Days away from Carmelo Anthony's much anticipated return to Denver, this fan wonders if we'll ever again see a player of Melo's caliber in a Nuggets uniform. Or if it even matters.
With the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets racking up one win after another thanks to an exciting "everyone is participating" style of team basketball - a style rarely seen in the modern NBA - the days of Carmelo Anthony gracing the Pepsi Center court seem like a distant, fading memory.
And yet despite all of Melo's faults (including, no less, his known desire to leave Denver for the bright lights of New York City), the former #15 may have been the last superstar to don a Nuggets jersey. This isn't to say that this season's Nuggets squad isn't a legitimate contender for something greater than a first round playoff exit, but Melo certainly represented the franchise's best and most recent shot at a deep playoff run. After all, it was when Melo teamed with perennial All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups that the Nuggets made their deepest run in NBA franchise history by taking the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
Simply put, if you're located in one of the NBA's 15 smaller markets (of which Denver is one), the only way you land a superstar is primarily through the dumb luck of the draft or, secondarily and more rarely, through the dumb luck of a trade really early - or really late - in a superstar's career. And it's through those two routes that the Nuggets have landed the only three superstars in franchise history.
The first superstar* in Nuggets history, David Thompson (aka "The Skywalker"), was selected first overall in both the 1975 NBA and ABA Drafts by the Atlanta Hawks and Virginia Squires, respectively. After trading five players to the Squires for Thompson's draft rights - and astutely signing Thompson's college teammate Monte Towe to a two-year contract to entice Thompson to choose Denver over Atlanta - the Nuggets added Thompson to a roster already featuring star power with Ralph Simpson, Mack Calvin, Bobby Jones and the recently acquired Dan Issel. With Thompson leading the way with 26 points per game (while shooting 51.5% from the field) plus plenty of rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, the Nuggets competed in the 1976 ABA Finals, losing to Julius Erving's New York Nets in six games. The furthest any Nuggets team has ever gotten.
Moving over to the NBA a season later, Thompson's Nuggets proved the NBA naysayers wrong by winning 50 games and losing in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual NBA Champions, the Portland Trail Blazers. And the following season, Thompson would lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the Seattle Supersonics. Thompson would play seven total seasons in Denver (before a cocaine addiction cost him his career), participate in five All-Star Games and he currently ranks fourth all-time in total points and fifth all-time in points per game in Nuggets franchise history.
The second superstar in Nuggets history, Alex English, came via a fluky trade. A former second round pick by the Milwaukee Bucks, English bounced around from Milwaukee to Indiana before landing in Denver thanks to a mid-season trade during the 1979-80 NBA season in exchange for an aging George McGinnis (a trade that ranks as the best in Nuggets history, as I wrote about in 2009) and a first round pick.
As a Nugget, English's career blossomed into one of the best ever in NBA history at the small forward position. English participated in a Nugget record eight consecutive All-Star Games from 1982 through 1989 while racking up some impressive statistics - among all Nuggets he ranks first all-time in points scored, points per game and offensive rebounds, and and among all NBA players English ranks 13th all-time in points scored. And while English was in Denver, the Nuggets had several of their finest NBA seasons, including their 1985 Western Conference Finals appearance against the eventual champion Lakers and their 1987-88 record-breaking 54-win season. Back when winning 50 games really meant something special.
And as we all know, the third superstar+ in Nuggets history, Carmelo Anthony, came to Denver via the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, a year after the Nuggets began one of the great tank jobs in NBA history as they went head-to-head with the Cleveland Cavaliers to see who could suck bad enough to land LeBron James (remember, when you're a small market team the likeliest route to getting a superstar is drafting one).
We can debate whether or not Melo was/is a true superstar and frankly, I don't even know where I come down on the topic. But you have to give Melo this: on his watch, the Nuggets became instantly relevant and competitive. Prior to Melo's arrival in 2003, the Nuggets had made the playoffs just twice in 13 years (that's what happens when you tank season after season hoping to land a superstar ... lesson learned?) and hadn't sniffed a post-season spot for eight seasons. With Anthony on board, the Nuggets would make the playoffs in Melo's first and every season in a brutally competitive Western Conference. Even the much lauded James couldn't get his Cavaliers into the playoffs in the pathetic Leastern Conference until his third season.
But regrettably, like James and Chris Bosh before him, Melo wasn't content staying with the small market franchise that drafted him, developed him, nurtured him and built a winning program around him. And it had nothing to do with the franchise itself - lest we forget the assortment of quality players and exorbitant salaries paid to them during Melo's tenure in Denver, including Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Nene Hilario, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups ... it's not as if Nuggets management, akin to the Cavaliers with James, sat on their hands during the Melo Era.
No, it wasn't the franchise. It was the franchise's location.
Because even though the New York Knicks are continuously in disarray thanks to a dysfunctional owner like James Dolan, they still play in New York. Just like Donald Sterling's Clippers (where Chris Paul defected to from the small market New Orleans Hornets) and Jim Buss's Lakers (where Dwight Howard defected to from the small market Orlando Magic) play in Los Angeles.
And thus, I wonder if Melo will be the last superstar or near-superstar to don a Denver Nuggets jersey. At least for the foreseeable future.
For starters, I don't see the Nuggets undergoing a massive tank job anytime soon nor should they. With the team playing as well as it is, it's possible that deep playoff runs could be had by the current roster or by tweaking the current roster. No overhauling of the roster is imminent and even doing so doesn't guarantee landing a superstar in the draft (see the 1990 through 2003 Denver Nuggets if you don't believe me).
Secondly, unless Nuggets vice president Masai Ujiri knows something 29 other general managers don't, I don't think the Nuggets will land an unknown superstar (like the San Antonio Spurs did with both Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) late in the draft. Nabbing the inspiring Kenneth Faried with the 22nd overall pick was itself a miracle that Ujiri deserves lots of credit for.
And finally, as mentioned ad nauseum here at Denver Stiffs and in the local media the covers the Nuggets, Denver simply isn't a destination on par with Los Angeles, New York or Miami to attract superstar players. Yes, the culture has changed - evident by the many NBA players who worked out with Nuggets players this summer at Pepsi Center - but it's still a small market town in the eyes of most NBA players. (And lets hope the days of overpaying for the likes of pretend, self-anointed stars like Kenyon Martin to play in the Mile High City are long gone.)
But seeing how well the Nuggets are playing with their current roster - a roster built thanks to the Melo trade that netted Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller / Jordan Hamilton (by way of Raymond Felton) - I wonder if any of the "need-for-a-superstar" talk really matters. I'm optimistic, perhaps naively so, that the Nuggets are building a contender in a way that's not dependent on one or two Hall of Famers. It was done in Detroit from about 2001 through 2008 and I'm starting to believe that it can be done here.
But it sure would be nice to see another superstar in a Denver Nuggets jersey again.
*Apologies to Spencer Haywood. As a rookie for the 1969-70 Denver Rockets, Haywood won the ABA MVP, Rookie of the Year and All-Star Game MVP in the same season. Unfortunately, the would-be superstar departed Denver for the NBA's Seattle Supersonics the following season.
+Apologies to Allen Iverson. Don't let Iverson's depressingly sad end-of-career overshadow the fact that he was one of the best shooting guards, and perhaps the best small guard, in NBA history. But Iverson's brief, two-year stint with the Nuggets wasn't enough to qualify him as a true Nuggets superstar.
Save the Date - 3/19 March Madness Stiffs Night Out!
On Tuesday, March 19th we're going to kick off March Madness by watching the Nuggets take on the Thunder in Oklahoma City at 6pm from Jake's Food & Spirits. Free appetizers and 2-for-1 drinks will be served.
We will be distributing NCAA brackets for $10, with all of the proceeds going to the Denver Hooperz, a local non-profit that provide after school basketball programs to at-risk youth. Prizes - including Nuggets tickets - will be given out to bracket winners. Also, the Colorado Sports Guys (Nate Timmons and Ross Martin) will be live podcasting throughout the event - and it's Nate's birthday!