If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, according to many NBA team builders.
It’s an admirable mindset, encouraging risk and aggressive personnel moves. But in the case of the Denver Nuggets, it was entirely accurate.
From 2003-04 through 2010-11, Denver won an average of 48.5 games – never more than 54, never fewer than 43 – and qualified for the playoffs eight straight times. But it advanced beyond the first round only once, making it to the Western Conference finals in 2009. Year in, year out, the Nuggets relied on Carmelo Anthony‘s heroics to carry the greatest load – and to outweigh Anthony’s theatrics.
Then Anthony fussed his way out of the Mile High City completely in February 2011 and, lo and behold, the power still was on at the Pepsi Center the next day. Life continued. Denver didn’t nosedive. George Karl got a chance to flex his coaching and player-development skills without butting heads with a younger, equally stubborn star player and what the Nuggets might have lost in the quality of that one guy (Anthony), it believed it made up in the combined skills of quantity.
With Anthony due to face his former team Wednesday for the first time in Denver since the trade, the Denver Post’s Benjamin Hochman looked at the Nuggets’ decision to swap marquee power for the strength of ensemble. He spoke with GM Masai Ujiri about the transformation, more than two years later:
“I think it was a win-win for both teams,” Ujiri said. “Both teams have moved on, even though people talk about it. We’re happy with the growth of those players. It’s kind of what we hoped it would be.”
The Nuggets lost again in the first round against the Lakers last spring, but at least the formula had been changed – and the days of Anthony clamoring for help around HIM were over. The roster has been overhauled, starting but not ending with the ‘Melo trade, and Denver plays differently, is less reliant on one man’s hot hand, has quickened its pace and takes pride on defense in ways that never happened in the Anthony era.
Guard Ty Lawson is Anthony’s only Denver teammate who remains. And he told Hochman, with all due respect for the guy who’s gone, that the Nuggets are better positioned now with the likes of Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, JaVale McGee and others sharing responsibilities.
“We’ve gotten better on defense,” Lawson said. “I think we’re a little more dangerous. You don’t know where our scoring is coming from. With ‘Melo, everybody had their focus on him. With us, JaVale might step up. Gallo, Iguodala, we’ve got weapons all over the place.”
The Nuggets have been on a tear, winning nine of their past 10 and 16 of 20 to reach 42-22, building a virtual floor beneath them in the West’s No. 5 spot. Their 28-3 mark matches Miami for NBA’s best, Karl is assured of his 21st season as a head coach finishing .500 or better and, at a micro level, Denver has strung together two games hitting at least 50 percent of its field-goal attempts, 45 percent of its 3-pointers and 80 percent of its free-throw attempts.
The Nuggets still have a game against Phoenix Monday to navigate before Anthony’s homecoming. And after two years, it’s hard to say how much vitriol or emotion remains (in the stands, probably plenty). But based on recent comments from Karl, you can assume there will big-time significance just below the surface when the Knicks show up Wednesday. As noted by Hochman:
“Most of the people are going to say, ‘You can’t win without a star.’ I’m tired of it. I’m fed up with it. I’ve been angry about it,” Nuggets coach George Karl said last week on the, give or take, seven bazillionth time he’s talked about winning without a star. “It’s a team game. I know Miami won the championship and had a superstar, but they were the best basketball team. Our job is to try to become the best basketball team. I honestly think it can be done. I think it’s silly to not even have one person stand up and say it could be done.”