It was bound to happen eventually.
When Carmelo Anthony walked into Nuggets training camp three months ago, he was immediately engulfed in a cloud of distraction ... all for not signing the Nuggets three-year, $65 million contract extension offered to him over the summer combined with endless rumors of wanting out of Denver for good.
To Melo's credit, through the first 15 games of the 2010-11 season he not only didn't allow the contract situation to distract him on the court, but by any measure he has played professionally and hard since returning to Denver this fall. Throughout the first 10 games, gone from his facial expressions were his trademark smile, replaced instead by a consistent look of stoic, almost icy, professionalism. He had also been rebounding, defending and passing better than we've ever seen and eventually, about five or so games ago, that trademark smile returned along with the rounded out production in the box score. So when TNT's Charles Barkley recently called out Melo for lacking intensity, I didn't buy it and neither most of us who follow the Nuggets closely.
But something has gone terribly awry in Melo's game as of late. He succumbed to the flu somewhere between the Bulls and Suns games (lest we forget him hitting the thrilling game-winner in the Bulls game) and hasn't been the same.
Remember all those big-time rebounds Melo was grabbing through the first 15 games of the season? He hasn't pulled down more than seven since and has had two games with no offensive rebounds out of the previous four. His assists, steals and blocks are down, as well, as is his free throw percentage (although he is finally getting to the line more consistently). And as far as shooting percentage is concerned, not only hasn't Melo shot over 50% since November 11th against the Lakers, but he's only cracked 40% shooting twice since then.
More alarmingly, as pointed out by our friend Jeremy Wagner at Roundball Mining Company and according to HoopData.com, Melo is shooting an unacceptably low 51.1% on shots at the rim. That's for the entire season to date, mind you. In recent seasons, Melo was in the 57-63% range (as he should be). And frankly, I didn't need the stats to know that. Anyone who's been closely watching Nuggets games lately has noticed all the missed Melo shots at the rim...more and more lately, of course. Instead of the flu, maybe Melo caught whatever ails teammates Shelden Williams or Kenyon Martin's (sorry, I had to) ability to finish at the rim.
On top of all that, Melo's frustration with his game has gotten the best of him with the referees, resulting in a recent ejection and enough technical fouls to lead the league. 16 total technicals and he'll be suspended for one game.
From my vantage point, I don't think it's fair to question Melo's intensity. In fact, he's been rather intense. My concern with Melo right now is that he's channeling his intensity towards the wrong places: forced shots, barking at the refs, pouting on the bench and so forth.
So, what's the deal with #15? Well, on Wednesday night we learned two things: that Melo has inflammation in his right knee and, speaking of inflammation, the Melo-to-the-Knicks rumors are as hot as ever. Neither of these are good for the Nuggets, for many obvious and some not-so-obvious reasons.
When the Knicks came to Denver on November 16th, those who follow the Nuggets in the media and in the stands were reveling in the Knicks' five-game losing streak (extended to six with that Nuggets victory). Meanwhile, at the time things were looking pretty good basketball-wise in the Mile High City. The Nuggets - building upon head coach George Karl's remarkable recovery from cancer - had survived a brutal early-season schedule with their heads above water and had just emphatically bested the Lakers on national TV. The agreed-upon thought among Nuggets fans was that should Melo ultimately opt for New York, it would be his loss.
What a difference almost four weeks makes.
Through Wednesday night's games, the Knicks stand at 14-9 and have won six straight. Worse yet for Nuggets fans, the Knicks are doing it in a thrilling fashion and have much of New York embracing pro basketball again (it should be noted that with the exception of taking down the Hornets in New Orleans, the Knicks haven't beaten anyone of substance and are barely beating bad teams to boot...but wins are wins). Don't think Melo hasn't noticed.
The Nuggets, conversely, have fallen to 13-8 and have lost two straight after winning seven straight games. Two games - on the road, no less - should not incite a panic, but it certainly doesn't help the Nuggets' cause when it comes to re-signing Melo (which I've never believed would happen but am happy to give credence to those who think it could).
Even more annoying, the Miami Heat are at last playing well, having won six straight themselves. This, too, matters as had that collusion-induced threesome continued to be a disaster perhaps - perhaps - Melo would give returning to Denver more than just a second thought. Now playing with pal Amar'e Stoudemire in New York combined with the suddenly solid Ray Felton looks pretty damn appealing to an impressionable 26 year-old with a heavy east coast bias to begin with.
One of the many negatives of this ongoing Melodrama is that it forces Nuggets fans to change their minds about Melo on an almost daily basis. Every win or loss moves the needle of fan opinion in one direction or the other. I doubt Melo cares much about fan opinion, but you have to believe that the constant attention thrust his way about his future is getting to the man emotionally, with or without the illness and knee injury sure to complicate things physically.
As one of the proprietors of this site, I'm asked daily "what's going to happen with Melo?" While I have no tangible clue, I have read enough tea leaves on this subject to see the end of Melo's tenure in Denver coming before the February 24th trade deadline. I'm still hopeful that the Nuggets will sucker the likes of Dallas, Orlando or Atlanta to take Melo for a three-month flyer before the deadline, so at least we get something back other than a pair of meaningless first round picks from the Knicks when we're forced into a June 30th sign-and-trade.
But regardless of when (ok, if) Melo ultimately leaves, he, we and his teammates could be in for a frustratingly long winter as the Nuggets, Melo and whomever acquires the best Nugget since Alex English continue their three-party poker game.
It's a game that Carmelo Anthony will eventually win, leaving the Nuggets with fewer chips than they started with.