Theirs is a turf war of sorts, not violent by any means, but ceaseless. Every day Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony is asked by coach George Karl to yield a little ground, sometimes a lot of ground. Carmelo, don't stand at the three-point line. Carmelo, move without the ball. Carmelo, get back on defense. And each day, Anthony says, he tries to be accommodating. But on occasion he gets his back up and tries to reclaim a few centimeters. During a game Karl points to a spot on the floor where he says Anthony is supposed to be. Anthony shakes his head and says, "No, I was supposed to
be here." During a practice Karl says he wants everyone cutting and running hard, even in dummy drills. Anthony dogs it a little, playing what Karl calls "the rebellious young talent who wants to do it his way." Karl gives him a look but doesn't challenge him. I'll get him next time.
Such thrust-and-parry between star and coach is never-ending in NBA franchises, and, in reality, Anthony and Karl appear to be engaging in it with a high degree of congeniality. The rest of the league has paid the price. Since Karl seized the coaching reins on Jan. 27, the Nuggets, who were marching in lockstep toward the lottery, have done an about-face; at week's end they had won 24 of 30 games and appeared to be the favorite among three teams (Memphis and Minnesota being the others) trying to grab the final two Western Conference playoff spots. With a record of 41--31, Denver still had an outside chance of finishing as high as fifth.
The 6'8", 220-pound Anthony was averaging a team-high 20.1 points through Monday, but it would be a vast overstatement to say that he has been the main reason for the Nuggets' reversal. Karl has gotten leadership on offense from point guard Andre Miller, presence on defense from center Marcus Camby (one of the league's most underrated players, with double figures in both points and rebounds and almost three blocks per game) and reserve strength from a 10-deep rotation. In fact, Anthony sometimes finds himself sitting (and trying not to stew) at key points in games. But like his teammates, he has played with more efficiency and, most starkly, passion over the last two months. And Denver's stunning improvement is best studied through the Karl-Anthony relationship, potentially volatile but so far fruitful.
"I am a better player since Coach Karl got here," says Anthony. "I really believe that."
That is a major admission for the headstrong 20-year-old, whose on-court and off-court stock plummeted through the last six months of 2004. Anthony la-di-da'd through the Olympic Games under Larry Brown (Karl's coaching hero), then appeared in an underground DVD that glamorized drug dealers, in footage that was shot in his hometown of Baltimore after he returned from the Olympics. Add the ankle sprains that plagued him for much of the first three months of this season and the Nuggets' slow start, and 'Melo was anything but mellow, his dispiritedness a mood that pervaded the entire franchise before Karl arrived.
Denver is a classic example of how NBA players tune out some coaches and listen to others. The hangman's noose always dangled just over the head of former coach Jeff Bzdelik, who never had the full backing of management. He was fired when the Nuggets got off to a 13--15 start, and his replacement, Michael Cooper, who went 4--10, was shown the door when Karl was hired. Karl brought with him a 708--499 career record and a reputation as a hard-driving turnaround artist. Miraculously, ears opened. "When we had Jeff, we never knew how long he was going to be here," says Anthony. "Then we got Coop, and he did a good job, but it was the same thing. Now we have George. O.K., now we know the deal."
The deal is this: You move on offense and play hard on defense or you take a seat. Karl invited back to the bench one of the patron saints of motion offense, former Denver coach Doug Moe, and made one word his coaching mantra: Move! The Nuggets are averaging more than eight more points per game (103.1) under Karl than they did under Bzdelik and Cooper.
Karl says his efforts in that area remain an ongoing struggle. "Players will tell you they want to play fast and run and get easy baskets," he says. "But they're not committed to doing it. I tell you, on this team we have more...."
"Yeah, I know," says Anthony, rolling his eyes when asked about his coach's offensive philosophy. "'Ball stoppers.' That's like Coach Karl's favorite word."
Though all his players (even quarterback Miller) are prone to the sin of ball stopping, Karl identifies power forwards Kenyon Martin, Nen√™ and, most of all, Anthony as the prime culprits. In Karl's definition a ball stopper does not cut and screen when he doesn't have the ball, and when he does have the ball, he holds it and backs his way in, dribbling away valuable seconds on the shot clock. A ball stopper also slows down a fast break, turning it into a one-on-one contest in which he tries to break down a defender.
Anthony hears about this all the time. (And about what Karl perceives as his defensive deficiencies, such as not moving his feet or anticipating screens.) Anthony concedes that such pointed criticism was hard to take in the weeks immediately after Karl arrived, particularly when it was coupled with protracted stays on the bench. "I was confused because I'm used to just going out there and playing my game," says Anthony. "For Coach Karl it's the right way or no way. And his is always the right way. I'd go home and think, Why do you keep messing with me? I'd just go into a little shell.
"But after a while I started to figure it out. O.K., he really does want me to be a better player. He coached a lot of great players and coached in a lot of different situations. I'm down with it. I can learn from him, learn from everybody here."
For all that has been written and said negatively about his game, Anthony is still a supreme talent. His jumper is sweet. Though it's been established that--all together now--he's no LeBron James, he can finish spectacularly. He's gotten his shot blocked more often than any other player in the league (100 times through last weekend), but that only proves that he's willing and able to take the ball to the hoop. He knows how to draw fouls, too. In last Friday night's 102--84 home win over the Tim Duncan--less San Antonio Spurs, Anthony missed nine of his 12 shots from the floor but made 12 of 14 free throws. Getting 18 points on 12 shots is actually an economical offensive effort. And being on a team that stresses motion doesn't mean that Anthony can't post up, which is the strength of his game. "What I've noticed since George came," says Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Jim Lynam, "is that Carmelo gets to the block faster instead of hanging at the three-point line."
But the turf war continues unabated. "For Carmelo to be a leader of this team, he's got to be committed in practice and committed to focusing on the fundamentals," says Karl. "Right now he is a great talent but not a full-fledged professional. How many 20-year-olds are? But I'm going to stay on him."
Anthony was asked last week about his practice habits. "Well, I think I always practice hard," he said. "Maybe it's just because Coach Karl focuses on me so much that he notices everything."
That's probably a valid point. But however Anthony feels about the criticism, he knows that Karl has the hammer, even more so now that Mr. Turnaround is presiding over one of the league's alltime 180s. "I know how Coach Karl sees me," said Anthony after a shootaround before the Spurs game. "I'm a young player who's talented and skilled but somebody he needs to work on all the time. He wants to get something out of me. O.K., I can go with that. At the end of the day I'm going to be working hard to make myself better and my teammates better."
Anthony smoothed back his hair, which on this day was unbraided and tied into a ponytail. "I couldn't get to who usually braids it, and anyway, sometimes I just like to air it out," he said. (He did get it braided before the game.) One looks at him, so impossibly young and talented, then over at Karl, the balding, round-faced lifer who scratched out five years as a player in the ABA and NBA in the 1970s on grit and guts and a superior knowledge of the game. Writ small, theirs is a relationship that defines the NBA, past and present.
"People sometimes forget I'm only 20," says Anthony. "I've been through so much already, and I've proven to myself that I'm strong. I'm going to come out on the good end." If he doesn't, he knows who will be there to tell him about it.
"Carmelo's got to be committed in practice and on fundamentals," says Karl. "Right now he's a great talent but not A FULL-FLEDGED PROFESSIONAL."
Karl has boosted his team's scoring and made Denver a playoff threat.
Never shy about posting up, Anthony (15) is getting to the block quicker at Karl's urging.
Anthony feels that Karl singles him out but has come to accept that his coach merely wants him to get better.