Losing a superstar is normally a disaster in the NBA. But no one told that to the surging post-Carmelo Nuggets, who have finally become a team its coach can love
One week after the Nuggets traded forward Carmelo Anthony, when six-year-old Kaci Grace Karl had been able to fully evaluate their deal with the Knicks, she went to her watercolor class in school, cut a piece of green construction paper into a heart shape and scrawled in the middle: Dear Dad, You shod like ur teme. She punched a hole in the top, threaded a red pipe cleaner through it and added a rainbow border made of tissue paper.
Denver coach George Karl taped this piece of artistic reassurance to his office wall at the Pepsi Center, right over his computer. As he read the message aloud—"You should like your team"—he nodded slowly. The girl knows her basketball. She also knows her father, so she had to understand that he did not always like his team.
To say that Karl did not like Anthony is far too first grade. Rather, he did not like what the Nuggets had become with Anthony, a symbol of much that ails the modern NBA: passive on defense and predictable on offense, with endless isolation plays for a disgruntled superstar whose teammates stand on the fringe and wonder what they could accomplish if given the chance. "Do you like watching that kind of basketball?" Karl says. "I don't either."
At this time a year ago Karl was undergoing radiation treatments for throat and neck cancer. He took an indefinite leave while eating through a feeding tube and sleeping with an oxygen tank. His family inspired him to keep fighting, but Anthony inspired him to continue coaching. "I came back more than anything to make Melo and I better," Karl says. He wanted to have hard conversations with Anthony about the defensive improvements necessary to become a true superstar. Then in August, just before doctors cleared Karl to return, Anthony asked for a trade. Karl could not have those hard conversations and risk alienating his franchise player further. He asked himself why he bothered coming back at all.
Karl dreaded Anthony's exit, but point guard Chauncey Billups kept telling him, "We'll be fine without Melo." Billups played for the 2003--04 Pistons, the last team to win a championship without a headliner. He sold Karl on a move that would take six months to make. One week Anthony was headed to New Jersey, the next New York. There were days Karl had to walk out of the Pepsi Center, sometimes for a couple of hours and sometimes for many more, to escape what he called "the junk." There were practices he handed over to assistants because he was too angry to run them himself. He felt the season being sabotaged and begged Nuggets executives to make a deal, reminding them what Gen. George Patton once said: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."
On Feb. 22, Denver shipped five players to the Knicks, including Anthony and, ironically, Billups. They got five in return, including four who are under 25, three who were starting in New York and two who are 7 feet tall. Karl clicked onto the Synergy Sports website and queued up footage of their past 100 touches. He saw how radically his club was about to change—from small to big, old to young, slow to fast, shallow to deep, one great player to 10 good ones. Karl could not recall another playoff contender changing a third of its roster with less than a third of the season remaining. It was the equivalent of an NFL team's gaining 20 new members in the first week of December.
The Nuggets' playbook was filled with "Melo plays" and "Chauncey plays," and most of them would have to go. There would be no more two-man game between Anthony and Billups, and far fewer end-of-game isolations. Karl flashed back to a classroom at Penn Hills High in Pittsburgh. "I had a chemistry teacher who used to cover the chalkboard with all these complicated formulas," Karl says. "Then one day she came in and wiped it clean. It was so refreshing to see that bright green chalkboard with nothing on it. That's exactly how I felt."
While small-market general managers held up Denver as Exhibit A in the case for keeping marquee players with the organizations that drafted them, Karl adopted a different cause. He is challenging the widely held belief that an NBA team stocked with solid talent can't beat one with a couple of stars. "Why can't we?" Karl asks. "Why can't we get creative? Why can't we have more passing, more movement, more guys with the ball, better defense, better spacing?" You can tell him that no team in the past 40 years has won a title without a Hall of Famer or a shoo-in—outside of those '04 Pistons—but this is a man who staved off cancer twice. As the Knicks' highlights come on the television in his office, he does not even look up. He fishes out a blurb on the Nuggets from a national website. "They don't have their superstar anymore," he parrots. "Welcome to lottery land." He will share it with the locker room later. "All you f------ who think we won't be good anymore, f--- you," Karl says. "That's what I tell myself every morning now."
In Cleveland and Toronto, they are bitter over their stars' defection. In Denver, they are defiant. Through Sunday the Nuggets were 5--2 since Anthony's exit, rising from seventh to fifth in the Western Conference. They were allowing 10.9 fewer points per game, dishing out 2.8 more assists, demonstrating the might of a basketball democracy. When they disemboweled the Bobcats by 40 on March 2, seven players scored 10 or more points but none had 20. On one possession point guard Ty Lawson passed up an open three-pointer to feed forward Kenyon Martin down low, who passed up a short jumper to kick to guard Arron Afflalo outside, who passed up another open three to dish to Lawson, who was all alone but found forward Wilson Chandler, one of the ex-Knicks, inside for a layup.
"This ain't mixed doubles," crows Martin. "It still takes five to get it done." The Nuggets have undergone an identity overhaul in the past two weeks, and while it may seem entirely Karl's doing, he demurs. "I'm most proud of those two guys upstairs," he says. "They gave us this opportunity."
Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president for basketball operations Masai Ujiri sit in a windowless conference room on the second floor of the Pepsi Center, staring at a white grease board that is now filled with names of potential draft choices. Kroenke's English bulldogs, Fletcher and Lucy, lie on a carpet at their feet. Fletcher licks Kroenke's ankle. Lucy growls and then falls asleep. For most of the season they have been sequestered in this room—Kroenke and Ujiri, Fletcher and Lucy, plus salary-cap guru Pete D'Alesandro. The grease board became so crowded with trade proposals that Kroenke photographed them with his iPhone before erasing any.
Kroenke is 30 and has been a team president only since last August, when his father, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, gave him control of the franchise. Ujiri is 40 and has been a G.M. only since last September, when Josh hired him from Toronto, where he was an assistant G.M. Their first order of business as top NBA executives would be to put together one of the most scrutinized trades in the history of the league. "Thanks for hiring me, Josh," Ujiri says with a weary smile.
By the time they joined forces, Kroenke had already been to Anthony's wedding in New York, where he endured the toasts from Melo's friends and family about a future away from Denver. He had also been to Anthony's home in Baltimore, where he was presented with an ultimatum from his star's handlers: "New York or Chicago." Kroenke did not see a fit with either team. When Ujiri interviewed with Kroenke for the executive V.P. job, Ujiri told him not to worry about Chicago. "It's going to come down to New York and New Jersey," he said.
At that point the Knicks did not have nearly enough to offer, but owner James Dolan flew to Denver last September and asked Kroenke for time. "My basketball people tell me that some of our young players are pretty good," Dolan said. "Give them a chance." Kroenke and Ujiri were negotiating with some teams and seeking advice from others. They asked Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak how he persuaded Kobe Bryant to back off trade demands three years earlier. (Pau Gasol helped matters then, but he was not on the trading block.) They called Heat president Pat Riley and asked how he would proceed. (He recommended swapping star for star, but Dwyane Wade was not available either.)
Kroenke and Ujiri believed they might be headed for a deal before Christmas, but then Anthony's sister died on Dec. 21, and out of respect they backed off. Less than a month later Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov announced that his team was pulling out of the sweepstakes, and then the Knicks, whose young players had indeed blossomed, refused to sweeten their existing offer: Chandler, point guard Raymond Felton and a first-round draft pick.
Kroenke and Ujiri are former college basketball players and still carry themselves like athletes, able to remain in close quarters for extended periods of time but willing to get in each other's face. "We'd yell, 'I don't want to talk to you until tomorrow,'" Kroenke says. But they were right back in the conference room the next morning, poring over scouting reports. "They'd be packing up to go home," D'Alesandro says, "and then one would make another point, and they'd stay until three." Kroenke and Ujiri never spoke publicly, but a lot of people spoke publicly about them. One G.M. admitted to Ujiri that he tried to pressure them because of their inexperience. Another asked him, "Are you guys going to get this done so the rest of the league can move on?" Even Anthony told an executive with another team, "Masai is like Obama. Really good but got thrown into the fire."
Ujiri grew up in Nigeria playing on dirt courts before moving to Seattle and attending Montana State Billings. Kroenke grew up in Columbia, Mo., hearing catcalls of "rich kid." At Missouri, fans wrote on message boards that he made the team only because his parents were university donors, even though he was a top 50 recruit. Kroenke and Ujiri were tougher than expected, prepared to hold out until the trading deadline, when the pressure on New York and New Jersey would be as great as it was on Denver. In early February they finally felt the momentum shift. Some new teams called. The Knicks slumped and added the versatile 6'10" Danilo Gallinari to their offer. The Nets reengaged, and Anthony looked likely to sign their extension. After All-Star weekend Kroenke and Ujiri scrawled two final proposals on the grease board, under "NJ" and "NY." Kroenke took one last picture on his iPhone as a keepsake.
The Nets offered an intriguing mix of the proven and the unknown: The list reportedly included veteran point guard Devin Harris, veteran forward Troy Murphy, rookie forward Derrick Favors, rookie point guard Ben Uzoh and four first-round picks. The Knicks offered young players with room to grow: Chandler, Felton, Gallinari, centers Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos (who came from the Timberwolves), and three draft picks. The Knicks' deal allowed the Nuggets to skip over the rebuilding process, remain in the playoff race and set the benchmark for every other small market taken hostage. The trade they rejected, with the Nets, was attractive enough that the Jazz accepted a variation of it for All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Ujiri celebrated the deal by going home, watching highlights of Anthony's game-winners and asking himself, What did I just do? He came to one conclusion: "We got killed."
In the NFL and Major League Baseball, teams that trade superstars often recoup more value in the long run. The Cowboys built a dynasty in part by dealing running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings. The Mariners built a 116-win juggernaut in part by sending ace Randy Johnson to the Astros. But the NBA is different. "In baseball, a superstar hitter is only up four times, and you can take the bat out of his hands by intentionally walking him," says Billy Beane, general manager of the small-market A's. "In basketball, stars have a bigger impact than any other sport. Teams don't win without them."
In the grand scheme, then, Kroenke and Ujiri seemed doomed whether they took the Knicks' package or the Nets'. But by bringing in five players who are able to contribute yet are open to instruction, they energized the one person in their organization who has always bucked the longest odds: their coach.
For the first week post-Anthony, the Nuggets did not use the same starting lineup twice. They did not have the same leading scorer twice. They didn't run more than 10 different plays. In a timeout against the Celtics, Karl told them to play "crazy fast." In a huddle against the Trail Blazers, he couldn't identify anybody to take the ball out-of-bounds. He went with the point guard, assuming the point guard could pass. He joked that nobody could prepare for the Nuggets because nobody knew what they were going to do, himself included.
By Week 2 they had a lineup, though not a rotation. They were up to 15 plays, though not everybody could remember them all. They were looking forward to a four-day break starting on March 6, which they came to call "training camp." Karl will not be turning any more practices over to his assistants. "Oh, no," he says. "There are too many exciting days." He compares the NBA with Microsoft; this operation is a start-up.
The Nuggets have no stars and no scrubs, eight players who average double figures in points and 12 who average double figures in minutes—a recipe for a mutiny. Felton signed as a free agent with the Knicks last summer, became a co-captain, nearly made the All-Star team and is now backing up Lawson, whom he once hosted on a recruiting visit to North Carolina. Karl estimates that he has at least two meetings per day with players asking for more minutes. "It's called competition," he tells them. He could never bench Anthony for jogging back on defense. Now he can bench the first guy to break stride.
Karl concedes that the winner of an NBA trade is the team that winds up with the best player, but he won't concede who that player will be. Maybe one of the exiled Knicks who hasn't developed yet, he suggests, or one of the holdover Nuggets who had been forced to suppress his game. He mentions Afflalo, 25, a 6'5" defensive stopper tied for the best true shooting percentage among two guards in the league; he was averaging 12.9 points on 9.2 shots at week's end. In Anthony's last game at the Pepsi Center, Afflalo scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Mavericks at the buzzer. Once Anthony left, Afflalo closed out the Celtics and did the same to the Jazz. "Maybe we do have a go-to guy," says assistant coach Chad Iske, "and we don't know it yet and he doesn't know it yet."
The franchise is moving on from the Anthony era, quickly and gracefully, after months of bracing for his departure. Attendance at the Pepsi Center is almost unchanged. Who needs Melo? chants are more common than organ music. There is no jersey burning. There is no need. "I don't like those superstar deals anyway," says Vicki Ray, a Nuggets fan who greets players at the parking lot with handmade signs and has done so for all but two games in the past 18 years. "These guys play hard. They play defense. That's what the sport is supposed to be about."
Denver heads into spring with the fury of a small market scorned. Karl whispers in players' ears, "Are you ready for the playoffs? Are you ready to win a round in the playoffs?" His catchwords, like team-ness and one-ness, do not sound so funny anymore. "It's about the five," Afflalo says. "I think people will appreciate a group rather than individuals."
Karl is not claiming that they are better than the Knicks, or better than the Western Conference elites or even better than they were with Anthony. He is just heeding the wisdom of little Kaci Grace: He likes his teme.
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KARL IS CHALLENGING THE WIDELY HELD BELIEF THAT AN NBA TEAM STOCKED WITH SOLID TALENT CAN'T BEAT ONE WITH A COUPLE OF STARS.
KARL SAYS HE WON'T BE SKIPPING ANY MORE PRACTICES: "THERE ARE TOO MANY EXCITING DAYS."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
PLAYING HARDBALL Afflalo (6) and the rest of the revamped Nuggets have thrived by embracing a scrappy—and decidedly more democratic—style.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
MILE HIGH MAKEOVER Like the rest of the team, Gary Forbes (0) and Martin have become stoppers, while Lawson (3) leads a more pass-happy attack.
Photographs by GREG NELSON
DOGGED DEALERS From their canine-friendly war room, Kroenke (far left) and Ujiri turned over a third of their roster—and put a smile on the face of Karl (above).