They are notfriends, but at least they're trying. ¬∂ "Melo, are you trying to be mybackup point guard?" Denver Nuggets coach George Karl asks 6'8" forwardCarmelo Anthony, who has committed the apparent sin of handling the ball tooearly in transition. There is sarcasm in Karl's voice as he pulls aside hisbest player, suddenly one of the league's best players, after a Februarypractice. ¬∂ Silence from Anthony, who merely raises his eyebrows, as ifinviting his coach to elaborate. ¬∂ "Well," Karl says, "you'regetting a lot of outlet passes." ¬∂ "What's wrong with that?"Anthony replies without rancor. ¬∂ "The best offense we have is when you'rein the early post, when you're ahead of the ball before the double teams come,and you're being covered by a 6'6", 210-pound guy who has no chance againstyou," Karl continues, a small grin creasing his face, his voice measured."That's my best offense, and my second-best offense is [point guard] Andre[Miller] with the ball. And when you have the f------ ball I don't have eitherone." ¬∂ Anthony offers a small nod, nothing more. Next time around, he willlet the point guard push the ball upcourt.
Long ago Anthonylearned to separate the coach's message from his delivery. Beneath Karl's jabsand derision, he now knows, is constructive advice, though it often requires alittle translation. "It's like he's speaking German...." Anthony says."He speaks German a lot."
They have beentogether for 14 months, the old-school coach with the overbearing demeanor ofTony Soprano and the new-school star with the cornrows and tats and rakishlyangled headband. There is little doubt that Karl would prefer that the NBA weremore autocratic, like the NFL, in which the boss's authority is seldomchallenged. The most successful coaches in recent NBA history haven't beendictators as much as they've been partners with their best players: GreggPopovich and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs, Phil Jackson and ShaquilleO'Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I tell Pop all the time he's theluckiest son of a bitch ever in the NBA," says Karl, "because he's gota low-maintenance--or a no-maintenance--superstar."
Yet there is nodoubt that Karl and Anthony have been good for each other. At week's end thesmall forward was seventh in the league in scoring (26.5 points per game, 5.6more than he averaged in his first two years) on career-high 48.4% shooting. Hehas already won four games with buzzer-beating shots and forced overtime in afifth (eventually lost by Denver). Though the coaches inexplicably passed himover for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team last month, Anthony isone of the 25 finalists for a Team USA roster spot in this summer's worldchampionships. "Last year I thought he was settling for a lot of jumpshots," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Now he'swilling to get to the basket, which opens up the perimeter for him."
Despite injuriesthat have sidelined big men Nen√™, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby for a combined110 games, and a front office that very well could be dismantled this summer,the Nuggets (38-30 at week's end) are virtually assured of their first divisiontitle in 18 years and a No. 3 seed, which would preclude meeting the Spurs orthe Dallas Mavericks before the conference finals. Any hopes of convertingtheir fortunate draw into a berth in the Finals, however, depends on whetherKarl and Anthony can avoid having their volatile relationship erupt into afull-fledged throw-down. So far, the signs are hopeful. "In January, he putthis team on his back and saved the season," Karl said in mid-March."When we had every excuse to give in to injuries, to give in to theschedule, we won games we weren't supposed to win."
Their firstmeeting did not go well.
This was inJanuary 2005, shortly after the Nuggets had hired Karl to revive a 17-25 team.One of his first moves was to arrange private meetings with each of hisplayers. The new coach had only seen Anthony play from afar, but he had alreadyformed an opinion. "I thought [Carmelo] was lazy," Karl says. "Ithought he was tremendously talented but not an every-day guy."
Which is what hetold Anthony, who admits that he was offended. "I don't know what he wastrying to do," says Anthony, who would barely speak to Karl over the nextthree weeks. "What he said went in one ear and out the otherear--whatever.... He spoke before even getting to know me."
At the timeAnthony was hardly a sympathetic figure. Over the previous 12 months he hadbeen in a bar fight provoked by a patron who spit a drink on his fiancée;filmed in the notorious Stop Snitching video that features a drug dealer fromAnthony's hometown of Baltimore; and blasted for his complaints about playingtime at the 2004 Olympics. He also caught much of the blame for Denver's slowstart, an assessment apparently shared by Karl, who benched Anthony in thefourth quarter of a late-February game at Memphis. The Nuggets came back tobeat the Grizzlies in overtime.
"All I [had]heard was bad things about him before he came here," says Anthony. "NowI was like, My perception of you is true."
Anthony isn't thefirst star to be singled out for harsh criticism by Karl. After Karl led theMilwaukee Bucks to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals in2000-01, his already tense relationship with several of his players escalatedinto open hostility over the next two seasons. He grew so frustrated with hisBig Three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, as well as veteranforward Anthony Mason, that he says he "shut down for at least the lastyear, maybe a year and a half" before he was fired in July '03. In thesummer of '02 he was the coach of the U.S. team that was torn apart by itssquabbling superstars and finished a disastrous sixth at the worldchampionships in Indianapolis.
Throughout theirfive seasons together, Karl publicly accused Allen of being "soft,""pretty" and uninterested in practicing hard or playing defense. Asix-time All-Star, Allen believes that Karl's tendency to be toughest on hisstars can be traced to the 1970s, when he was a backup guard for the Spurs."He used to tell me--a lot--that 'George Gervin would be looking at me, andI'd be wide open, and he wouldn't pass me the ball,'" Allen recalls. "Ithink as a coach he gets that opportunity now to make sure that everybody'sequal, and there's no one player above the next."
Not surprisingly,the Nuggets who have the closest kinship with Karl are his role players. "Ican't see why somebody would have a problem with Coach," says hustlingreserve forward Eduardo Najera. Adds backup point guard Earl Boykins, "He'sfair with everyone." Told that elite players haven't always shared thatopinion, Boykins says, "Before I got here, George got a bad rap because if[a coach] doesn't satisfy the star players, they're going to kill you. Thereare a lot of sensitive stars in this league."
Two days afterhis benching in Memphis, Anthony requested the first of several private talkswith Karl. The player realized that he needed to seek a truce and that he was,in fact, alone in his misgivings about the new coach. His teammates wererallying around Karl, whose emphasis on team play and up-tempo basketballspurred them to a 32-8 finish and a surprising playoff berth.
"There was alot of tension between them," says one of Anthony's agents, Bill Duffy, whoattended one of the meetings. "I asked George to tell Carmelo what heneeded to do."
Karl had a list:Anthony needed to work on his conditioning, to improve his free throwpercentage and shot selection, to get back on defense and to make the ballflow--rather than stop--with him.
To Karl'ssurprise, Anthony considered his options in silence, then declared hisagreement as well. He promised to try to meet Karl's demands.
It wasn't love,but it was a breakthrough.
The day after theNuggets' 2005-06 season ended with a first-round loss to the Spurs, Anthonyasked strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Hess to join him for a four-milerun through Anthony's suburban Denver neighborhood. For the rest of that summerAnthony undertook an intense regimen that included running steps at aDenver-area ampitheatre and hitting the weights. "He was telling me that Ididn't take the game seriously," Anthony says of Karl. "I told myself,I'm going to prove to him that this is what I like to do. That this is what Ilove to do."
A crucial bufferin the relationship between player and coach has been Nuggets assistant TimGrgurich, a longtime Karl confidant who worked with him in Seattle andMilwaukee. After each shootaround Grgurich and Anthony study video of all histouches from the previous game, evaluating every decision he made with theball. Should he have taken that shot? Did he make the right pass? "I talkto Grg way more than I talk to George, which is better for both of us,"says Anthony. "I can go to Grg and say, 'Grg, I don't like this,' or, 'Whatdo you think about this?' And he'll go back to George and won't say it's comingfrom me. He'll just say, 'What do you think about this? ...'"
Anthony'steammates have noticed his maturation. "Since George got here, he's reallytalked to Melo about mixing his game up," says Camby. Anthony now posts upand is driving to the basket more often, resulting in a career-best 9.0 freethrow attempts per game, seventh most in the league. He is also more decisiveonce he gets the ball, attacking almost immediately. "A lot of the credithas to go to Carmelo," says Camby. "He's putting in a lot of extra workbefore and after practice, he watches a lot of film with Coach Grg, and he'saccepting criticism."
Anthony'srelationship with Karl has now settled into a comfortable one. "It'snothing like it was," says Anthony. Despite this, he is still ambivalentabout Karl's blunt criticisms. "I'm not glad that I went through it, butI'm glad I went through it," he says. "It made me a better person,stronger."
Karl seemsoblivious to the turmoil he created in Denver, even suggesting that he's gottenbetter at connecting with his best players. "Pete Newell once told me, 'Youshouldn't waste your time coaching your eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th men,'"Karl says. "Those are for your assistant coaches. You've got to coach yourstars. And he's right. It's easy to grab [rookie Linas] Kleiza and tell himwhat a great job he's doing and motivate him. It's not as easy motivatingMarcus Camby when I didn't play him in the fourth quarter of a game. He's 31,he's pissed, he has an attitude. So my line to him was 'Marcus, how many gamesdidn't you play in the fourth quarter this year, on my decision? It's been twoso far; it might be two more. You've acted like a jerk a lot more than fourtimes'--I don't know if jerk is the word I used--'you've come in and given me amoody practice more than four times, and I accept that. I'd rather you not, butI know, hey, that's part of the marathon.' I say that to him, whereas threeyears ago I probably would've stuck it inside me and been pissed off."
Indeed, when hespeaks of Anthony, he is conciliatory, almost mellow. "Carmelo is one ofthe easier players to go to after a game and talk about why we failed," hesays. "I'd say 50% of the time we talk about what went wrong.'' Then, as ifmaking a mental note to himself, Karl adds, "I should probably talk moreoften about what went right."
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