Every Nuggets season has its own unique storyline, but there has never quite been anything like the 2010-11 campaign.
The 2010-11 Nuggets season began shrouded in a giant cloud of uncertainty.
Entering training camp the face of the franchise for seven years, Carmelo Anthony, refused to sign a three-year contract extension over the previous summer and was rumored to be jockeying for a trade to New York. Chauncey Billups, the hometown legend, had a team option $14.2 million contract looming on the horizon, with the Nuggets giving no indication of exercising it. The team's up-and-coming shooting guard, Arron Afflalo, wasn't re-signed and would become a restricted free agent at season's end. The Nuggets also didn't offer center Nene an extension, giving the big Brazilian a window to opt-out of his contract at season's end and become an unrestricted free agent. And the oft-injured Kenyon Martin and the mercurial but popular (at least, in the fans' eyes) J.R. Smith were due to become unrestricted free agents themselves. Oh, and Martin and fan favorite Chris Andersen were each out indefinitely due to injured knees. All of this in the face of a league-wide lockout sure to come on July 1st, 2011.
Additionally, the team's head coach - George Karl - was making a valiant return from throat and neck cancer, the second battle of his life with that dreaded disease. But Karl, too, was on a one-year contract as was his entire coaching staff. There were as many questions about Karl being extended as there were about whether he could even coach at all health-wise. After all, the 59-year-old head coach could barely speak when training camp began, thanks to months of radiation treatment that blasted his neck and throat.
On top of all that, the Nuggets were to be guided by two inexperienced hands. Ownership had been transfered from global sports magnate Stan Kroenke to his 30-year-old son, Josh. And in the wake of Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman being dismissed as a two-headed general manager tandem, the Nuggets hired a 39-year-old Nigerian named Masai Ujiri, who had previously served as assistant general manager for the lowly Toronto Raptors.
With all of these unknowns engulfing the locker room, it was assumed by many that a distracted and disoriented Nuggets squad would be forced to trade Anthony for pennies-on-the-dollar to the Knicks. And that until and even after doing so, it was assumed that the team would struggle to remain relevant in the always-competitive Western Conference. Never mind even make the playoffs in a post-Anthony world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Nuggets having a would-be broken, forgettable season.
First, in spite of being at the epicenter of the "Melodrama" that would ensue thanks to his refusal to ink an extension in Denver, Anthony showed up at training camp in good shape and played hard nightly. Second, rather than allow their own contract statuses to hurt their performances on the floor, Billups, Nene, Martin, Smith and Afflalo played as one unit. Third, the "other" Nuggets brought their A-games into training camp, including second year point guard dynamo Ty Lawson and a surprising newcomer named Gary Forbes, who would make his NBA debut as a 25-year-old rookie. And fourth, Karl regained his voice - literally and figuratively - as he was tasked with holding this fragile locker room together and facing Melodrama-related questions daily while still being counted on to produce wins.
Galvanizing around their collective hazy futures in Denver, the Nuggets posted impressive victories against the Mavericks, Lakers, Bulls, Thunder, Heat, Magic and Blazers and had two heartbreaking losses to the Spurs. And in addition to the off-the-court distractions, the Nuggets faced a slew of injuries to overcome. Andersen missed 37 games due to injury. Martin missed 34. Newly signed Al Harrington missed nine and had plantar fasciitis issues all season long. Even Anthony, already dealing with the Melodrama, would miss seven games due to injury and the tragic death of his sister just before Christmas.
But eventually, the weight of the Melodrama and the questions surrounding the team's future began to drag them down. The Nuggets often lost their focus, resulting in defeats to NBA dregs such as the Pacers, Bobcats, Knicks, 76ers (twice), Clippers, Kings, Nets and Warriors. In their final 11 games before the All-Star break, the Nuggets lost seven.
Meanwhile, the younger Kroenke and Ujiri were working tirelessly behind the scenes to move Anthony out of Denver. Despite knowing that Anthony wanted New York and New York only, Kroenke and Ujiri were still able to bring the New Jersey Nets and their billionaire Russian owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, to the deal table. By getting the Nets involved - and with the Nets willing to offer perhaps as many as three first round draft picks plus Devin Harris and third overall pick Derrick Favors - Kroenke and Ujiri forced the Knicks to ante up more than they might otherwise be willing to give. Prior to engaging New York, the Knicks were in the midst of a decent season with superstar Amar'e Stoudemire leading solid role players Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov into bringing basketball relevance back to New York. But the temptation of landing Anthony would prove to be too much for Knicks owner James Dolan, and Dolan (allegedly) inserted himself into the trade talks to guarantee acquiring Anthony.
As a result of the Anthony-to-the-Knicks rumors, the once-winning, once-spirited Knicks began falling apart. Now two NBA locker rooms were engulfed in distraction. The more the Knicks lost, the more Dolan got desperate for Anthony. And with the trade deadline beckoning, the Knicks couldn't miss out on Anthony. Kroenke and Ujiri would astutely capitalize on the Knicks' desperation.
So on February 21st, 2011 - after seven-and-a-half seasons of making Denver a regular participant in the NBA playoffs - Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks. Anthony would be packaged along with Billups, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman for Felton, Gallinari, Chandler and Mozgov. And in an extra twist to the deal that involved the Timberwolves, the Nuggets acquired center Kosta Koufos, too. Most Nuggets fans were relieved to be relieved of Anthony, but the departure of Billups - the hometown hero - stung. After all, just because Anthony wanted out of Denver, did he really have to take Billups with him, too?
Sitting at 32-25 on the night of the trade and facing a daunting final 25-game schedule, Karl and the Nuggets would undergo the NBA's version of an extreme makeover and it would prove to be a masterstroke of a deal for Denver's new franchise overseers. Seemingly overnight, the Nuggets were transformed from a superstar-centric, offensive-centric, undersized team with limited depth into a balanced, defensive-centric, tall and extremely deep team. Second year point guard Ty Lawson would be backed up by Felton. Afflalo would be backed up by Smith and Forbes. Gallinari would start with Chandler right behind him. Martin and Nene now had Harrington, Andersen, Mozgov and Koufos to help man the paint.
The Nuggets newfound depth instantly turned into wins as the Nuggets won 15 of their first 19 "post-Anthony" games. And unlike the days when Anthony anchored the small forward position in Denver, the Nuggets would not only beat good teams (like the Spurs, Lakers, Celtics and Mavericks), but destroyed bad ones, too. And the Nuggets suddenly won in places they couldn't with Anthony; such as at Phoenix, at New Orleans and at Atlanta.
But more importantly, the new-look Nuggets reinvented the way professional basketball is played right before our eyes. Rather than depend on a superstar to close out games, the Nuggets came at opponents with waves of energetic lineup combinations, defensive intensity, offensive efficiency, ample passing and lots of running. For the first time in years, Karl had the hammer of playing time in his coaching toolbox, and he used it well. And answering the first of those remaining free agent questions, Kroenke and Ujiri rightly extended Karl by three years, an extension the coach deserved for continuing to deliver the most successful era in Nuggets history since his arrival in 2005.
The new-look Nuggets certainly got the fans' attention and Pepsi Center was alive again. As the new-look Nuggets racked up win after win, Pepsi Center got fuller and fuller with each game, even selling out a Saturday night affair against a forgettable Pistons squad. Longtime Nuggets fans came out of the woodwork and rooted for their team again because this incarnation of the Nuggets embodied everything that Denver is about: teamwork, community, collective success and tireless effort when achievement is questioned by outsiders. Just like Denver plays second fiddle to the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, so did our little-engine-that-could Nuggets against NBA giants like the Lakers, Bulls and Mavericks.
In spite of being the underdog, our 2010-11 Nuggets finished so hot that they threatened to catch division rival Oklahoma City Thunder and overtake the Western Conference's four-seed in early April.
And then they had to play the Thunder twice in the regular season's final six games.
In what should have been a sign of what was to come, the Thunder ruined the Nuggets magical regular season ride by defeating Denver in both of those games, including the first at Pepsi Center - the new-look Nuggets lone home loss. The Nuggets' fantasy of a four-seed and home court advantage soon evaporated with those two losses to the Thunder, and the Nuggets were resigned to root for Dallas to drop to four rather than face Oklahoma City in the 2011 playoffs. Something Karl did openly in front of the media.
The Nuggets would go on to win a most impressive 50 games, making it four consecutive seasons that they had won at least 50 (made more impressive when considering the Nuggets had won at least 50 games on just three other occasions in their NBA franchise history, and never consecutively). But a playoff date with the Thunder loomed.
Despite the two regular season losses to Oklahoma City, the Nuggets coaches, players and fans were confident that the Thunder - who had never won a playoff series since moving to Oklahoma City - could be upset in the playoffs' first round.
Unfortunately, it was never meant to be.
Thanks to a confluence of events including suspect officiating that grossly favored the Thunder (including an offensive interference no-call in Game 1 and a shamefully reversed over-and-back call in Game 5), horrifically and inexcusably bad free throw shooting by Denver, botched end-of-game execution by the Nuggets (notably Games 1, 3 and 5), inexperience among the Nuggets new younger players, and a slew of masterful performances by Thunder superstar Kevin Durant and the Thunder role players - particularly Serge Ibaka - the Nuggets' Cinderella season ended abruptly in five playoff games, four of which were closely contested and admirably fought. It would be the Nuggets seventh first-round playoff exit in eight consecutive tries.
But while many will remember the disappointing end of the 2010-11 season, I believe it's best to remember the remarkable conversion from a team that the fans rooted for but never really cared for into a team that the fans would have rooted for regardless of the final score. The Nuggets ultimately disappointed us as they do every year. But with Gallinari, Lawson, Mozgov, Koufos and Andersen returning for the 2011-12 season plus Nene, Afflalo, Felton, Chandler, Martin and Forbes likely returning (unfortunately, we cannot say the same for Smith, who will surely get overpaid elsewhere), as well, the future for Nuggets basketball has nothing but upside. We always say that we want a team of guys who care more about the outcome of the game than we, as fans, do. And at long last, we were able to say that about this current collection of Nugget players.
This team earned Denver sports fans' support and it deserves our support next season, too. (If there is a next season, of course). Because for a season that began shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty, it concluded with ample sunshine shining through for the future.
On to the links...
Krieger: Best player wins, and that's Durant - The Denver Post
Dave Krieger admires Kevin Durant's work in the Thunder's 4-1 series victory over the Nuggets.
Oklahoma City eliminates Nuggets with 100-97 win in Game 5 - The Denver Post
Benjamin Hochman's post-game recap.
Nuggets' future bright but hazy - The Denver Post
Chris Dempsey addresses the many questions facing the Nuggets this off-season.
New York Knicks pick up $14.2M option on Chauncey Billups - ESPN New York
Don't cry for Chauncey Billups, he just made $14.2 million.
Breaking down the NBA's small-market woes with a little help from the Maloofs - ESPN
Bill Simmons explains the conundrum that small-market teams find themselves in the modern NBA. A must-read.