Scott Howard-Cooper
Thursday May 21st, 2009

The Denver players who have every chance of winning the Western Conference finals have no business being in the Western Conference finals.

Nenê had cancer.

Chris Andersen had an addiction.

Kenyon Martin had microfracture knee surgery. Twice.

Chauncey Billups had a locker in Michigan.

Dahntay Jones had two years only Bekins could love.

The Nuggets are not having a successful season. The Nuggets are having a magical season, the kind of run when so many things going wrong, life-threateningly wrong, come together.

This is stars-in-alignment stuff. Beating cancer around the same time as beating drugs around the same time as Carmelo Anthony's growth from his Olympic experience around the same time of the trade. Sorry -- The Trade. Not all in the identical moment, but close enough to uniquely and strangely shape the 2008-09 Nuggets as one of the NBA's great success stories of recent years no matter what becomes of this 1-0 deficit to the Lakers. There just aren't convergences like this.

"I think there's very much of a can-do attitude with these guys," said Mark Warkentien, the vice president of basketball operations.

Because of the have-been-through experiences.

Billups first. Of course Billups first. He was a Piston at the start of the season before the trade that tipped the league. It was a blockbuster at the time because Allen Iverson and Billups were involved, but has become more than that. There was no way to anticipate the level to which Billups' leadership would alter history as he enjoyed a storybook return to his hometown.

"He's maybe as revered in that city and state for who he is and how he carries himself, and has always carried himself, as for what he does on the court," said Rex Chapman, Denver's vice president of player personnel.

Billups was the point guard and the calming effect. The Nuggets needed both, and not necessarily in that order.

"We've got some, I guess they could be considered some volatile, combustible personalities at times," Chapman said. "A voice of reason out there probably does us a lot of good."

Nenê is the starting center who overcame testicular cancer. The surgery to remove a tumor and subsequent treatment cost him nearly half of last season, along with another quarter lost to a thumb injury. So, yeah, he is really going to sweat Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

From cancer to 77 games this regular season and 11 more and counting in the playoffs.

"I just look at him in awe of his whole deal," Warkentien said.

Andersen is the guy kicked out of the league in January 2006 for violating the substance-abuse policy and reinstated in March 2008. He played 34 minutes in five games for the Hornets last season, then became a free agent with a future as uncertain as his past had been destructive.

"There were probably a lot of guys nervous about him," Warkentien said of teams not wanting to invest in someone fighting such a public battle with demons.

Including the Nuggets.

"Sure," Warkentien said. "We know the numbers with this kind of deal [of how common it is for people to fall back into addiction]. We're educated men."

Andersen became the reserve forward-center who finished second in the league in blocked shots while logging just 20.6 minutes a game.

Educated, rewarded men.

Martin had microfracture surgery on his left knee, the procedure that is supposed to signal a doomed career, in May 2005. Then he had it on his right knee in November 2006. All he's done since is play 75 games last season, including the playoffs, and 77 this time.

Jones went from 2006-07 with the Grizzlies to being waived by the Celtics the following training camp to 25 games with the Kings in '07-08 to being waived again to joining Fort Wayne of the D-League to signing with the Nuggets last summer. To starting at shooting guard!

Anthony was always bursting with talent. But his summer with the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, surrounded not only by the best but also the most focused, seemed to move him to a new level. In the playoffs, that new level is 28.1 points a game, 50 percent from the field and 48.8 percent on three-pointers. Plus, Anthony had the ultimate stars-aligned moment, the last-second dagger to beat the Mavericks when no foul was called.

Anthony Carter is on a minimum contract. Jones is on a minimum contract. Andersen is on a minimum contract. Renaldo Balkman, a contributor during the regular season before falling out of the playoff rotation, is a minimum on Denver's checking account, with the Knicks covering the difference on the third-year forward's actual contract as a condition to get a trade done last summer.

Through it all, George Karl has coached newcomers and returnees to the Northwest Division title and now the third round. Marcus Camby, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, was handed over to the Clippers for nothing in a salary dump last offseason, yet the Denver defense has improved. Three of the minimums have important postseason roles, yet the Nuggets are the most consistent, most impressive team in the West, even after losing Game 1 to the Lakers.

Some team.

Some time.

"When I came into the league as a player in the late '80s," Chapman said, "Denver had good teams. McNichols Arena was loud and packed. It seemed like people took pride in the Denver Nuggets. ... I think what we've seen recently is a bit of resurgent pride. Fans want to come out and see a team that wins. More than that, they want to get behind a team they feel good about."

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