With the first round of the 2011 NBA playoffs already underway and the Nuggets opening series against the Thunder not far behind, it’s time to look back, forward and all around at the season that has been and the playoff season that might be.
What a crazy year it’s been. I remember it like yesterday; not long after “The Decision” there were rumblings that Carmelo Anthony wanted out of a Denver Nuggets uniform. I didn’t make much of it at first because like any star, there’s always going to be people trying to stir the pot in the national media. But come to find out, this little rumor came to fruition at Carmelo Anthony’s wedding this past summer when Amare Stoudemire, Chris Paul and he decided it would be a genius idea to make a toast to all three of them forming their own “Big Three,” in response to the Miami Heat’s historical colluding accomplishment, in front of many Denver Nuggets associates in attendance. Yes, for the first time those who structured much of their lives around the young “franchise player” got their first dose of “Eh, You’re Really Not That Important To Me” serum, as Melo unloaded his most candid demands vicariously through a toast. Of course, later on Melo would be much more forthcoming and to the point about his desires by laying out a notepad (I’m guessing? Maybe a text? Something along the lines of “Yo. I’m out. It’s either Chicago or New York and make it snappy.) in front of Ujiri with the details where he wanted to go and in what order.
In trying to think back to last summer I get an eerie feeling of complacency, almost like finally realizing you’d been used for a really long time. Before “The Demands” (Melo’s version of “The Decision”) everything was going as good as possible in regards to the Nuggets; Mark Warkentien was just one year removed from winning Executive of the Year, Chauncey and Melo were still in their primes and the team looked poised to be amongst the Western Conference’s elite for years to come. Even before free agency hit we heard rumors that Melo was close to signing a multi-year deal to remain with the Nuggets for the foreseeable future. But, one should never underestimate the fickle emotions that pertain to the human mind , especially jealousy.
You see, when Lebron James decided that he’d pack up and leave his practically hometown Cleveland Cavaliers — the team that drafted him, the team he idolized growing up, the team he probably would have liked to play for his entire career if he actually had some talent on — that was all she wrote for Melo. Looking back, in a way Lebron was keeping Melo in Denver all those years when you consider the brevity in which it took Melo to leave once Lebron did. The two got drafted the same year, just a few picks apart, and we’re often times compared to one another being that they both played the same position and were some of the highest scoring players in the league at that spot. So as long as Melo saw Lebron sticking with the team that drafted him — the historically inept Cleveland Cavaliers — he probably felt just fine with a franchise sharing so many similarities.
I mean, why would he leave? What good reason did Melo ever have prior to Lebron’s arrival in South Beach, to pack up and leave a team he’d taken to the Western Conference Finals just one year before? He still had a great team around him, was always in the mix for the Western Confrence’s elite, had an owner willing to spend, had an all-time great coach, had an Executive of the Year as a General Manager; what else could you possibly need? Prior to the Summer of 2010, when comparing his situation to counterparts like Lebron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade; Melo was in the best position of them all! But… what happens when your close friends and rivals begin to fall into more luxurious situations one after another like a line of dominoes? What do you do then, even when your own situation is still top of the line?
We’re all well aware of what Melo did. He wanted to do something for himself. He looked around and saw everyone else doing it in the historical Summer of 2010 free agency period, and he felt left out. So, he forced the Denver Nuggets to give him what he so dearly desired by trading him to the New York Knicks in February of 2011. It was everything Melo wanted, and he got his wish. Ever since he was little kid growing up on the streets of Brooklyn all he wanted to do was play professional basketball. But not just anywhere. No, some place like Arco or Energy Solutions arena wouldn’t do. It had to be Madison Square Garden. The history, the bright lights, the flare, the attention. For every adolescent growing up in New York City that’s what you dream of, and the more you dreamed the more it becomes engraved within your soul to live that dream and make it a reality. I can’t blame Melo for wanting to play in New York, just as I can’t blame someone growing up in Breckenridge aspiring to be a professional skier. But what I can do is point out the unfortunate circumstances of the career path Melo chose, and the simple fact that to real people, Madison Square Garden is no different than any other arena in the NBA. He should ask his friend Lebron whom he’s so drastically structured his own life around, because today when I was watching the Miami Heat play it’s first collective playoff game, I saw empty court-side seats and half-assed “DE-FENSE” cheers, and all I kept thinking was just how much Lebron actually sacrificed to play with better players. Melo on the other hand, just wanted to be the center of attention in some previously magical arena, that once boasted a tradition of fiery competitiveness, but is now otherwise more famous for Spike Lee’s most recent blustering tirade and the annual NBA Draft.
Yet with Melo’s departure we have received a special gift in return: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos. What was once the most anxiety-ridden season in Denver Nuggets history has serendipitously turned into, quite possibly, the most exciting thanks in large part to these men. When combined with the Nuggets holdouts of Ty Lawson, JR Smith, Nene, Kenyon Martin, Al Harrington and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, there is a lethal dose of depth unlike anything Nuggets fans have ever seen. Two legitimate starting-five rotations can be put out on the floor at any time, thus creating mismatches galore with whomever the Nuggets opponent has been. Now, we’ll get a chance to see if this eccentric game plan works against one of the best teams in the league, that features two “superstars,” in a best-of-seven series starting tonight.
Nuggets fans across the world have had to endure one of the most neurotic, up-and-down seasons the NBA has ever seen. From the initial “toast,” to hearing the chatter of rebuilding, to playing well, to then not caring whatsoever if we win or lose, to finally trading our franchise player, to finishing off as the hottest team in the NBA — it’s been one wild ride. I can’t believe we’re already here, as the 5th seed playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of playoffs, but I’m as excited as I’ve ever been to be a Nuggets fan. I know that if we can stay healthy, there’s not one team in the West we can’t beat in a seven-game series. From the looks of it, everyone will be ready to go this evening, except Afflalo who will be a game-time decision. That’s great news considering how scuffed up we’ve been lately, but Affalo is still a key part of this team, and we’ll likely need his help if we want to win this series.
What you have before you is something you’ll probably never see in the NBA again. It’s one of those things that, later on down the road in life you’re probably going to look back on with sweet nostalgia as accompaniment. Treat every moment with great compassion and attention. Maybe the 2011 Denver Nuggets will be having a parade in downtown Denver sometime this summer? Maybe they won’t even make it past the Thunder in the first round? Maybe we’ll fall once again to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals? Nobody knows, but what we do know is how special and great this team has been to us in light of all the frustration that resulted from the first part of the season. These guys deserve to win right now and even if they don’t, we should be proud of everything they’ve done thus far. So, treat this one as an encore Nuggets fans, in that no matter how much we felt we may have deserved it, it was never guaranteed. Just appreciate it for what it is.
(UPDATE: Arron Afflalo will not play tonight, as the hamstring is still not fully healed. Considering the Nuggets next game after this one doesn’t come until Wednesday, he should be good to go by then. Nuggets beat writer, Aaron Lopez, suggests Wilson Chandler might start in his place, also states that Karl’s “excitement is palpable” as he is making rounds with players. Again, follow me on Twitter at @24kGoldenChild for constant Nuggets updates and news as soon as it hits the free world! I also tweet my thoughts during games, as well as during any major sporting event, which is usually basketball for me. I know most people get turned off by the name “Twitter” — I was one of them — but I’ve found it’s really a great way to keep updated on your favorite sports team, or whatever it may be you’re interested in. You don’t even have to “tweet” if you set up an account, so it can almost be like a live news-feed you subscribe to. Just a thought.)