As the Denver Nuggets prepared for their final preseason game, their locker room in the antiquated San Diego Sports Arena lacked one small thing -- lockers. All they had were 13 steel folding chairs cramped into a room the size of most players' home closets. When Carmelo Anthony walked in, he picked up his jersey from the concrete floor, placed his valuables beside a brick wall and shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
In many ways, it was an appropriate dressing room for a team feeling slighted and a player who has felt snubbed from the moment he entered the NBA six years ago with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Despite leading the Nuggets to the playoffs six consecutive seasons while averaging 24.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists, Anthony has played in only two All-Star Games. Commissioner David Stern selected him as an injury replacement in 2007, and a year later the fans made him a starter. Anthony has been voted to play in only one more All-Star Game than Darko Milicic, the instant bust who was drafted one spot ahead of him, at No. 2, in 2003.
"That's crazy," said Anthony, who has faced strong All-Star competition at forward in the Western Conference. "It adds fuel to my fire. It surprises me. I can't believe that."
Anthony is also fueled now by the perception that the Nuggets' run to the conference finals last season was, as he calls it, "a fluke," with critics wondering if everything can come together as well as it did last season, when the acquisition of Chauncey Billups, relatively good health and career years from the likes of Nenê and Chris Andersen helped Denver break a streak of five first-round exits.
During an offseason in which several contenders made high-profile moves, the Nuggets went largely unnoticed. They lost Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza, two key players last season, and added only career backups such as Arron Afflalo and Joey Graham, as well as rookie point guard Ty Lawson.
"Nobody's going to give us any credit," Anthony said. "That's just the way it is and the way it's always been. At first, I was surprised we didn't do more [in the offseason]. I was wondering what we were going to do. But when you have a good team, you didn't need to go out there and sign big-name players if you don't have to. This is my seventh season, and every year we always had new players, but this year we kept our core group of guys and we're better."
Anthony will remain part of that core for at least two more seasons thanks to how he structured his $80 million contract extension in 2006. Instead of joining draft classmates James, Wade and Chris Bosh in accepting three-year deals with a fourth-year option that would've enabled him to become part of the much-hyped free-agent class next summer, Anthony signed a four-year deal with a fifth-year option. He can explore free agency in 2011, though he says he wants to remain with the Nuggets for as long as they'll have him.
"There's going to be a lot going on next summer, and I'm happy that I'm not going to be a part it," Anthony said. "I'd rather wait and see what happens the next year. Besides, I wasn't going to leave no money on the table. We don't do that where I come from."
Motivated by Denver's coming within two games of the NBA Finals, Anthony rededicated himself in the offseason, spending much of his time training in Los Angeles, where he was forced to drive by fans with Lakers flags on their cars on a daily basis. He dropped nearly 15 pounds while working with a celebrity trainer (what other kind would you expect in L.A.?). Once training camp started, Anthony took on more of a leadership role.
"His practice habits have definitely been upgraded," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "There's a leadership that comes with winning in the playoffs. He's led our team in a confident way and he's much more mature now."
Anthony elevated his play during the playoffs, averaging 27.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He set a team playoff record with five consecutive 30-point games, including a 39-point performance in a Game 1 loss to the Lakers in the conference finals. The Lakers proceeded to end the Nuggets' season on Anthony's 25th birthday, a disappointment that Billups sees as a turning point in Carmelo's career.
"When I got to 25, 26, that's about the time my career turned around and I began to understand everything," said Billups, who won a championship with the Pistons at 26. "Melo is already one of the better players in the game, but now he's got to lead us. When you get that close to a championship, you get hungry. You want to get better so you can win an NBA championship. Melo's hungry."
That hunger, combined with a renewed focus (he averaged an NBA-high 23.6 points in only 24.1 minutes in the preseason), hasn't been lost on a front office that hopes to sign Anthony to another contract extension in the next year.
"When he's locked in mentally, he's kind of playing the game by himself out there," Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman said. "He's one of the best players in the world."
Now if he can only get more All-Star voters to agree.