Are you ready for another return? Carmelo Anthony returns to Denver Wednesday.

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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?

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.