Carmelo Anthony is still in Denver and the 29-20 Nuggets remain a dangerous playoff team, which demonstrates the change in coach George Karl. In younger decades he might have reacted angrily to the season-long 'Melo-drama (as Karl refers to it) of whether or not his star will be dealt.
Now 59, Karl -- twice a survivor of cancer and a certain Hall-of-Fame coach with 1,015 wins through Feb. 2, and 19 straight seasons at .500 or better -- has grown to become the calming leader. After a Jan. 9 loss in Denver to the Hornets extended a three-game losing streak and dropped the Nuggets to 20-16 amid rumors of a blockbuster trade of Anthony to the Nets, Karl sought advice from point guard Chauncey Billups.
"There was a day and a half after we lost to New Orleans that I didn't know where we were going to go," said Karl, who wondered if the tumult would slide his team into the lottery. "It came out with a conversation with Chauncey. I ran by Chauncey before the New Orleans game and we talked about 10 minutes about what was going on, and I said, 'Tell me what you think I should do.'
"He said, 'George, just be real, just be honest with me.' I said, 'Chauncey, I believe in being that [way] with everybody.'"
Before the next practice, Karl spoke to the team about the overwhelming rumors of a major trade. "I said, 'I don't know what the hell's going on. Is it right? Probably not. But the whole thing comes down to what we do for a living is that we get paid for winning games. That's what we get paid to do, and I still don't think it's unrealistic to ask you to get ready to win games,'" recalled Karl. "I said, 'Every one of you, if you want to come talk to me, I can just tell you what I know and I will be direct and honest with you -- or I will tell you I can't tell you.'"
Since that meeting the Nuggets have gone 9-4 to steady themselves, even as Anthony and his teammates have been questioned daily about their futures on the likelihood their winning rotation will be pulled apart by the Feb. 24 trade deadline. How many coaches dream of convincing players to focus on the next game and no further? Karl's Nuggets have been doing exactly that, and it is a remarkable achievement.
It remains a fragile dynamic, as shown by road losses to Philadelphia and New Jersey this week. But Anthony has appeared to remain engaged with teammates, and in recent weeks Billups has played despite his anxiety. He didn't want to be packaged into Anthony's rumored move to New Jersey, and Karl didn't want to see Billups leave after seeing the point guard instantly turn the franchise into a contender thanks to the trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit in November 2008.
"I thought I was fired," said Karl of that 2008-09 season. "I don't know if I was going to make it to Jan. 15 with A.I. And then Chauncey comes in, and we're a pretty good team pretty fast. So I went from thinking my life's over here in Denver because I didn't know how to coach totally offensive basketball and crazy basketball with no point guards. We were playing for years basically with A.C. (Anthony Carter) and A.I. as your point guards. I got a new life, and now my new life unfortunately could be longer than Chauncey's life here. And that's sad too, and that's probably not right. The guy who saved me is going to get thrown to the wolves."
Karl was speaking to me last month before the Nets backed away from the blockbuster trade that would have left them with Anthony, Billups and Richard Hamilton of the Pistons. But the uncertainty hasn't lifted: Even if the Nuggets don't trade Billups, a $3.7 million buyout can save Denver $10.5 million if Billups is waived after this season. For the time being, however, the Nuggets are benefiting from the bond between the coach and his point guard, as well as the improved connection between Karl and Anthony.
Karl is less interested than ever in the element of big business in the NBA. "It's just a different world -- the camaraderie of the game, the amount of money that we have, the mentoring of people that are involved," he said. "I don't want to talk to agents. I don't want to talk to 'Wild Wild West.'"
He could not have demonstrated less interest in Anthony's team of advisers: While discussing his relationship with his star player, Karl repeatedly misnamed Anthony's friend and consultant for CAA, William "Worldwide" Wesley.
"I'm sorry, I want to talk to you," said Karl of his rapport with Anthony. "If you and I want to go out to dinner, that's fine, I'll make time for that. But I'm not going to go out with you and 'Wild Wild West' and a couple of other guys.''
Karl would like to remain with the Nuggets after his contract expires this season, even if the franchise must reload following Anthony's expected departure. "I'm not afraid of that," he said. "And this is where people are going to say, well, George Karl is not the right guy to rebuild."
In spite of the departure of assistant Tim Grgurich, Karl continues to maintain one of the league's best staffs with an affinity for player development.
"My goal has been to win a championship, and I don't know if I want to do it 10 more years," he said. "I have another three or four [years] left in me. Rebuilding excites me a little bit. The owners like the good contract, and we've developed Dahntay Jones and we've had 'Birdman' (Chris Andersen), and now [Arron] Afflalo and [Gary] Forbes.
"I'm still pretty tough on rookies, and I don't think Ty [Lawson] and Gary Forbes are going to tell you that I was very nice to them. And I can't be as active on the court as I once was, so I want [assistant coaches] to be active for me, and I think we do a good job of developing players. If you give us a good player, we're going to give you a better player in a year or two years."
Now let's move on to some of your questions rescued from the mailbag and Facebook ...
Why is Mark Cuban so against NBA players competing overseas? Wouldn't the international exposure only the help the league, and thereby his team?-- Daniel, Lafayette, La.
Cuban's problem with international basketball is that he takes on all of the risk. He has promised Nowitzki $63 million over the next three seasons, even if Nowitzki suffers a career-ending injury while playing for Germany during the summer or with a European club next season during the anticipated lockout. Insurance may cover much of Nowitzki's salary, but Cuban would still lose an irreplaceable performer.
Commissioner David Stern views the appearance of NBA stars in international tournaments as an investment in the game globally, which is in agreement with your view, Daniel. But Cuban's stance is valid too.
Would Mike Brown really be a good fit to coach the Pacers? I mean, the guy had LeBron James and still couldn't win a title.-- David, Dayton, Ohio
Mike Brown would be excellent. I'll argue with you here, David: I think James took the heat off Brown when he left Cleveland in order to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. With that move, LeBron was signaling that he needed to be surrounded by star talent in order to win a championship, and that he didn't have that support in Cleveland. In a backhanded way, his decision condemned the talent around him, and let Brown off the hook.
Regardless of James' actions, I'm sure Brown would be terrific for a team that will be trying to establish itself. He transformed the Cavs into a defense-first team, and his experiences amid the pressures of Cleveland can only help him in his second round as a head coach. At 40, he's a young, upbeat guy, and I know the Pacers missed Brown when he left his job as their lead assistant in 2005 to become head coach of the Cavs. It's likely that he'll have his pick of several jobs after this season.
Mitch Kupchak said he's ready to make moves in L.A., but who should he get rid of, and for whom?-- Bradley, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
The only addition I can fathom would be combo guard Kirk Hinrich, for whom the Lakers could dangle Shannon Brown's $2.2 million salary along with the $5 million trade exception they received when they sent Sasha Vujacic to New Jersey. Hinrich would give them defensive toughness and shooting while taking pressure off Derek Fisher. But would the Lakers view him as worthy of the additional $13.6 million in salary and luxury taxes he would bring this season? And why would the Wizards, who have dumped enough salary already, be willing to surrender one of their team leaders with no more than one full year remaining on his contract?
Of course, the Lakers should be concerned by their play against the best teams. But they're the No. 2 seed in the West and they have three months to pull things together. They need to move and share the ball. Ron Artest's agent David Bauman told me his client has no interest in leaving the Lakers, and I don't believe they could trade him even if they wanted to. But if they want him to improve defensively then they should probably try to involve him offensively. If they could not have won the championship without him last year then they probably need him just as much this year -- which means they have to invest more in him than 8.1 points and 27.8 minutes, both career lows.
I still think they'll grow inspired as the playoffs approach and they realize this is their last chance to win with Phil Jackson. I think back to 10 months ago when the Celtics looked awful and the Lakers were worrying about knee injuries to Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. Who at that time would have predicted those teams would meet in the Finals, or that the "finesse" Lakers would win by scrapping through Game 7 as they did? I'm going to keep saying it: These Lakers are in better position than they were over the second half of last season.
Do you think the Knicks will keep Donnie Walsh for the longterm? Or is James Dolan just itching to bring back (gasp!) Isiah?-- Andy, Raleigh, N.C.
If Walsh can land Carmelo Anthony then why wouldn't Dolan retain him? It's a simple equation: Walsh cleared cap space to repopulate the Knicks with big stars; he struck out last summer on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but if he is able to bring in Anthony alongside Amar'e Stoudemire then it would be outrageous to not extend Walsh.
Whether or not Walsh receives an extension, I cannot imagine Isiah Thomas returning as president or GM. And according to a Yahoo! report Wednesday night, Thomas is convinced Dolan doesn't want him back. Still, there is no doubt Dolan continues to trusts Thomas and rely on him for advice, as nothing has happened to change their relationship since last summer when Dolan tried to reinstate Thomas in the front office. All kinds of opinions are ascribed to Dolan via anonymous sources, but there is no mistaking the signal sent by Dolan's insistence on having Thomas play a role with the Knicks: If he'd been entirely confident in Walsh, then he wouldn't have felt the need for Thomas.