheels. With Raymond in the fold, he can put a multiple NCAA title North Carolina backcourt on the floor for the Nuggets. Raymond had a rough few first games for the Nuggets, starting off very cold from the field, but he’s been pretty much money in every game since. Has a decent three point shot also, runs the half-court offense as well as any recent Nuggets point guard. Makes me miss Chauncey when he’s at the line shooting free throws. About the only other negative has been a mild rumor that Raymond is unhappy here with being relegated to a backup role behind Lawson, but he doesn’t appear to be letting it affect his play on the court.
Danilo is the “Skita” that we wish we had picked in the 2002 NBA draft. Born in Italy, he is tall but built solidly at 6’11 and 225 pounds. He has deadly three point range – hitting 186 three pointers last year in his rookie season – good for 2nd in the NBA. He can also get to the basket, but looks a little bit like a bull as he puts his head down and can gets a little out of control at times. He goes by the nickame “Gallo”. The guy is definitely already a talented scorer as his second season winds to a close. Soon after arriving, he scored 30 against the Blazers in a key win against a Western Conference opponent. In a recent Nuggets home game, Danilo hit a shot and the PA announcer said “Galll-oooo” in that all-too familiar way, and the crowd very unenthusiastically responded… I’m kind of glad that one won’t stick. Gallo deserves his own catchphrase when he lights up the scoreboard for the Nuggets.
Wilson remarkably looks like he good be the one-for-one replacement for Carmelo Anthony. He’s the same height (6’8) with a slightly more slender build. (225 pounds compared to Anthony at 230, although it seems like a bigger difference than on paper) He may not get you as many points per night, but with his other skills, and ability to play defense, the difference in impact on the game is lessened. Anthony is hard to beat in the clutch with his ability to score or create his own shot, but with a all-around young talent like Chandler, I’m not missing Anthony as much as I thought I would.
I like this guy. Karl may not quite yet, but I think he might come around on playing him more next season. Mozgov appears to have quick feet, and he’s got the size and strength to bang with anyone down low. Even if his offensive moves are always limited, he can get points and second chance opportunities hanging around the basket. An even bigger asset might be his ability to move Nene back to his more natural power forward position next year, assuming we are going to lose Kenyon Martin to free agency.
I know very little about our other new 7 footer, a very late addition to the big trade. It seems like when Karl is willing to give our new big men some rare minutes, Koufos usually gets the short end of the stick. Kosta definitely needs to focus on upgrading his skills at the defensive end. His trends don’t look great – other than rebounding, nearly all of his stats are down from year to year since he was drafted by Utah in 2008.
So, the Carmelo Anthony era in Denver is over. It was a time to re-visit the playoffs – again and again after a long empty stretch from 1996 – 2003. The Nuggets were are one of only 3 teams in the NBA that has been to the playoffs every year since 2003. (The others: Spurs and Mavericks) Carmelo decided to move on and not sign the Nuggets extension offer. He made it clear that he wanted to go to the New York Knicks, but he still played hard this season while he waited to see what the Nuggets front office would do. Yes, it became a growing distraction and probably cost us a few extra wins. However, it could have been far worse – Carmelo could have pouted this year, refused to play, or worse – gave us false hope and then announced that he was leaving at the end of this season in a made for ESPN TV special. Oh, wait – that’s already been done. Thanks for making it clear last summer LeBron, that is definitely not the way to go if you have the fans in mind at all.
Some experts and pundits out there are still saying that either the Nuggets are worse without Melo (most recently Mark Jackson said this during ABC’s nationally televisesd Nuggets/Lakers game on April 3rd) or that the Knicks will eventually be the “winners” of this trade. Carmelo Anthony is a superstar. I would never argue that. But a superstar that will lead his team to winning the NBA championship must be able to play on both ends of the court. Think of the superstars that have done this in the last decade – Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Between the two of them, their teams have won 8 of the last 11 NBA titles. They both have always gotten it done on both ends of the court. I’ve watched nearly every game that Carmelo has played in, and I think I can count on one hand the number of times Carmelo intentionally setup in the lane to take a charge on defense. Conversely, I can’t begin to count the number of times I screamed at the TV, wishing Carmelo could here so he would actually make a defensive rotation out on the wing or under the basket to guard an offensive player for the other team!
One last thought. I don’t really wish Carmelo Anthony any ill will. He brought a level of success and respect back to my favorite team that we now continue to “expect” even with him gone. I am truly grateful for that, because it is so much more fun than the 90′s and early 2000′s were! I will not “boo” Carmelo when the Nuggets face the New York Knicks next year during the regular season. I will however, smile when Carmelo leads his team to maybe 1 win in the 2011 playoffs and then goes home to work on his acting career and marketing interests in New York for the rest of the summer.