Since hispre-Christmas arrival in Denver, Allen Iverson has broadened the fan base,energized his teammates, charmed the local media, played his butt off andgenerally sent a positive current through a franchise undercut by suspensionsand languishing in unrealized potential. One thing Iverson hasn't been able todo much about is the weather. A blizzard delayed his trip from Philadelphia,another substantial snowfall greeted him before his third game as a Nugget, andnow, he says, "I'm lickin' my lips all the time" because they'rechapped from the cold. Iverson's new coach, George Karl, busted AI's chops bytelling him last week, "Man, this is the best weather we've had since I'vebeen here."
There's one morething Iverson hasn't quite been able to control: Denver's record. At week's endthe Nuggets were 2--3 since he first donned powder blue and yellow ("thebest-lookin' unis in the league," Iverson says) on Dec. 22, in a 101--96loss to the Sacramento Kings. In acquiring Iverson and forward Ivan McFarlinfrom the 76ers on Dec. 19 for point guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith andtwo No. 1 picks, owner Stan Kroenke did not agree to pay a total of perhaps $20million in luxury tax in the next two seasons to move up to, say, fourth placein the Western Conference this year. (Through Sunday 16--12 Denver was inseventh place.) And fans did not gobble up more than 14,500 single seats, 800season tickets and 1,140 five-game packages after the trade to watch their teamsettle for second place in the Northwest Division.
No, landingIverson and taking on a contract that pays him $17.2 million this season andalmost $40 million over the next two was a chest-beating announcement by theNuggets: We can win it all now. It goes without saying that a ring is also onthe 31-year-old Answer's mind. "I don't want to close the book withoutwinning a championship," said Iverson, whose only trip to the Finals withthe 76ers, in 2001, ended in a five-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
That the team hasnot torn up the league would not seem to be Iverson's fault, judging from hisproduction (28.6 points per game on 48.6% shooting and 8.8 assists). Some formof that previous sentence was written 127,849 times during AI's 10-plus seasonsin Philadelphia, but at least there is now a muzzle-loaded cavalry behind him.The real Nuggets--the ones with a shot at a title--do not debut until Jan. 22,when All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony returns from his 15-game suspension forthrowing a punch in the Dec. 16 Madison Square Garden melee, and the NBA findsout if the league's two leading scorers can coexist with one leather Spalding."How can we not play good together?" Anthony asked last week. Heintended the question to be rhetorical, but it's about as open-ended as you canget. (See, among others: Kobe-Shaq, The Last Years.)
There are otherissues to consider. Trigger-happy guard Earl Boykins has benefited from thedefensive attention given Iverson and has averaged 24.6 points since AI'sarrival. But with both Anthony and Iverson in the lineup, Boykins's shotattempts will start to go boink. And what happens to J.R. Smith, anothersuspended Nugget due to return on Jan. 10? The talented 21-year-old guard--oneWestern Conference coach says he was "praying" that Smith would be sentto Philly instead of Miller--also needs the ball. So if you're scoring at home,that's three gunners plus Iverson, euphemistically known as a "high-volumeshooter." Not to mention the team's defensive shortcomings: Anthony isfundamentally horrible; the 5'5" Boykins is too small to guard anyoneexcept himself; and Smith is, as one rival assistant coach puts it, "anunwilling defender."
Still, there arereasons for optimism, including the return of center Marcus Camby on Sundayfrom a broken right finger and the fondness Iverson and Anthony feel for eachother (Life of Reilly, page 72). In fact, Iverson's teammates through the yearshave generally liked him, even those who have watched him fuss and fume atmanagement and treat practice as if it were a Michael Bolton concert. GuardDerMarr Johnson took number 8, willingly ceding his 3 to Iverson. "AI's gota legacy behind that number," said Johnson. And unless the Nuggets aretotal dolts--and it should be noted here that temperamental forward KenyonMartin is on the shelf for the rest of the season with a knee injury--Iversonwill inspire them to play hard, a characteristic often missing in the pre-AIdays. "The only message I want to send to my teammates is that I want toplay every game like it's my last," said Iverson.
Then, too, thereis a buzz in the seven-year-old Pepsi Center that hasn't been there since,well, ever. Iverson needed about two minutes to adjust to the Denver altitude;now, he said, "I can run forever." That makes the Nuggets' fast breakthe fastest in the league.
At some pointafter Anthony returns, though, one of the Big Two will have to defer to theother. Should Anthony cede shots to Iverson, a future Hall of Famer who has wonone MVP award (2001) and four scoring titles? Or should Iverson give them upfor Anthony, who is younger (by nine years) and less banged up (Iverson hasplayed only one full season and has injured countless areas of his body becauseof his pell-mell style) and who was, after all, the main man (averaging aleague-high 31.6 points) before AI got to Denver? "Whatever Coach wants meto do," said Iverson. "I'm just a general in his army." Whichraises the question: What rank is Melo?
See who threw it down with authority in a gallery of the best dunks of theweek.
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