On Feb. 10, Carmelo Anthony played his last home game in Denver. He scored 42 points and made 17-of-25 field goals and 5-of-7 three-pointers. But on the Nuggets' final possession, down one to Dallas, he was on the bench after fouling out moments earlier.
The ball instead went to Arron Afflalo, a 25-year-old shooting guard best known for his defense. Afflalo caught a pass from Chauncey Billups on the right wing, took a hard dribble to his left, rose over Shawn Marion and sank a 20-foot jumper at the buzzer. Nobody looked happier than Anthony, who rushed at Afflalo and wrapped him in a long bear hug. Anthony's night had turned into Afflalo's, with 19 points in the fourth quarter on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from three-point range.
Eleven days later, Anthony was traded to New York.
NBA teams require superstars less for marketing campaigns than late-game situations. They are the closers who command the ball when their teams need a basket. The Nuggets have no such standouts, but a roster dotted with intriguing candidates. Identifying their best player is virtually impossible. Eight average double figures in points, 12 average double figures in minutes. You could make a case for imports like Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Danilo Galinari, or holdovers like Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith and Nene. To win in the playoffs, the Nuggets must find someone with Anthony's last-minute moxie, and they don't have much time to hold auditions.
What Afflalo lacks in name recognition he makes up for in credentials. He has the best true shooting percentage (which incorporates two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) of any "2" guard in the league this season, averaging 12.9 points on an economical 9.2 shots, and he is threatening to join the ultra-exclusive 90-50-40 club (90 percent from the free-throw line, 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three). In the Nuggets' first game with a revamped roster, against Boston, they led by four with 2½ minutes left. In the span of 30 seconds, Afflalo made a jumper and a three-point play to bury the Celtics. A week later in Utah, the Nuggets led by one with 12 seconds left when Afflalo took a pass from Felton and made a three-pointer to finish the Jazz.
"This is what I've been waiting for," Afflalo said. "The opportunity to lead."
Afflalo is a new kind of ambassador for the Nuggets, an edgy outfit that former general manager Mark Warkentien used to compare to a pack of "stray dogs." Chris "Birdman" Andersen once said of these Nuggets: "We may not lead the league in stats, but we do in tats." Afflalo has no ink, and more telling, he started watching game tape when he was 8, woke his father in the middle of the night to spot him on the bench press when he was a teenager, and left his beachfront apartment in Los Angeles last July because he wanted to go back to work in Denver. He is a straight shooter, in every sense, who embodies the intensity and concentration that the Nuggets often lacked.
"I know it's a business so they will find someone to make the face of the franchise," Afflalo said. "I couldn't care less about that. I'm more interested in leading on the court."
Afflalo defines leadership not in terms of shots taken or millions earned. He won a state championship in high school averaging only 24 points. He carried UCLA to consecutive Final Fours even though he never averaged more than 17. His career is a testament to the team concept and he believes that replacing Anthony is not a one-man job.
"You can be a dominant player who has dominant games and dominant moments without dominating the entire gym," he said.
Afflalo spent his first two NBA seasons on the bench in Detroit and was shipped to Denver to be a perimeter stopper. He sublimated his offensive skills in deference to Anthony and was prematurely typecast as the next Bruce Bowen or Raja Bell. But Nuggets coach George Karl believed Afflalo was capable of more. So did Karl's longtime girlfriend, Kim Van Deraa, who made Afflalo her favorite player. Karl yearned to see what he could accomplish unchained from Anthony.
So far, the results have been promising yet inconclusive. The Nuggets are 5-2 since Anthony left and have risen from seventh in the Western Conference to a tie for fifth. Afflalo was averaging more than 15 points sans Anthony until he strained his hamstring Saturday night against the Clippers, an injury that will probably keep him out until early next week.
The Nuggets signed Karl to a three-year contract extension Tuesday and must now turn their attention to a long list of other upcoming free agents, including Afflalo. With so many contributors, the Nuggets probably cannot keep everyone, and they have to target those who are most likely to grow into the closer role.
Afflalo has one month to prove he is ready for the job.