New Nuggets or old Nuggets? You decide

Before garbage time set in, which was just after Carmelo Anthony trudged off barely two minutes into the second half, last night’s game at the Pepsi Center looked less like the Nuggets vs. the Knicks than the new Nuggets vs. the old Nuggets.

For significant stretches — including to start the third quarter — Knicks coach Mike Woodson deployed Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin together. This was the nucleus of a Nuggets team that George Karl’s detractors blamed him for failing to get to a championship. Last night, that suggestion looked laughable.

Owing to last year’s lockout, it took slightly more than two years for Anthony to return to the verdict of the people after forcing the trade that seemed so discouraging at the time. If Denver, like Cleveland, could not even keep a star dropped in its lap by the benevolence of the draft (and Joe Dumars), and if a star was required to win a championship, maybe the Nuggets’ failure to win a championship throughout their existence is no accident.

Two years after the demolition, the picture looks vastly different. A few hours before tipoff, I asked Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame player and tell-it-like-it-is analyst for the Madison Square Garden network, which is now the better team.

“I think your team because you’re a younger team and these players have yet to peak,” Frazier said.

“(Wilson) Chandler is still becoming a good player. Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) is a good player. I think you have a better nucleus than the Knicks. We have the superstar in Melo, but the thing is, with New York, I think sometimes that’s why we’re in the predicament that we’re in, because they’re always looking for star quality, whether it be a coach or a player. So they did not have the patience to wait for Gallo, to wait for Chandler and those guys to mature in order to try to get them to the next level. So once they saw that they could get a superstar like Melo, it created a lot of hoopla.

“Say if Gallo and Chandler had remained in New York and they were winning, they still would not have brought the hoopla that Melo brought in, which is what New York is kind of all about. It’s entertainment. It’s having that name, that pizzazz. New York had that when Melo came in, but now the team is kind of languishing. They have not moved up to that next level.

“You look at Denver, you don’t have that star quality, but your nucleus is team-oriented. These guys move the ball. To me, sharing means caring. And when you look at your guys’ play, man, 23 assists, 25 assists a game? That means that these guys like each other. They don’t care who scores. They’re just moving the ball around the perimeter to that open man. Being a former player, that means a lot to me. That tells me a lot about the character of the players on the team and how they relate to each other.”

During player introductions, Melo was greeted loudly but incoherently. More boos than cheers, but far from the distinct, extended syllable Nuggets fans have used to serenade Kobe Bryant ever since a certain incident in Eagle, Colorado. Once the game began, whenever Melo touched the ball, which was often, the crowd settled into the Kobe treatment.

Slowed by a sore knee — he left the Knicks after the game to return to New York and have it drained — Melo was a caricature of himself. A star is always a star in his head, so Melo handled the ball as much as ever, briefly surveyed his repertoire of one-on-one moves, and settled for long bombs too often, particularly because he couldn’t make one.

In just under 22 minutes on his old home floor, he scored nine points on 3-for-12 shooting, including 0-for-5 from long distance. When he walked off the floor for the final time just 2:15 into the second half, his team trailed by 26. The Nuggets outscored the Knicks by 18 while he was on the floor.

“I just didn’t have it,” he said afterward. “I tried, but I think it was time to give it some time and get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. It started tightening up, started stiffening up, there were some movements I couldn’t make. Moving laterally, I felt like I didn’t have any pop, any power. So I tried it in the second half, coming back out after halftime, and I couldn’t move out there. I’m going to go get it drained, get the fluid out, get to the bottom of it quickly, so I can get back on the court.”

This is basically the story of the Knicks’ devolving season, as Frazier explained:

“My concern is their age. I was excited with the acquisitions of (Tyson) Chandler and Rasheed (Wallace) and (Jason) Kidd, but all of those guys are near 40 years of age, so it was always crucial to me that they had to stay healthy. And that has been the problem — they have not been able to stay healthy, those three guys. And now you add in Melo, who’s also hurting, and now the loss of (Amare) Stoudemire, so it’s been very devastating for the team.”

For the record, Tyson Chandler is only 30, although he has a lot of mileage on him. Like Melo, he exited last night’s game early, with a knee bruise.

The Knicks’ main problem against the Nuggets was the same as most teams’ main problem against the Nuggets, especially in Denver: They couldn’t keep up. Although lots of people, including Frazier, say Melo is a better defensive player in New York than he was in Denver, there was little sign of it in his return. The Nuggets went small, as Karl likes to do, and put up a transition highlight reel, outscoring the Knicks in the paint 62-24.

“They were really good in pushing it and we were terrible in getting back,” was Woodson’s succinct summation.

The consensus that you need a superstar, and maybe two superstars, to win an NBA championship has been in place for so long that it is now considered to be something like a fact. General manager Masai Ujiri’s work sculpting a new Nuggets team out of ashes from the old is an attempt to challenge that conventional wisdom.

It’s not just the Melo trade. Ujiri convinced an interim GM in Portland to trade Andre Miller for Raymond Felton, which was just short of theft. And his trade of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala has improved the Nuggets’ defense immeasurably.

The Nuggets have won 10 in a row and are now 44-22, but none of it matters until they do something in the postseason. The same conventional wisdom that says you need a star or two says it shows up in the playoffs, when an ensemble cast can’t run and gun anymore.

After his new team’s evisceration of his old team — 117-94 was the final damage — Karl considered the star vs. ensemble meme for the one millionth time this season.

“I think we make a superstar as the game goes on,” he said. “We have a superstar in every game. Sometimes it’s the team, which I think is the best superstar, when it’s an unselfish, 30-assist night, finding the open man. Or a night where defensively we’re just creating so much energy by playing defense. But Ty (Lawson) plays as a stud some nights. Gallo plays as a stud some nights. AI is a hell of a defender almost every night. Our big guys get a lot of things done that they don’t get enough respect for.

“So, you know, OK, we don’t have that going into the game, but we manufacture it because we play well. Like tonight, we were looking at a stat sheet in the middle of the third quarter and nobody had more than five field goals. But we had like eight guys that had three or four or five field goals.

“I just don’t understand. I like my team and I’m proud of them from the standpoint of they would not allow those guys, you know, (with) the drama that went on here . . .  to play with that much pride tonight I thought was first class.”

Most NBA fans in Denver are well past the Melodrama by now. After all, it’s been two years, and frankly, the Nuggets are more fun to watch than they used to be. Last night’s game was a reminder as to why that is. When healthy, Melo is a great individual scorer. Always has been. Whether his career amounts to anything more than that remains to be seen.

“I think it’s time to let everything go,” Karl said. “It was probably too long getting it here and now that it’s over, there’s always going to be the base of both sides. There’s a portion that’s going to dislike Melo and there’s a portion that’s going to love Melo. But the majority of people, I think right now, hopefully, are getting excited about the team that we have at hand. I know we can’t win in the playoffs, but we’ll try very hard to prove some people wrong when the playoffs come.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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