This isn’t going to have the venom of Dwight Howard returning to Orlando Tuesday night. Certainly not the same as LeBron James first return to Cleveland. Time softens these things.
But Wednesday Carmelo Anthony returns to Denver for the first time since he forced his way out a couple seasons ago. And he’s probably still going to hear some boos — even though Denver didn’t take a step back without him and will have a good chance at their 10th win in a row on Wednesday.
Yes, it has taken this long for Anthony to return to the Rocky Mountains. The trade happened at the 2011 trade deadline, and the Knicks did not travel out to Denver the rest of that season. Last season was shortened by the lockout and with the shortened schedule the Knicks didn’t make a stop in Denver. They do this season, but it took a while to get around to it.
This is a very different Denver team than the one that Carmelo wanted away from — but it really hasn’t taken a step back since its star left in terms of wins and production. They made the playoffs the last two years, and while they lost in the first round both times Anthony only got the Nuggets out of the first round once. Ty Lawson is the one holdover from the Anthony era and put it this way to the New York Times.
“Are we better since the trade?” he said, relaxing at courtside, having finished a recent practice. “I’m not going to say that. I’ll just say we’re different. Our record is comparable, pretty much the same, still in that fifth-fourth area of the conference.”
At the urging of owner James Dolan to get the deal done, the Knicks gutted their roster of young talent to make this three-team trade a reality. The big name coming to Denver was Danilo Gallinari, the sharp shooting big man, but there was also now starting center Kosta Koufos, backup Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov. The Nuggets got Raymond Felton but traded him for point guard Andre Miller and two draft picks. The Nuggets also got trade exemptions that let them pick up JaVale McGee. Finally there was a first round pick in the deal that was shipped out as part of the Andre Iguodala trade with Philadelphia last summer.
Since the trade the Nuggets have won 63.5 percent of their games compared to 56.8 percent for the Knicks. Neither team has yet to get out of the first round of the playoffs, but the Nuggets have won four playoff games to the Knicks one.
The Knicks are improved. This season they are 38-23 and battling the Pacers for the two seed in the East. They see this as a season they could break through the first round barrier, reach the Eastern Conference finals and challenge a Heat team they beat a couple times earlier in he season. Anthony is having arguably his best season as a pro, averaging 27.9 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, with a PER of 22.9. He’s shown more willingness on the defensive end (at least to start the season) and has grown as a player.
Denver has reason to be optimistic going forward — their average age is 25.3, fourth lowest in the NBA (The Knicks are the oldest at 32.4). The Nuggets are 43-22, good enough right now for fifth in a Western Conference that has more depth at the top than the East. Denver has won nine in a row and are doing it with an up-tempo style and aggressively attacking the paint. The Nuggets score a league-best 57.7 points per game in the paint, the Knicks a league-low 33.5.
Anthony is not going to see the same venom as Howard did Tuesday because the Nuggets have moved on and built a team that is both entertaining and going to be a tough out come the playoffs. A team with a future. The Knicks got what they wanted — a New York born superstar who is the leader of a team with big playoff aspirations — but the Nuggets are pretty happy with the team they built. Nuggets coach George Karl talking to the Times:
“I know it’s nice to have Kevin Durant, it’s nice to have Tim Duncan, a LeBron James,” he said, referring to dominant players who can take over a game. “But just because a guy gets paid millions and millions doesn’t mean he’s a guy that is responsible enough to tell an owner, ‘Hey, you give me the money, you’re going to win and you’re going to win in the playoffs.’ How many guys are on that list?”
Notice who Karl didn’t mention?