Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony admits that he began the season on the wrong foot. "I had a mentality that whoever doesn't believe in me, then screw 'em," he says. "I'd go to practice, have an attitude the whole time, wouldn't talk to nobody."
Five months after he and Rookie of the Year LeBron James sparked a new optimism about the NBA's future, a host of missteps left Anthony reeling. The slide began in Athens last summer, when U.S. coach Larry Brown singled him out for criticism after Anthony complained about playing time. In October he was arrested at the Denver airport with less than an ounce of marijuana in his backpack; a friend of Anthony's was later charged with possession. Last month three men were arrested in New York City and charged with trying to extort $3 million from Anthony with a video that allegedly showed him in a nightclub brawl. (They pled not guilty.) Then, shortly before a nationally televised Dec. 2 showdown with James, scenes from Stop Snitching, a bootleg DVD aimed at intimidating potential informants, showed Anthony with alleged drug dealers in his native Baltimore. Anthony denounced the DVD, in which he says nothing about violence or drugs, but in a 92--73 loss to the Cavaliers he went 6 for 20 and had five turnovers.
He had struggled from the outset of the season, shooting 37.5% as Denver staggered to a 1--4 start. League rivals who last year had lauded Anthony's upbeat demeanor were suddenly accusing him of being "spoiled and pouting," in the words of one Eastern Conference executive. But last week Anthony looked like his old self: grinning in spite of hard fouls, attacking the basket and averaging 26.8 points during four straight victories, which capped a run of 10 wins in 12 games. (After a 107--96 loss at New York on Sunday, Denver was 12--8.) The 20-year-old Anthony credits G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe and frontcourt mate Kenyon Martin for the support that made his turnaround possible.
"Everybody kept telling me the same thing: You look worried out there, you look like there's a lot on your mind," Anthony says with a typically veiled expression that seems closer to a smile than a frown. "I went to Kiki and said, 'I just want to go out there and play basketball and have fun.'"
The two began meeting at 5 p.m. for shooting workouts that not only strengthened Anthony's fundamentals but also helped him rekindle his joy for the game. "We talked a lot about what's important and where the passion is for him," says Vandeweghe, 46, a former All-Star small forward. "He was getting away from that at the beginning of the year. The basic idea was to put basketball back in the center of his life and make the game easier to play."
After arriving from the Nets in a sign-and-trade over the summer, Martin immediately noticed what Anthony now sees clearly: that because of his age and prodigious talent, he had become isolated from his teammates. Vandeweghe believes it is a common problem for young players trying to fit in; the difference is that Anthony (like James) has assumed leadership duties weightier than those of any young player since Magic Johnson joined the 1979--80 Lakers after his sophomore year at Michigan State.
"One day Kenyon pulled me up and said, 'You look like a lot of stuff is on your mind. I just want to tell you I'm on your side,'" Anthony recalls. "That conversation really turned everything around for me, because from that point on I knew that somebody had my back."
"That's what teammates do," says the 26-year-old Martin, waving off his assist to Anthony. Since then the team's two stars have bonded on the court, where they look to each other for alley-oops and low-post entry passes. Denver hopes that the aggressive Martin will also inspire Anthony to be more active at both ends. Coach Jeff Bzdelik has urged him to score a dozen points a game on fast breaks, putbacks and free throws. "It's not a struggle [anymore]," Anthony says, "but it takes a strong person [to get through it]. That's why I respect Kobe [Bryant] so much: because he went through all that, and he's still out there doing what he's doing."
The Nuggets still have concerns. The loss of guard Voshon Lenard for the season (torn Achilles) leaves them without a perimeter shooter. Bzdelik's lame-duck status will be a distraction for as long as he remains in charge. During Sunday's loss backup forward Nen√™ suffered a hip pointer and was listed as day-to-day. But with Anthony back on track--his averages of 20.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists at week's end are close to where he left off last season--the Nuggets once again believe that he's the player who could someday lead them to a title.
On the surprising Wizards (12--6 at week's end) and their scoring trio of Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes, who all played for the Warriors in 2001--02:
"Jamison has become a locker room leader, and his ability to get up shots quickly in a variety of ways is perfect for the Princeton offense. The two-guard front works because Arenas and Hughes can both run the point. What you're also seeing is three guys who have bounced around and now look like they're ready to work together and embrace stability. The longer guys play in losing situations, the more likely it is that they'll look in the mirror and try to learn from their mistakes. These three are trying to do that, and they've become a cohesive group."