Considering the bizarre circumstance of Carmelo Anthony hand-picking his next NBA destination, the Nuggets found a morsel of leverage and made a great trade on Monday night. In one stroke, they may have turned one of the shortest teams in the NBA into one of the tallest...and deepest.
Soon after Nuggets team president Josh Kroenke and general manager Masai Ujiri pulled off a blockbuster deal by trading Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams and Renaldo Balkman to the New York Knicks in exchange for Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first round pick and two future second round picks, TNT's David Aldridge caught up with Ujiri who assured Aldridge that Gallo and Mozgov will stay in Denver through the remainder of the season. So said Ujiri via Aldridge on Twitter:
Nuggets will NOT move Gallo/Mozgov to NJ. "We got these guys to play for the Nuggets," GM Ujiri says.
If we can take Ujiri at his word, then the Nuggets suddenly became one of the biggest teams in the Western Conference and yet no one seems to be talking about this. In theory, the Nuggets could trot out a starting frontline of Nene (listed at 6'11" but really 6'9") at power forward, Gallinari (6'10") at small forward and Mozgov (7'1") at center, backed up by Chandler (6'8"), Al Harrington (6'9"), Kenyon Martin (6'9") and Chris Andersen (6'10"). Throw in the Nuggets new starting backcourt of Felton at point guard and Arron Afflalo at shooting guard - backed up by Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith and Gary Forbes - and the Nuggets go 12 deep. 12!!
Missing from the equation, of course, is having that "one guy" who can erupt for 30-plus points and win a game by himself (with Melo and Billups, the Nuggets had two of them). But eight months after the Cavaliers and Raptors were left empty-handed in the wake of LeBron James and Chris Bosh's respective departures, the Nuggets came away with a fully-stocked team still capable of making the playoffs, an immediate reduction in salary and cap flexibility on the other side of the NBA's pending lockout.
To paraphrase Melo, the younger Kroenke and Ujiri should take their hats off to themselves.
The challenge now lays with Nuggets head coach George Karl, who has only 25 games left to integrate four new players into his system while keeping the Nuggets in the Western Conference playoff hunt. To make the playoffs, the Nuggets will have to win at least 16 of those games and get to 48 wins. But getting the first of those 16 needed victories will be no easy feat.
First, the Nuggets will likely dress just nine players on Tuesday night when the Grizzlies invade Pepsi Center. Before the All-Star break, the Grizz had won 15 of their last 18 games (but will be weakened by the absence of Rudy Gay who's out with a dislocated shoulder). Next up, the Nuggets have to host the Celtics on Thursday while also trying to get their new team playing together on the floor for the first time. The Celtics are probably the worst possible opponent to try out a new roster against. And immediately following the Celtics game, the Nuggets have to travel to Portland for a back-to-back against a team that won six-straight before the All-Star break (a game we'll watch together during Friday's "Carmelo Anthony Going Away Party" at the Jake's bar/restaurant). After that? Home dates against Atlanta and Charlotte followed by road dates at Utah and at the Clippers. Oy. Needless to say, the Nuggets have their work cut out for them.
In the aftermath of this trade, we should first thank Melo for seven-and-a-half great seasons of Nuggets basketball. Sure, the Nuggets didn't win as many playoff games as we had hoped for during Melo's tenure in Denver, but we won a hell of a lot more regular season games for a prolonged stretch than at any other point in the Nuggets' NBA history. As is the case after superstars get traded, we can't expect to experience that level of success for years to come (and yet the Nuggets didn't lower their prices on season tickets, but I'll address that issue in the days to come). I'll forever remember the Melo Era as one of NBA relevancy, which was special in of itself after 10 seasons of being completely irrelevant in the NBA. Lest we forget that the Nuggets were holding open tryouts just a year before drafting Carmelo Anthony!
Saying goodbye to Chauncey Billups is a different, more complicated and emotional matter because he certainly didn't want to leave. Billups wasn't here from the dawn of the Melo Era, but his arrival brought out the best of the Melo Era. The Denver-born, University of Colorado alumn reinvented the way the Nuggets played basketball and proved to be the perfect antidote to the hard-playing but hard-partying Allen Iverson. Prior to Billups' arrival, the Nuggets with Melo couldn't win a playoff series. With Billups, they won two right away and got within two games of their first ever NBA Finals. And had Karl not been stricken with cancer last season and had K-Mart not been benched with more injuries, Billups may have partook in his eighth consecutive conference finals and we wouldn't be talking about his departure right now.
But as we've seen so often in the modern era of sports, Billups was a victim of the dollars and cents of professional basketball. Simply put, he was due to make too much money - $14 million - for a soon-to-be 35 year old and while I believe the Nuggets wanted to restructure Billups' contract and keep him in Denver, they probably wanted to do so under the terms of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement: i.e. at a substantial discount. Something neither Billups nor his agent were going to find palatable. And under the radar, I believe Billups going to the Knicks will be great for New York. Even though the Knicks have overly depleted their roster and have no size and no depth, a Billups/Melo/Amar'e Stoudemire combo should be good enough to keep the Knicks in the playoff hunt and attract free agents in the future.
Also departing alongside Melo and Billups and deserving of some mention are Carter, Williams and Balkman. Carter - despite being vilified among many of our fellow Stiffs - was a the consummate pro's pro who always played hard when given the opportunity while never complaining when he didn't. Williams was the same way. Williams saw his minutes jerked around all season (even though, as Nate aptly pointed out the other day, the Nuggets won more games when Williams played more minutes) but never made an issue out of it. He'll be missed. Balkman, conversely, was rumored to be anything but a pro's pro and that's what cost him playing time in Karl's rotation. A fan favorite for his tireless work in games, Balkman was known for being the laziest of practice players. He'll be missed by some.
In the days leading up to their Nuggets debut (presumed to be Thursday night), we'll look closer at Chandler, Gallinari, Felton and Mozgov here at Denver Stiffs. For now, I want to sincerely thank Knicks owner James Dolan and his gambling buddy Isiah Thomas for being the over-reaching starfuckers that they are. While the Knicks will be fun to watch and I believe will be better long term with Melo playing beside Stoudemire, the Knicks gave up quite a haul to get #15 into Madison Square Garden.
SCOUTING THE GRIZZLIES...
-Zach Randolph: 20.1 ppg and 13.2 rpg says it all...Z-Bo is a stud. And with Gay out for a month with his dislocated shoulder, it will be tough for Memphis to justify trading Randolph before Thursday as has been rumored.
-Marc Gasol: The Nuggets would-be big man is having a respectable if not spectacular season. It sure would have been nice to see him anchor the center spot while Melo was still a Nugget.
-Rudy Gay: Gay was having his best all-around season before dislocating his left shoulder. Is this just further proof that loser franchises like the Grizzlies are cursed forever?
-Hasheem Thabeet: With Darko Milicic having a very solid season (even by Darko standards), Thabeet is making one hell of a case as the NBA's worst-ever second overall pick.
-O.J. Mayo: Talk about doing your career in reverse. Mayo's third season hasn't just been bad on the court, but he's been banned for several games this season after violating the NBA's substance abuse policy.
The Nuggets didn't get fair value for Melo - teams losing superstars never do - but at least they're left with a big, competitive team and are positioned to be very competitive under the NBA's new collective bargaining rules sure to come. It's just too bad that we have to wait until Thursday to see the new-look Nuggets in action.
I, for one, can't wait!