The one of a kind all-time Nugget great coach Doug Moe’s final season as coach of the Denver Nuggets was 1989-90. Up until then the Nuggets had been one of the best teams in the ABA and then the NBA for 16 seasons. Things took a drastic turn for the worse starting with the 1990-91 season. Paul Westhead brought his comically bad offensive brand of basketball to the Mile High City and the result was far and away the worst season in franchise history. Denver won 20 games and became the laughingstock of the league giving up over 130 points per game. Denver’s defensive efficiency that season was an all-time worst 114.7, tied only by the abysmal 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks and the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings.
Starting with the Paul Westhead experiment the Nuggets fell from one of the better franchises to one of the worst. Over the next 13 seasons Denver won an average of 27.9 games. There was more evidence supporting the existence of the Loch Ness Monster than that the Nuggets had ever been in the playoffs (although to be fair they gave us an exciting playoff run consisting of the well known upset over the Seattle Supersonics in the spring of 1994). The franchise bottomed out during the 1997-98 season as Denver flirted with the worst record in league history pulling out a scant 11 victories.
Somehow over a decade plus of losing the Nuggets were never able to land a true franchise player. The Nuggets topped out as a mediocre team under the duo of Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess, who to be fair was an Olympian and memorably scored the game winning basket in the semifinals in Sydney to avoid an upset at the hands of Lithuania back when the USA never lost in international competition, and when Dyess went down with a serious knee injury it made it even easier to tear the team down and start over from scratch.
That reclamation project came to fruition in the summer of 2003. It was then that the Nuggets finally acquired a player talented enough to be considered the cornerstone of a winning franchise. Fourteen seasons after the departure of Doug Moe the Carmelo Anthony arrived in town and there was legitimate hope in Denver for the future of the Denver Nuggets.
Carmelo walked into the league a 20 point a game scorer and he has improved to the point where some NBA observers believe he is the best pure scorer in the league. He can post up, drive, catch and shoot pull up off the dribble and even improved his free throw shooting last season. Watching him game after game I do not think there is another player who garners as much attention from opposing defenses as Carmelo does. He is a supremely talented player. He has been an All-Star, getting voted in as a starter for the first time in 2009, and an All-NBA selection, he was named to the second team this season. Only three forwards received more votes than Carmelo.
Carmelo Anthony brought instant legitimacy, star power and more importantly wins to Denver ever since he first stepped foot in the Pepsi Center. In the 14 seasons that preceded Carmelo’s arrival Denver never won more than 42 games. In the seven seasons since Denver has never won less than 43. The Nuggets have made the playoffs every season with Carmelo Anthony on the team and have won three division titles.
The one constant during that stretch on the court or in the front office has been Carmelo. Star caliber players like Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson and now Chauncey Billups have come and gone. The only other constant during the Carmelo era is Nene although calling him a constant is misleading as during that time he has missed two and a half seasons worth of games. Four coaches have walked the sideline since Carmelo was drafted although the temporary tenure of Adrian Dantley is likely over and Michael Cooper’s time on the bench made Dantley look like Jerry Sloan.
It has been far from a one man show in Denver. Carmelo has always had a good supporting cast. Even so, the fact is the franchise turned things around when Carmelo arrived on the scene. He was the catalyst. He still is.
For all the regular season wins and individual accomplishments Carmelo Anthony has won a grand total of 16 playoff games and ten of those were produced during the run to the conference finals in 2009. For a player of Carmelo’s talents who has been blessed with quality teammates throughout his career to have only won two playoff series in seven seasons is baffling.
All the awards and accolades have amounted to approximately nothing.
The goal of every professional sports team should be to win a championship. The Denver Rockets/Nuggets never have. Realistically some seasons, a championship is not always a fair barometer. I admit teams can have successful seasons even when they do not bring home a title. Even under that reduced criteria the Nuggets have only enjoyed two successful seasons with Carmelo in the fold. Those two were Carmelo’s first season when they earned their first playoff appearance in eight seasons and 20080-09 when they reached the Western Conference Finals.
Are Denver’s postseason struggles a case of bad timing? Bad luck? Bad matchups? Or is it an indictment of Carmelo Anthony? Could it be Melo is not the player we think he is?
The common perception this season was that Carmelo had a break out year. Recognition can run a few months behind in the NBA and Melo certainly received some juice from his playoff performance in 2009. He returned to the upper twenties in points per game, was a starter in the All-Star game, the first Nugget player to earn second team all-NBA since Fat Lever did in 1987 and even finished a career high sixth in the 2010 MVP voting placing ahead of Western Conference rivals Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
Early in the season Carmelo seemed to validate his playoff performance from the previous spring and established his candidacy for MVP with a tremendous start to the season. At the end of November Carmelo was averaging 31 points per game on 49.5% shooting. The Nuggets were widely considered the second best team in the west and had started the season a very respectable 12-5. Carmelo was even getting after people defensively. November would prove to be the highpoint of the season for Carmelo at both ends of the floor. Melo put forth another high scoring month in December as he averaged 28.9 points per game, but his shooting percentage dropped down to 44.4% that month. Then in the final contest of 2009 in Sacramento Melo sprained his ankle near the end of the contest and he would play in only six of Denver’s next 19 games.
Perhaps it was due to injuries and bumps and bruises, or perhaps Carmelo simply could not play at that high of a level for a full season. The fact is from the time the calendar turned to 2010 through the end of the regular season Carmelo averaged 26.6 points on 44.8% from the floor. As a comparison Monta Ellis averaged 25.5 points on 44.9% shooting for the season and believe it or not Monta did not get any MVP love. I understand it is not necessarily fair to compare numbers like that, but Carmelo’s value is largely based on his points per game and secondarily on how efficiently he scores. For much of the season Melo was good, but not great.
As far as his peripheral statistics the only area Carmelo excelled in was free throw shooting. He did not increase his free throw rate as the .41 free throw attempts per shot attempt was right in line with his career average, but he did make them at a career high rate of 83.0%. His other career best mark was his turnover rate of 9.5, which was certainly nice.
That is only part of the story as his rebound rate dropped precipitously from a career high 11.5 in 2008-09 to a sad 9.9. His assist rate fell from another career high of 12.1 to 10.1, his second lowest assist rate of his entire career. Carmelo attempted a career high 2.7 three point shots per game, but only converted a weak 31.6% of them. The boost in scoring Carmelo enjoyed was mostly due to the fact he attempted 21.8 shots per game second only to the 22.4 shots per game he launched in 2006-07 which was not coincidentally the only other season in his career he averaged over 26.5 points per game.
As a shooter Carmelo’s splits displaying his frequency and accuracy of shots broken down from how far from the rim he was continue to show nothing other than a regular season for Carmelo. He took a few more shots at the rim this season, but did not convert at as high of a rate as he had in the past failing to top 60% as he did in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Beyond the rim, but inside ten feet he converted a dismal 33.1% of his attempts however he made up for that by converting an unusually high percentage, 42.7% to be exact, of shots between ten and 15 feet. Even so those shots only accounted for four attempts a game. Melo’s bread and butter continue to be either at the rim, or from 16 to 23 feet, where he capitalized on 40.0% of his shots. It was nothing more than a typical season from those two distances.
If we analyze Carmelo’s season by looking at points per shot, it still comes up a bit short. Carmelo’s 1.29 points per shot is good, but it falls below his career best of 1.35 points per shot in 2005-06 and 1.34 in 2007-08. When we put it into context with the other top scorers in the NBA Melo falls far below the efficiency of players like Amare Stoudemire (1.50 points per shot), LeBron James and Kevin Durant (both at 1.48), Chris Bosh (1.45), Wade and Dirk Nowitzki (each sporting a matching 1.35), and Danny Granger (1.31). The only player in the top ten point per game producers in the league Carmelo outclassed was Kobe who produced 1.26 points per every shot he attempted.
There is arguing Carmelo is a highly skilled player and he rightly receives a great deal of credit for his versatility. However, for all of the gifts he has received he is dangerously close to being a volume shooter. To his credit, he is able to score despite all the attention that is heaped on him by defenses, but there is a flip side of that coin. Carmelo has been largely unsuccessful throughout his career in consistently creating offense for his teammates. Even though he is an above average passer for a small forward he has never posted an assist rate over 12.1. Conversely, a player Melo has been compared to in the past, Paul Pierce, has never posted an assist rate below 13.6, which he posted his rookie season. Somehow Carmelo ranked tied for forty-forth in the NBA amongst small forwards in assist rate safely behind such offensive brutes as Dorrell Wright, Ime Udoka, Trenton Hassel and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
In looking at on and off court stats we can see Carmelo was good, but not great, even by his standards. The Nuggets did better with him off the floor last season than they did in 2008-09 as they actually out efficiencied their opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with Melo out of the game and their efficiency advantage with him on the floor decreased from 7.3 points per 100 possessions in 2008-09 to 5.7 points per 100 possessions last campaign.
Carmelo did post a career high PER of 22.29, thanks in large part to his top four usage rate of 30.5, but it barely topped his PER from his third and fourth seasons in the NBA and is only noteworthy because his PER dropped below 20 during the 2008-09 season, largely due to a string of frustrating injuries.
For all the attention Carmelo garnered this season, the bulk of it was due to his success in the 2009 playoffs and his hot start to the season. It is very difficult to make a strong case that what Carmelo supplied the Nuggets with was equal to that which other MVP candidates did for their rosters.
The lack of passing, the lack of an appreciation for what it takes to win in this league from a defensive standpoint and the lack of postseason success is starting to create quite a bit of evidence that Carmelo Anthony is a player who can get you impressive numbers, but might not be the kind of player you can win a title with.
What is most frustrating is he keeps displaying these “getting it” moments only to have them prove to be flash in the pan moments. I see him do certain things on the basketball court, I know he is capable of doing those things and because of that I attribute that characteristic to him. The joke almost always ends up on me as over time it becomes clear that aspect of growth was a fluke. In the 2009 playoffs Melo passed the ball beautifully and against New Orleans in the first round he played the most well rounded offense of his career scoring 24.0 points per game on 46.9% shooting and averaging 5.2 assists per contest. It certainly appeared Carmelo had finally learned how to impact a game not only with his scoring, but with his passing and all around talents.
Starting late last season Carmelo showed he was finally willing to match up with the superstars of the NBA defensively and we received even more of that this year. When the Nugget defeated the Cavaliers in the middle of the season I proclaimed that Carmelo had arrived as he took up the challenge of defending LeBron during crunch time. In the past he would switch off as soon as there was the slightest indication of a screen being set to avoid embarrassment. While Melo did show a new willingness to try to defend some of the superstars he was matched up against, he did not display any inkling of respecting the necessity of defense when not facing off with an all-star.
Early in game one of the playoff series against the Jazz Melo made a couple of mistakes against C.J. Miles which allowed Miles to score some easy points and because of that Miles went on to have a very good playoff series playing a key role in Utah’s success. Carmelo did have a fantastic statistical series against the Jazz and it is only fair to mention Melo has seemed to overcome his statistical playoff struggles the past two postseasons. For all his big scoring totals against the Jazz the truth is the Nuggets lost that series due to a porous defense, which Melo played a significant role in. Furthermore, Denver never had a chance to win the series following their collapse at home in game two, which Carmelo shared a good portion of responsibility for.
The fact is whether you look at his performance statistically, through wins and losses or simply by empirical evidence and you are honest with yourself Melo really is no better than he was three or four seasons ago.
I am not saying Carmelo needs to boost his scoring average to 35 points a game, or that he should be shooting 55% from the floor. This is not about statistics, and I think that is part of the reason why Carmelo has not had the light bulb go on yet. Melo sees the All-Star votes, the MVP votes and the All-NBA votes and he convinces himself that he does enough. He is the best player on a quality team, but the failings of the team are not his, but those of his teammates.
J.R. Smith is the player that Nuggets fans love to hate and there is a great deal of frustrated directed at him, and mostly deservedly so, as he has yet to put all of his considerable talents together, but in my opinion Melo is the player who is letting this team down the most as he is still miles from fulfilling his true potential. If Denver is ever going to get beyond a playoff stepping stone, Carmelo has to advance beyond his current mentality.
Carmelo does not have the explosiveness of a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade and I am not asking him to be LeBron or Dwyane. I am asking him to take a couple of long delayed steps without the inevitable regression that comes along with his temporary advancements of the past. LeBron, Wade and Kobe Bryant are all two way players who are not content to only affect games on the offensive end of the floor. While they may not put forth the same mental and physical effort defensively as a player like Shane Battier, they are certainly not weak links in their team defense. Carmelo has yet to make that commitment and after seven years of largely disappointing endings you have to wonder what he is waiting for.
This is all difficult for me to type. As we acknowledged above, Carmelo is the player who helped turn the franchise around. He is the player who put the Nuggets on the national map. He is the face of the franchise. I still struggle to reconcile all that he has done for Denver with the constant string of playoff disappointments. Obviously Carmelo is not responsible for the health of George Karl, whose absence from the sideline was the defining story for this season. However, this is a players’ league and the game is decided on the court. The fact that Carmelo’s response to adversity is to take more shots instead of actually figuring out what it takes to win is frustrating.
Carmelo is undoubtedly well on the way to becoming the best player in the history of the franchise. Even with all Melo has done for Denver for the first time during his tenure I have to admit I am wondering if the Nuggets are holding themselves back by continuing to trot a team out whose best player is Carmelo Anthony.
In order to truly delve into an assertion of that magnitude we need to analyze the state of the team as well as the ramifications of life without Carmelo. Over the next few days we will do exactly that.
Statistics from this article can be found at the links below: