DENVER -- It was seven seasons ago that rookies Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were cast as rivals. Now Anthony may make that rivalry come true.
"You can't have a rivalry when you're not even in the same conference, or when you only play each other twice," Anthony said as he sat in the Nuggets' players lounge after practice Wednesday. "That's not a rivalry."
That's why talk of any such rivalry between Anthony and James has faded over the years. But that trend may be reversed over the month ahead should Anthony move to New York or New Jersey in a trade.
Should the Knicks or Nets succeed in dealing for Anthony before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, the grand prize winner will begin aiming for championship contention. Each team would need to make further roster upgrades before challenging the likes of Miami, Boston and Orlando, but Anthony's arrival would be heralded as a crucial opening step whether he were to join with Amar'e Stoudemire or Brook Lopez.
James and Anthony missed a chance to meet here Thursday -- a sprained ankle sidelined LeBron for Denver's 130-102 rout as Carmelo scored 21 points in 30 minutes -- yet their recent career decisions have been playing off one another.
James left Cleveland as a free agent last summer to form a title-worthy partnership with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. His move took Cleveland by surprise, and Cavaliers fans -- as well as the franchise -- have yet to recover.
Within days of James' departure to Miami, Chris Paul was reportedly standing up at Anthony's New York wedding and toasting the idea of someday moving with Anthony to the Knicks to form their own Big Three alongside Stoudemire. (Denver owner Stan Kroenke was in attendance, but the Nuggets vehemently deny reports that Kroenke was so angry at the wedding that he is now refusing to consider a potential trade of Anthony to the Knicks; they point out that Kroenke has been quoted as making jokes about the wedding toast.) While Cavs fans had reason to believe James would stay in Cleveland, Nuggets fans have been overwhelmed by six months of speculation and reporting on Anthony's refusal to re-sign with Denver. The Nuggets are intent on moving him to avoid losing him for practically nothing, as happened to Cleveland when James left town.
James moved away from his hometown of Akron, while Anthony is seeking a move closer to his New York birthplace. No doubt he hopes that the country's largest market could help raise his profile, along with the title ambitions of his new team's owner, whether it's James Dolan of the Knicks or Mikhail Prokhorov of the Nets.
The truth is that the process of moving in itself leads to more fame.
"I would say me and Kobe [Bryant] probably have more of a rivalry than me and LeBron," Anthony insisted this week. "Just for the simple fact that we're in the same conference and we're trying to beat each other to play against the best over there [in the East]. So I would say me and him have a rivalry more than me and LeBron do."
But here's the end game: When James and Anthony entered the league together in 2003, they were viewed as rivals based on their potential. Should Anthony move to the Knicks or Nets, that potential will be realized. Clashing with his friend LeBron doesn't appear to rank among Anthony's priorities at the moment, but for the casual fan it may turn out to be the most interesting outcome of this ongoing drama.
Brandon Roy, there may be nothing you can do. Next week you'll undergo arthroscopic surgery on both knees to reduce the painful friction that has limited you to a career-worst 16.6 points and sidelined you since Dec. 15. These procedures are being called a temporary fix. You and your franchise will continue to investigate all medical options, but by next week you will have experienced three surgeries on each knee, and the truth is some conditions cannot be repaired. Why does this have to happen to one of the league's classiest and cleverest stars? No one in the modern NBA can replicate your 1970s skill set. Maybe something can be done to restore your lift and eliminate the pain. But probably not, and that's a very sad conclusion for someone of so much promise.
Monta Ellis, you score like an All-Star, there's no doubt of that. But here is what you're up against: Bryant, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Manu Ginobili, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. All of those guards are having terrific years with winning teams. Meanwhile, you are scoring your points for the 15-23 Warriors, and producing your steals for a team that rates among the bottom eight in points allowed and defensive field-goal percentage. I'm not writing off your chances, because other stars from losing teams in the West -- including forwards Kevin Love from Minnesota and the Blake Griffin of the Clippers -- are worthy too. But the only way to assure your presence as an All-Star is to lead a meaningful change with your franchise from loser to playoff contender.
"The seat I get at a game is very important, and that's why you rarely see me or anyone else scouting at Golden State, because when you're there, you know you'll be sitting up high. In Portland, you're not quite as high up -- you're at midcourt -- so you can catch some stuff. At Houston and Salt Lake, you're in a corner and elevated, so you're a long way from the home team, the visiting coach is going to have his back turned away from you and you're too far away to hear what the point guard is saying.
"There's supposed to be a rule that the next opponent for each team gets the best available lower-court seat on the floor level, but it seems to be in the West there are a lot of poor seats.
"The best place for scouting is Detroit. You could have six to eight scouts at a game there and they'll all sit at half-court, and it's a great situation that you can depend on. You also know you can go to Indiana, Toronto or Milwaukee, and you're going to sit right by the visitors' bench and should be able to get all of the visitors' calls. You're not going to get the home-team calls, but that's OK -- you expect there to be a competitive advantage to the home team.
"Miami is also a great seat if you are the next opponent. If there are four scouts at a game and two guys get great seats and the other two guys get bad seats, that's where we have to rely on each other. That's how it is in a place like Boston -- they put two guys on the scorers' table with good seats, which means that the other two or three or four scouts will do as much work as they can from their bad seats. And then at halftime or after the game, they'll go to the scouts that were sitting courtside and say, 'This is what I have -- is this what they called?' We have to rely on each other because seating is at such a premium now.
"If you need to fill in after the game, you can get game video for free off the NBA media archive, but it doesn't post immediately -- it may be two or three hours after the game. You get the actual game broadcast with no timeouts, and in some arenas, it's a good way to catch some calls because they might have microphones by the benches.
"Then there is the pay service from Synergy Sports Technology that allows you to download game tapes right away. Some guys carry Slingboxes that allow you to transfer everything from your home DVR to your computer. A couple of scouts even carry digital boxes with them to record the game on their computer from the video feed in the arena. But a lot of the time after the games we're at the mercy of the hotel's Internet service in our room.
"This is a good job for a young, single guy. There's only so much time in the day, and because you have to do so much work after the game, you're usually not getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Then because we're traveling during the winter months, the flights always seem to be messed up.
"After the game I might stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, and sometimes it might be all night. If my team is playing a back-to-back, which means I have to do two reports in a row, I don't have time to do all the prep work ahead of time because I was generating a report that night or earlier in the day. So there are a lot of all-nighters. Then the smart guys will be on the first flight the next morning because we all know there are probably going to be travel issues with weather or cancellations if we wait until later in the day to fly. The one thing you can't afford in this job is to miss the game."
"What was driving me every day to do two practices and perform was to have a chance at the NBA," he said. "That was my goal."
What made him think he could achieve that goal? He had gone undrafted in 2007 after averaging 25.3 points as a senior at Towson. He sought respect by yielding to a new system of preparation.
"Practice at 10 a.m., get out of practice at 12:30; you've got to be back in the gym at 6 p.m., you get out at 8, and the next day you've got to do it all over again," Neal said. "The best thing about the European way is that it's not really about the individual -- it's about the team."
It just so happens that a similar perspective has helped define the Spurs and separate them from most NBA teams over the past dozen years. Their interest in Neal served to verify his growth.
"I'm a better player at 26 than I was at 22," he said.
He knows how to work harder now, and how to devote himself to the larger needs of the group. In Europe, he played a variety of roles -- as the league's leading scorer in Turkey, as a little-used sub in Spain, as a do-everything leader in Italy.
"Over there, you play 28-30 games in your domestic league and every game is important," he said. "For a lot of guys, your paycheck is based on game-to-game in Europe. It puts everything in perspective, so when you get in the NBA you don't put as much pressure on yourself, because you've been in situations where you have to perform to get a check. If you have two or three bad games, you might not get paid that month or they might cut you and bring in another guy. It's a different environment, and I think it helped me a lot with the mentality of how they do everything over there."
He was used to playing for demanding coaches like Gregg Popovich.
"It's the work level -- you play two games and still practice twice a day for four days a week," Neal said. "That's a lot. Having to do that and still performing at a high level and then being a guy who played 30 minutes a game -- that was something I didn't really understand until I got over there.
"I carry a lot of that stuff from Europe back home as far as being in shape and being able to work and get shots up and things like that."
Though Neal isn't the normal rookie, his teammates don't want to hear about his previous life.
"I don't feel like a rookie on the court as far as the speed of the game," he said. "But being around these guys, they make sure you feel like you're a rookie."