Nuggets at Knicks preview: How does the Melo trade look now?

Remember these guys? - Elsa

The Nuggets and Knicks have virtually identical records since the Carmelo Anthony trade that took place in February of 2011. But nearly two NBA seasons later, it's clear which team has the better pathway to the NBA Finals.

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2012/2013 NBA Regular Season: Game 21
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vs
10-10

14-4
December 9, 2012, 5:30 PM (MT)
Madison Square Garden - New York, NY
TV Altitude / 950 AM / 104.3 FM The Fan
Probable Starters
Ty Lawson PG Raymond Felton
Andre Iguodala SG Ronnie Brewer
Danilo Gallinari SF Carmelo Anthony
Kenneth Faried PF Kurt Thomas
Kosta Koufos C Tyson Chandler
Notes
You're here! Blogs Posting and Toasting
Wilson Chandler (out), Julyan Stone (out) Injuries Marcus Camby (doubtful), Iman Shumpert (out), Amar'e Stoudemire (out)
Nuggets are 66-45 (.595) since trading Carmelo Anthony Stat Knicks are 64-47 (.577) since acquiring Carmelo Anthony

The NBA world has changed quite a bit since the Nuggets and Knicks last met in New York on January 21st. On that date, the two teams squared off in Madison Square Garden for the first time since the NBA earth-shaking "Melodrama" trade of February 22nd, 2011 that sent Nuggets all-star forward Carmelo Anthony (along with Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Shelden Williams) to the Knicks for a package that brought Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and Kosta Koufos (via the Timberwolves) to Denver.

And in that game, the Nuggets bested the Knicks in a 119-114 double overtime thriller (watched as part of our fifth Stiffs Night Out at Jake's Food & Spirits - STIFFS NIGHT OUT #8 is happening for this game so be there!), which would be the Nuggets' fourth road win in a row (on the way to five) while handing the Knicks their sixth-straight loss. The stars for the Nuggets that night were former Knicks Gallinari and Al Harrington, who torched their former team for 37 and 24 points, respectively. Melo, meanwhile, no doubt forcing the issue against his former squad, connected on just 10 of 30 shots, turned the ball over six times and finished with a +/- of minus-nine.

After that game, the low-priced, team-oriented Nuggets would cap their season by taking the Lakers to a tough seven-game series while the expensive, isolation playing, aging Knicks would find themselves distracted by "Linsanity", a coaching change, rumors of Isiah Thomas' return to the front office, poor chemistry and an assortment of injuries, only to flame out in five games against the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat in the playoffs' first round.

So when the 2011-12 season concluded, conventional wisdom was that the Nuggets were the big winners with the Melo trade. BIG winners. For the first time - perhaps ever - the small market team didn't buckle when it's star player demanded to be dealt to a sexier / bigger market and may have actually been "the winner" of the trade. The Bucks (who lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975), 76ers (who lost Charles Barkley to the Suns in 1992), Magic (who lost Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers in 1995), Hornets (who lost Alonzo Mourning to the Heat in 1995 and Chris Paul to the Clippers in 2011), Raptors (who lost Vince Carter to New Jersey in 2005 and Chris Bosh to Miami in 2010) and Cavaliers (who lost LeBron James to the Heat in 2010) were collectively jealous. Those teams suffered for years after being forced to deal away their star player. And it just happened to the Magic again this summer when they were forced to send Dwight Howard to the Lakers and took back ... well ... basically nothing. The Nuggets, meanwhile, not only thrived after the Melo trade but were predicted by many to be the top team in the Western Conference this season.

But what a difference 20 regular season games make.

20 and 18 games into the 2012-13 season for the Nuggets and Knicks, respectively, the Nuggets are treading water at 10-10 while the Knicks are dominating the NBA at 14-4, including two impressive victories against the Heat (while the Nuggets have lost two close games to the Heat and assortment of other close games to lesser quality opponents). No longer are the Nuggets the big "winner" of the Melo trade but rather, it's probably a wash. Consider ...

... Melo is having one of his best all around seasons ever and is actually doing other things on the floor besides chucking bad shots. No, really, he is.

... Billups is gone but Felton is back in New York, by way of Portland, and is performing better for the Knicks than Jeremy Lin did last season. More importantly, Felton seems to play well with Melo which Lin didn't and Felton's "star" will never be too big for Melo to play alongside him.

... Gallinari - whom some said they would have traded Melo straight up for last season - can't shoot straight, connecting on just 38% of his field goal attempts to date this season.

... Wilson Chandler - due to last season's hip surgery - can't stay healthy.

... Koufos has been an adequate starting center, but he's really just a seat-filler until JaVale McGee figures out how to play basketball.

... Mozgov has shown flashes of excitement, but he can't consistently get into George Karl's rotation and will probably be traded by February as he seems to be the odd man out at the center position for Denver.

Now surrounded by veterans like Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Steve Novak, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, Ronnie Brewer and Tyson Chandler, Melo has the Knicks on top of the Eastern Conference. And as if the Knicks are pouring salt into whatever wounds are left in Nuggets Nation in the post-Melodrama aftermath, former Nugget shooting guard J.R. Smith is excelling off of the Knicks' bench, connecting on big fourth quarter shots and playing a career-high 32 minutes per game. (For more on Smith, I encourage Stiffs' readers to check out Colin Daniels' article at South Stands Denver Fancast titled "The Knicks are winning with George Karl's trash".)

And since there's no shortage of subplots when it comes to a Nuggets versus Knicks game these days, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that former Nuggets' GM Mark Warkentien is now in the Knicks' front office. And this team has Wark's fingerprints all over it: Melo, Smith, Camby, Wallace. Frankly, I'm shocked that he hasn't taken a flier on Kenyon Martin or Allen Iverson this season.

Before the season started, I thought the Knicks would be a four-seed and win a playoff series. Now - crazy as this sounds - it's not unthinkable to talk conference finals and possibly beyond for the Knicks. (As long as they keep Amar'e Stoudemire on the injured list, of course, because - for whatever reason - the talented Stoudemire cannot coexist with Melo and yet Stoudemire's salary and injury history makes him virtually untradeable.)

That said, as we in Denver know all too well Melo has folded up like a deck chair in big playoff games, and until he can knock out former NBA Champions like Miami and Boston I will remain skeptical of his chances of ever getting to an NBA Finals. It's just a lot easier to win a first round playoff series in the East than it is in the West, and Melo should accomplish that in 2013.

Meanwhile, the post-Melo Nuggets are ... well ... I don't know what or who these guys are. Are the Nuggets the team that went toe-to-toe with the Grizzlies in Memphis or the Pacers in Indiana and walked out with a victory? Or are they the choke artists that we saw recently in Utah against the Jazz, Oakland against the Warriors and at home against the Raptors (luckily, the Raptors suck so bad that the Nuggets won anyway)?

Three things to look for in Sunday's game ...

1) Will Carmelo Anthony actually play? Melo lacerated his finger this past week and missed Thursday's big game against the Heat in Miami ... which the Knicks won handily anyway. As of this writing, he's doubtful for the Knicks' Saturday matchup against the Bulls in Chicago and even if he plays, he could exacerbate the injury and miss Sunday's big game against his former franchise.

2) Raymond Felton versus Ty Lawson. The two former University of North Carolina Tarheels never quite meshed in Denver, even though Karl (a former UNC Tarheel point guard himself) tried playing them together in his infamous two-undersized-point-guards lineup. Felton - a starter his entire NBA career - never liked playing behind Lawson and let it be known so much that the Nuggets eventually dealt him to Portland for Miller and the pick that became Jordan Hamilton. Now Felton is having the season of his life while Lawson is struggling, so it should be interesting to see how Lawson responds against the elder Felton on Sunday night.

3) J.R. Smith versus George Karl. Regardless of where you come down on this one, it's no secret that Karl - the old school coach - and Smith - the super talented yet mercurial player - never meshed in Denver, often leading to Smith spending time in the coach's "doghouse" even though the Nuggets often needed Smith's offensive output late in games. Now that the Nuggets stink when it comes to defending the three-pointer, Smith will look to have a field day and show up his former coach ... which could also lead to Smith going all Corey Brewer and shooting 1-9 from behind the arc.

Scouting the Knicks

Knicks' Non-Stiffs

-Carmelo Anthony: Melo will always be a Stiff to me for wanting out of Denver, forcing his way to New York and causing nothing but distractions for the Nuggets in the process. But like him or hate him, he's one of the best offensive basketball players in the NBA and can win a regular season game by himself on any given night.

-Raymond Felton: In Portland - and to some extent in Denver, too - Felton was overweight, out of shape and his game showed it. Now in better shape and back in New York, Felton is thriving to the tune of a career-high 15.9 ppg to go along with 6.9 apg.

-Jason Kidd: Amazingly, the poor man's Fat Lever is still delivering at 39 years old. 39 years old! Starting alongside Felton, Kidd gives the Knicks 26 solid minutes per game and is connecting on 50% of his shots from the field and behind the arc - both career highs.

Knicks' Stiffs

-Marcus Camby: In true Knicks fashion, they gave the aging, oft-injured Camby a three-year $12 million contract to which Camby has responded with 12 missed games, no made field goals and 15 rebounds grabbed.

-Amar'e Stoudemire: It's hard to feel badly for a guy who's owed over $65 million for the next three seasons, but Stoudemire being injured (again) has been the best thing to happen to the Knicks this season. If anything can sink the Knicks' momentum it will be Stoudemire's return as he and Melo just seem to get into each other's way on the court.

Final Thought

Long gone are Melo's former Nugget teammates like Harrington, Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen, Nene Hilario, Billups, Carter and so on. In fact, only Lawson remains from the roster that Melo last played on in the Mile High City and with the way the Nuggets' starting point guard has been playing lately, Nuggets fans might start wishing he was in a Knicks uniform, too.

But regardless of who Melo played alongside in Denver, with recent former Nuggets like Smith and Felton (two players who never really caught on with Karl) on the Knicks' roster combined with Melo, who demanded to be dealt to New York despite being the second-best Nugget ever after Alex English, any Nuggets versus Knicks game is going to be more than "just another game" for the foreseeable future.

It will be tough to top last season's double overtime Nuggets versus Knicks game, but with Smith on board Sunday night's game is likely to be another memorable affair.

*****

REMINDER FOR STIFFS NIGHT OUT - NUGGETS VS. KNICKS

And if you're free Sunday night, please consider watching this game with your fellow Stiffs at Jake's Food & Spirits, located at 3800 Walnut Street, Denver, CO 80205 for our next STIFFS NIGHT OUT.

If you haven't been to an STIFFS NIGHT OUT (SNO) before, we basically watch a big Nuggets game together and give out Nuggets-related prizes during quarter breaks and post-game. We usually have local sports media members with us and Jake's throws in food and drink specials. And families are always welcome!

For tomorrow's game, we'll be giving away alternative uniform T-shirts and a pair of great tickets to the Grizzlies versus Nuggets game on December 14th.

So join us at 5:00pm to get a good seat because tip-off is at 5:30pm (MT). And, of course, Go Nuggets!!

Denver Nuggets Tickets

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