HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Raise your hand if you saw the Denver Nuggets doing all that they have after the Carmelo Anthony deal finally went down.
Go ahead, tell us you knew they’d thrive without Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Show us the sheet of paper you tucked away that said the Nuggets would go 8-2 in the first 10 games post-Melo, would be thumping opponents by 13.2 points and hanging on tight to that No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase.
We didn’t think so.
Even the Nuggets have been a bit surprised at how they’ve managed the separation anxiety from the player that was the face of the franchise the past seven seasons.
“I just think there’s more enthusiasm, more energy, more things strategically,” Nuggets coach George Karl told reporters after Monday night’s win in New Orleans, when the Nuggets drained 17 3-pointers in a 114-103 win.
So much changes after a seven-month pressure of wondering what was going to happen with Anthony is released. The Nuggets are playing with the sort of stress-free energy that personifies March Madness, as fans near the hideout here will get to see tonight when the Nuggets face the Hawks at Philips Arena.
Still, it would have been hard to imagine them losing both Anthony and Billups and getting the better end of the trade with the New York Knicks (6-5 since the trade and fighting to fend off Philadelphia for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race).
In addition to the new faces the Nuggets gained in the trade — Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and Raymond Felton — the trade also allowed Nuggets holdovers like J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and the supremely underrated Arron Afflalo to show that they are more than capable of handling starring roles for a playoff team.
Lawson had perhaps the largest high tops to fill, taking over for a veteran master like Billups (who was a hometown favorite). Yet he’s proved to be more than up to the task, averaging 14.3 points, 8.1 assists and 2.2 steals in the Nuggets’ last 10 games. His March Madness numbers are a tick better — 17.7 points and 9.2 assists — which is the clearest indication that he hasn’t lost any of the tourney time swagger that he used to help North Carolina win a title a couple of years ago.
But at least one prominent Denver writer, Mark Kizla of the Denver Post, suggested early on that the true leader of this Nuggets team is none other than veteran power forward Kenyon Martin, whose personality and no-nonsense attitude has been adopted by all:
After the departure of Anthony and Billups, there has been much discussion about the identity of the team’s best player. Is it Nene? Should we consider Arron Afflalo, who plays both ends of the floor with passion? Could new acquisition Danilo Gallinari be the Nuggets’ next great scorer?
While the talent evaluation makes for an interesting debate, the argument misses the point. The Nuggets will live or die on defense and sheer force of will.
Nobody would ever nominate Martin, whose jump shot will always will look as if it could break a window, as a graceful player.
But watch him score 14 points and pull down 11 rebounds against the Hawks, and what you realize is this:
Martin is the true grit of the new Nuggets.
He refused to accept losing with the departure of Anthony and Billups.
“Why would I think that way? If I think that way, I might as well shut it down,” Martin said. “I miss Melo. I miss Chauncey. I love them to death. But it’s about us who are here now.”
That’s the sort of mentality that becomes infectious in these sort of situations.
Barring a sudden collapse, the Nuggets will surely finish with more wins than the Knicks and could be a part of an intriguing first-round playoff matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That’s not bad for a team many (select members of the hideout crew included) predicted would suffer from a severe case of post-Melo anxiety disorder.