Wednesday November 19th, 2008

They yielded in the first round (again) without much of a fight last spring, and they surrendered their lone defensive star in a trade that sent Marcus Camby to the Clippers for no value in return. The Denver Nuggets looked like a lost franchise, and Carmelo Anthony looked like he was going down with them.

Anthony has been criticized quite a lot over the years despite averaging 24.4 points while never missing the playoffs. Now he is turning impending doom into praise by leading a surprise turnabout in Denver -- the biggest surprise of all being the Nuggets' improvement at the defensive end.

"Melo, because of his experience, has bought in and been a leader,'' coach George Karl said of the Nuggets' stubbornness on defense, "which I don't think many people would have said he would have done at the end of last year. I think people who have watched us know we've had more of a no-nonsense mentality to play on the defensive end.''

Three changes have been made, beginning with the new responsibilities for Karl's longtime assistant Tim Grgurich, who runs one of the most effective camps for elite players and coaches each summer in Las Vegas. Grgurich is now coordinating the defense, which means the Nuggets are no longer so-so in their approach to that end of the court. The Nuggets entered Wednesday's play ranked No. 8 in the key defensive stat, holding opponents to 42.8 percent shooting. (They were 14th last year at 45.7 percent.)

"Instead of playing 60 percent on offense and 40 percent on defense [in practices], now it's 65 percent on defense and repetition,'' Karl said. "We're behind on offense, there's no question.

"You can take a team that's very ordinary defensively and try to make it into a top 10 defensive team. Some people think it might take a couple of years. But we're hoping to do it this year.''

The second change involves the gradual maturation of the 24-year-old Anthony. While the dramatic conversion of the Celtics last season from scorers to defenders may serve as the example to most players, Anthony's lessons are more personal. He refers back to his experiences with USA Basketball while winning an Olympic gold medal last summer. On a team of all-world scorers, he needed to define himself in other ways.

"Every time I get a chance to go play with USA Basketball, I come back a totally different person, a totally different player,'' Anthony said. "Being around some of the other great players in the game, you learn so much. I don't have to go out there and play a one-on-one game or an iso [isolation] game. Everybody is forced to change their game up.

"Even though you're with other great ones, your game is forced to expand a little bit more. You're almost forced to play defense, you're almost forced to rebound, you're almost forced to pass the ball, you're almost forced to play within the team concept. Which is a good thing.''

Anthony has been easy to criticize over his five full NBA seasons. He has been caught in some kind of trouble or other at least once or twice per year. Anthony has been portrayed as a one-dimensional scorer, a byproduct of the AAU system that coddles stars at the expense of team fundamentals. When he arrived in Denver after leading Syracuse to the national championship as a freshman, the Nuggets built themselves around his scoring because that was their No. 1 strength. And it was all he knew.

"Me getting there at the age of 19, being the main focus and the leader of that team,'' he said. "Now when I look back, it's amazing.''

In 2003-04, the Nuggets leapt to 43 wins (from 17 the year before) on the undeveloped talents of a rookie whom Anthony hardly can recognize today.

"I'm totally different,'' he said.

Anthony maintains he learned more his way than he could have by staying in college for an additional year or two.

"I think about it a lot,'' he admitted. "You always think, Man, what if I did two or three years in college, how my career would have been different. I'm happy I did one. I had to learn the game as soon as I stepped on the court. I was almost forced to lead a team from the first game I played in the NBA, so it's all carrying over now.''

Karl recognizes that Anthony has learned the hard way.

"My problem with young players is there's a bloated expectation to a young kid that we will never solve,'' Karl said. "The draft has a bloated importance, and then I don't know the last one that came in -- [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] are the only guys that come to my mind to really have an impact.

"Since then there have been great players coming in, but Michael [Jordan] struggled, Melo and LeBron [James] in their own way were disappointing -- because of the expectation. I don't think they're disappointing; I think Melo should be given a compliment [as] a young kid being The Man and he's gotten his team there [in the playoffs] five consecutive years, and there's only four teams that have done that in that period of time.''

The difference, as alluded, is that Magic and Bird led their teams through the postseason instantly.

"If you don't win,'' Karl said of the playoffs, "the expectation says you're failing.''

Thus the third phase of the Nuggets' apparent evolution -- the arrival of point guard Chauncey Billups in the Nov. 3 trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit. While the ball used to brake to a stop when touched by Anthony, Iverson or J.R. Smith, the dynamics have changed because Iverson has been replaced by Billups, who is a passer. Because Billups and Smith must be guarded out to the three-point line, there is more room inside for Anthony to create mismatches. The offense is structured now for him to go one-on-one at times, and yet, when need be, he has developed enough court vision to make the correct decisions and pass out of double teams. The Nuggets won six of their first seven games with Billups, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week.

The most telling improvement in Anthony is his rebounding. In a vital win at Boston last Friday, he had 13 rebounds to go with his 18 points. Two nights later, he shot only 4-of-17 from the floor against the Timberwolves, in which case the old Melo would have shut down the rest of his game; this time, he produced 12 rebounds and four assists (with just one turnover) as the Nuggets overcame a nine-point deficit in the final seven minutes of their 90-84 win.

Anthony is averaging 20.6 points, which would be a career worst. But his 8.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists are career bests, and the prospects for his team have never been more promising. So long as Nenê and Kenyon Martin remain healthy in the frontcourt, the Nuggets can challenge in a conference that appears to be in transition behind the dominant Lakers.

But no team goes unscathed, and it will be interesting to see the leadership Anthony shows when the Nuggets inevitably find themselves in trouble later this season.

"I only can get better,'' he said. "I'm nowhere near my prime right now, so that's the good thing about it.''

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