Maybe Carmelo Anthony was right.
It has been a lot of fun to disparage Anthony over the last 2 1/3 years. While the gifted scorer has been mired somewhere just outside of real championship contention in a thin Eastern Conference, his former team, the Nuggets, has become a cause celebre among traditionalists for continuing to make playoff appearances without a bona fide superstar. Yet now that general manager Masai Ujiri was allowed to leave without much of a fight and coach George Karl was given the heave-ho, Anthony may have been right all along, in a strange sort of way.
Remember, Anthony’s reasons for demanding to leave Denver were never really spelled out — publicly, he denied to the end that he wanted to leave at all — but the consensus among those familiar with his thinking was that Anthony wanted the bright lights of New York, or at least a comparably large media market. He only made it past the first round of the playoffs once with the Nuggets, and Anthony apparently blamed that stain on his resume as much on the team’s inability to put championship-caliber talent around him as to his own failings as a player. The Nuggets, in the relatively small market of Denver, could not compete with the deep-pocketed Knicks or Lakers, so the thinking went.
So when the Nuggets shipped Anthony out for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and other pieces in a blockbuster trade in 2011, many fans rejoiced. Denverites rid themselves of a star who they worried might grow into a malcontent if forced to stick around longer. New Yorkers had real reason for hope for the first time since Stephon Marbury‘s arrival in 2004 — and everyone knows how that turned out. The rest of us were eager to see just how quickly a team could bounce back after losing one of the top 10 players in the game.
The result could not have been more refreshing for those who prefer analytics to help shape roster building, or those who simply prefer to see something different from the top-heavy squads that dominate national TV broadcasts. The Nuggets won 57 games this season, three more than Anthony’s Knicks, and were a popular dark horse pick in the West before Gallinari tore his ACL and the team lost a run-and-gun first-round series to the Warriors. Ujiri won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award and was hailed as a genius. Karl won Coach of the Year, and was likewise applauded. The thinking man’s approach to the game proved it could compete to the simpler philosophy of handing the ball to Superstar X and getting the heck out of the way.
Things weren’t that cut and dried, though. We know that now. Ujiri left for Toronto, where they reportedly tripled his salary as one of the lowest-paid G.M.’s in the league. Karl was fired (disregard all language to the contrary the team might try to justify using) after requesting an extension before the final year of his contract. The folks who took so much satisfaction in seeing the Nuggets succeed without a star player were nailed with a harsh reality: If the people who play the game are indeed so expendable, then the people who don’t play, and merely put the pieces together, are therefore expendable, too.
Thus, in a weird way, Anthony was right. It is safe to declare, for the time being, that the Nuggets will never contend for a title. And it has everything to do with money, just not in the sense Anthony and a lot of other people thought. The market is irrelevant. Try telling the Spurs they are at a disadvantage to the Sixers because San Antonio has 200,000 fewer people than Philadelphia, according to the 2010 census. The Nuggets are just plain cheap. Not only were the Nuggets unwilling to pay for a star player, they are unwilling to pay for a star coach or a star executive as well. For Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Colorado Avalance, that trifecta is the worst kind of hat trick. (By the way, ask an Arsenal fan how they feel about Kroenke, their club’s majority owner. Or just Google “Stan Kroenke Arsenal cheap.”)
Almost an identical roster will be issued for the Nuggets next season, with Andre Iguodala‘s free agency providing the only real question mark. It is virtually guaranteed they will not be as good as they were under Karl, who was the ideal coach for this collection of talent. Going forward, it is unlikely they will remain as competitive as they remained under Ujiri, who operated masterfully within the fiscal restraints of the organization. This is a discouraging day for those who believe a culture and a system can be every bit as valuable as a once-in-a-generation player — ironic timing given that the Spurs are offering their own encouragement of exactly that archetype in the NBA Finals.
Chances are, Denver will continue to be a playoff regular, as it has been every year since 2004, if only because more than half of the 15 teams in the Western Conference qualify. The Nuggets may persist with this group for a few years, or retool again with another set of no-names, but the aura is gone. No longer will anyone look admiringly at the Nuggets as the guys who figured it all out. Instead, they will be the team that does just enough to stay above average, settles for a few exciting postseason wins and bids adieu when one of their key employees exceeds expectations and, Heaven forbid, tries to get compensated for his efforts.