Almost exactly eleven months ago I wrote the following:
Frankly, the chances of us seeing Melo take Manhattan are quite slim. Even so, if you’re a Nuggets booster, you might want to pray that a couple of big names take the Knicks’ money this year, just to be safe.
Fast forward to February 21, 2011 and the rumor that I could not believe I was asked to write about at the time has come to fruition. After all the rumors and hearsay we have arrived at the outcome most experts and fans alike expected. Carmelo Anthony is now a New York Knickerbocker and is free to sign his coveted extension before the current CBA expires. He found his way to the market and is going to get all the money.
Nuggets fans have had several months to come to grips with Carmelo’s departure. Even the most hardcore fans saw the writing on the wall weeks ago. As hardened to the reports as many fans became, the final news that Denver has traded away quite possibly the most talented player in franchise history brought a flood of emotion.
Closing the Book on an Era
No Nuggets fan needs to be reminded of the wasteland that was the Denver Nuggets prior to Carmelo Anthony’s arrival. Melo was the champion college player who was going to lift the franchise to unseen heights. Viewed as a young scorer with nearly limitless potential Melo embodied a new hope for Nuggets fans.
Denver had missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons until Carmelo’s rookie season. Denver secured the eighth seed thanks in large part to some late game heroics by Carmelo in game 80 at home against the Trail Blazers. An overmatched Nuggets squad gave the top seeded Minnesota Timberwolves a battle on the way to a 4-1 first round loss. What appeared to be a sign of things to come actually turned out to be a literal sign of things to come.
Carmelo improved and became a deadly scorer, but the Nuggets continued to suffer first round loss after first round loss. Despite having talented, although as Charlie pointed out ill-fitting, supporting cast mates throughout the years Denver remained a mere speed bump for the best teams in the Western Conference as Melo largely struggled through some difficulties in the postseason. Melo rarely experienced his best moments during games when the phrases “best of seven” or “if necessary” were involved.
Melo was given a gift when the Denver Nuggets were able to exchange Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups. Chauncey was a near perfect fit at the point for Denver and his presence helped push the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals and not coincidentally Melo played the best basketball of his career on the way. Sadly, Denver was crushed by the Lakers in game six at the Pepsi Center to end the series with Melo experiencing a throwback performance harkening back to his previous playoff struggles.
Denver would play one more playoff series with Carmelo and while he once again shined offensively, the Nuggets fell to the rival Utah Jazz despite having home court advantage.
The final record of the Carmelo Anthony era in Denver will show that while he brought league wide relevance, a sting of highlights and team records the final result was mediocrity, first round playoff losses and unfulfilled potential. The ultimate verdict is Melo never developed that special and difficult to quantify ability of making everyone around him better. Carmelo certainly took the pressure off those he played with due to all the attention opposing defenses paid to him. However, he was just as likely to take a midrange jumper against a double team as pass to a cutting teammate. Yes, it was impressive when he made the heavily contested jumper, but it did not lead to championship level basketball.
In the end I believe it was fitting that he final game Carmelo played as a member of the Denver Nuggets was the All-Star game. He always talked about winning, but his conduct on the court made it appear he was more interested in scoring titles and All-Star appearances.
Over the years Nuggets fans have seen Carmelo grow up off the court, but never mature on it. I doubt he will ever be plagued again by the image/legal issues that dogged him as a young man and I say that to his credit. On the basketball court, he has yet to reach the point where he will sell out on both ends for 48 minutes and do whatever it takes to win. You have to wonder if he ever will, especially now that he has had two teams cave into his demands and will now fulfill his dream of playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
I hope Carmelo does one day figure it out because he has the ability to be a very special player, and not just as a scorer. If only it had happened in Denver…
Maybe Carmelo was destined to end up in New York from the start and if that is indeed the case the Nuggets front office can feel good that they were able to complete a trade that will certainly help Denver remain competitive in the short term while opening up some significant flexibility in the long term. By my calculations Denver saves over $17 million in overall salary, which gets them under the luxury tax line and will save some serious cash in player costs between now and the end of the season. It is not easy to save that kind of money dealing with two other teams who do not have space under the cap to take on salary. Dan Feldman at the exceptional Detroit blog Piston Powered estimates the Nuggets will save nearly $35 million over the next three seasons. Some of that will be chewed up with other contracts, but it shows even though players like Al Harrington and Chris “Birdman” Andersen were not included the Nuggets are certainly pocketing significant savings.
From a player standpoint, Denver did not bring back any player capable of becoming a future franchise star, but they certainly added depth and competency.
Raymond Felton is a good point guard and while he lacks Chauncey’s long range marksmanship, he is certainly an upgrade nearly everywhere else. He has the potential to be the pick and roll partner with Nene that Chauncey never was.
Wilson Chandler is a hardnosed player who after four years in the NBA and at 23 is coming into his own, but I doubt he has much more room to grow from a talent stand point. He plays with poise and is a solid defender and can play three positions. He has gone on record of wanting to remain in New York and is in line for a raise as a restricted free agent following the season.
The player I am most excited about is Danilo Gallinari. Gallo is a young confident player with a nice stroke from behind the arc. He has a bit of a nasty streak and is capable of attacking the rim with ferocity. Defensively he is limited by his lateral movement, but as we saw two years ago at MSG, he is not afraid to take on a challenge when he frustrated Carmelo with his scrappy high energy defense. He can play small forward, but perhaps his best attribute is his ability to be a stretch four. The downside is he is a poor rebounder for his size and like Chandler preferred to remain a Knick. He is under contract for just under $4.2 million in 2011-12 and has a qualifying offer of $5.6 million in the summer of 2012.
Timofey Mozgov is a big man who does not rebound particularly well and offensively is only a threat at the rim. He is best known for making Blake Griffin even more famous than he already is. For Nuggets fans who longed to have a “true center” next to Nene, Mozgov is probably not the guy you have been pining for.
Denver will also enjoy a massive trade exception from this deal. If my understanding of the CBA is correct it could be in the range of $16 to $18 million which is large enough to acquire any superstar player in the NBA not named Kobe, KG or Duncan without giving up a player. That is powerful asset and depending on how far they get below the luxury tax line could potentially be a team who could help another team dump some salary before the trade deadline on Thursday (although that would certainly be unlikely).
Finally, Denver did receive a 2014 first round pick from the Knicks which will likely be in the twenties and two second round picks from Golden State in 2012 and 2013. The benefit to be derived from these selections is likely to be negligible.
Future of the Denver Nuggets
Denver no longer has a “franchise player” and there is no guarantee they will have one anytime soon. In a league where you apparently need at least three All-Star caliber players to win a title, Denver has zero. As dire as that sounds I believe the primary fear for Nuggets fans should be the curse of mediocrity. I wholeheartedly believe the Nuggets as constructed will remain a playoff team. They will certainly fall from their perch atop the league in offensive efficiency, but now that the rumors are behind them and they can focus on winning games and proving people wrong you can expect to see their atrocious defensive efficiency rating begin to drop.
The true risk of this trade is it is entirely possible the Nuggets will not experience the bottoming out that is vital for small market teams to develop a contending team. Franchise players arrive in small markets via the draft and without a high pick to select such a player you do not get one. The Indiana Pacers are the perfect example. After they saw a contending team crumble after the Rumble in the Palace in 2004-05 the Pacers have yet to draft any higher than tenth and as a result they have a team that is not good enough to win anything of significance and not bad enough to draft high enough to land a player who is talented enough to change their fortunes. In my mind that is worse than being bad year after year.
Clearly Denver is no longer even a dark horse of a contender, but they are still a solid team. Even if they trade Mozgov along with one of the three starting caliber players the received from the Knicks, as has been reported here, they will have plenty of talent. Even if Denver falls out of the playoff race, they will be drafting late in the lottery. There is a real danger of seeing a leveling off which could turn them into a team not good enough to compete for anything of value and not bad enough to acquire a star.
The Nuggets did secure some significant cap flexibility in the near future which in a tighter financial climate very well could provide them with opportunities to bring in promising young players and draft picks. Even so that flexibility is limited as Denver will be paying someone to play in the Mile High City and with players like Lawson, Afflalo and Chandler/Gallinari looking for new contracts in the next year or two, rumors of extending Nene and the failure to include Al Harrington or Chris Andersen in order to shed their long term deals Denver is going to be running a thrift store. Still, the Nuggets are in a position to completely reshape the roster.
It still remains to be seen if George Karl will return to coach in Denver next season. I believe with the Nuggets having completed the trade with New York they are likely to fall along the path of what Karl has called “retooling” instead of rebuilding. With a team geared more towards winning than tanking I expect Karl to return for at least one more season after this. If he does not it will probably be more due to cost cutting than organizational differences.
In the short term, Denver may prove to be a more consistent team now that the trade rumors are in the past and the team can simply focus on basketball. They certainly lost some offensive punch with Melo and Chauncey departing. While team defense requires cohesion which comes with practice and familiarity, I believe the Nuggets will be better on defense and might prove to be a feisty team through the remainder of the season.
What Have We Learned?
As careful as Carmelo was to avoid stumbling down the same path that led LeBron to his public enemy number one status we have learned that there is no graceful way to force your way off the only team you have ever played for. Carmelo never proclaimed he wanted to be traded or he wanted out of Denver, but only a select few hardcore fans fell for his act. In the end he might still love Denver, but he wanted something else and you cannot sugar coat that fact to fans.
If Carmelo did anything wrong it was sabotage what would have been this group’s one last shot at competing together and he ruined any hope of a storybook comeback from cancer by George Karl. If we are honest with ourselves, this team was not going to seriously challenge for a title. Not with the banged up bigs and not with Carmelo as the alpha dog.
Perhaps there can be some good to come out of this. With Carmelo forcing his way out of Denver we have had three franchises lose their star player in less than nine months. In the past the owners have sought to give the incumbent team an advantage when it came to retaining stars, whether it was the Bird exception, or longer contracts with greater raises. Perhaps the new CBA will have a mechanism that will level the playing field even more. Sadly, the consequence of that action could be to ensure the Heat remain the only super team in the league. Then again as long as it is a players’ league, and as long as those players can level credible threats at their teams maybe what the CBA stipulates simply will not matter.
The most difficult aspect of the trade to swallow is the inclusion of Chauncey Billups. I have already expressed what my heart wants for Chauncey, but my mind struggles to reconcile keeping a shoot first point guard making that much money on the roster when Ty Lawson is ready to take over now. As much as I love Chauncey familiarity breeds contempt and I have seen too many bad threes and not enough calming influence from him on the court. I know I am completely contradicting myself, but such is life when we have to reconcile our feelings with logic.
In the end all I can say is thank you Chauncey for the playoff run of 2009 and good luck to you in New York. Hopefully our paths will cross again soon.