Knicks vs. Nuggets preview: Melo, J.R. and other familiar faces return to Denver

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony and The Thuggets have been reincarnated in New York. They invade Pepsi Center on Wednesday night in the most highly anticipated game of the year.

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2012/2013 NBA Regular Season: Game 66
vs
Denver Nuggets (2009 - Pres)
38-23 (16-13 on the road)
1-0
43-22 (28-3 at home)
March 13th, 2013 - 8:30 PM (MT)
Pepsi Center - Denver, CO
ESPN / Altitude / 950 AM
Probable Starters
Raymond Felton
PG Ty Lawson
Iman Shumpert
SG Andre Iguodala
James White SF Danilo Gallinari
Carmelo Anthony
PF Kenneth Faried
Tyson Chandler
C Kosta Koufos
Notes
Posting and Toasting Blogs Denver Stiffs
Marcus Camby (always doubtful), Amare Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace (out)
Injuries None

Since trading for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011, the Knicks are 88-67 (.568)

Stat Since trading Carmelo Anthony in February 2011, the Nuggets are 99-57 (.635)

At long last, Carmelo Anthony will have to face the music when he makes his first ever appearance at Pepsi Center in a jersey that doesn't read "Nuggets" across the front of it. Because for all the good things Melo did while in Denver from 2003 through 2011 (eight straight playoff appearances, numerous game-winning shots, making the Nuggets instantly relevant in a brutally competitive Western Conference) many fans will never forgive the fact that Denver just wasn't good enough for the former #15.

Like Melo did for the Nuggets, he has done for his new team, the New York Knicks. With Melo on their roster, the Knicks have become instantly relevant in the Leastern Conference, making the playoffs two years in a row (about to be three), winning a playoff game for the first time since 1999 and contending for their conference's two-seed this season - despite having won five less games than Denver to date, must be nice.

But as if Melo's highly anticipated return to Denver wasn't enough, he's bringing along several former cast members of "The Thuggets" Era with him, namely J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby (who likely won't play because, well, he just never plays), plus another former Nugget in Raymond Felton, as well. I don't know about you, but I'm equally excited to see Smith and Martin back on the Pepsi Center court as well as Melo.

How Melo will be received the Pepsi Center crowd will be fascinating to see and hear.

On the one hand, you have to give Melo credit for not "LeBron'ing" or "Bosh'ing" the Nuggets. Unlike his Olympic teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh, Melo didn't leave the franchise that drafted him high and dry by teasing them with a willingness to re-sign as a free agent even though he had no intention of doing so. Instead, behind closed doors before the 2010-11 season began, Melo made it known to (then) new Nuggets vice president Masai Ujiri and (then) new team president Josh Kroenke that he wanted out of Denver and that his intended destination was New York. At the very least, this gave Ujiri and Kroenke the opportunity to deal their star player for a package of decent talent in return. And by taking back Danilo Gallinari, the aforementioned Felton (who was since traded for Andre Miller and the pick that became Jordan Hamilton), Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos, the Nuggets made perhaps the best "superstar" trade in NBA history.

Prior to Melo being traded to the Knicks, NBA history was littered with one-sided trades for star players that killed the forced-to-trade team. Whether it be when Philadelphia received Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry for Charles Barkley, or when Milwaukee took back Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or when Toronto shipped out Vince Carter in exchange for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and an aging Alonzo Mourning, the team trading away their star player is usually set back by years ... if not by a decade. (Just watch what happens to Orlando in the wake of the Dwight Howard trade.)

On the other hand, Melo was pretty disingenuous about his reasons for wanting a trade. Citing the desire to win a championship as his main reason for wanting out of Denver, Melo fooled no one. Not only had the Kroenkes spent (on some occasions) north of $80 million in salaries to build a winner around Melo, but the Nuggets had built a substantive winning program here - directly opposite of what had happened in New York before Melo became a Knick. The truth of why Melo wanted out of Denver lies somewhere between his and his wife's thirst for celebrity ... and New York is certainly more of a celebrity's paradise than Denver will ever be. And for that, Melo's forcing of a trade may be viewed by many as unforgivable.

After all, you can always live in New York in the off-season while winning championships in Denver during the regular season. But Melo's ego - and perhaps that of his representation, as well - just didn't see it that way and I guess the Denver fans will let him know how they feel when he runs out of the visitor locker room on Wednesday night.

But even though the mega Melo trade is just two years old, for some reason it feels like Melo was here in Denver ages ago. And along with Melo wearing a Nuggets uniform somehow becoming a distant memory, so has the memory of "The Thuggets" Era altogether.

Most interestingly, however, "The Thuggets" have been reincarnated in New York by the same architect - Mark Warkentien - who was largely responsible for assembling the team in Denver. (And, not so coincidentally, was also responsible for assembling the hated "Jailblazers" before that.) Warkentien - who's supposedly the Knicks Director of Pro Personnel - has always been more enamored with talent than character. It showed in Portland when Warkentien brought in bad seeds like Dontonio Wingfield, Rasheed Wallace, Isaiah Rider, Kenny Anderson, Damon Stoudamire, Bonzi Wells, Jim Jackson, Shawn Kemp, Rod Strickland, Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson, Qyntel Woods, Jeff McInnis, Darius Miles and Sebastian Telfair to the Trail Blazers franchise. It happened in Denver when the likes of Melo, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Patterson, Reggie Evans, DerMarr Johnson and Allen Iverson walked the Pepsi Center hardwood.

And now a reduced version of the Thuggets brand is back together in New York, with Melo being joined recently by Jason Kidd (a great player but not exactly a model citizen), Martin, Smith and Wallace. Shockingly, Warkentien hasn't signed Iverson and/or brought back Stephon Marbury to the Knicks. And along with Melo, Martin and Smith are former Nuggets Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton, adding even more drama to an already drama-filled Wednesday matchup.

When this current incarnation of the Knicks met our character-first Nuggets in New York in early December, Melo had a superstar game - 34 points and some big late-game shots - and the Knicks won by six, 112-106. The Knicks were red hot at the time, competing with the Heat for the Leastern Conference's first overall playoff seed. Much has changed since then. Age and injuries have caught up with the Knicks, sending them into a tailspin of sorts, evident by them losing eight of their last 15 games and dropping to 9.5 games back of the Heat.

Meanwhile, other than those champion Heat the Nuggets are the NBA's hottest team - winners of nine straight and 21 of 27 since the former Knick Chandler returned to the Nuggets lineup from injury. So look for our Nuggets to exact some sweet revenge on the struggling Knicks on Wednesday night. Because whether the Melo/Thuggets days are a distant memory or not, these two franchises will be forever linked and compared because of that infamous Melo trade.

Three things to look for in this game ...

1) The Pepsi Center reaction to Melo's return. Will the fans boo? Will they cheer? Will they jeer? It's the question everyone wants to know.

2) Carmelo Anthony's health. A perennial excuse maker, Melo is already citing his "nagging right knee" as being an issue, thus giving himself a built-in excuse for a potential sub-par game. Will Melo be healthy enough to over-shoot throughout the game?

3) Ex-Nuggets versus ex-Knicks. I'm as excited to see how Smith, Felton, Martin and Camby (if he plays, god forbid) perform in their first game back at Pepsi Center as Knicks as I am to see how Melo responds. Of equal intrigue is how the ex-Knicks Gallo, Chandler and Mozgov stack up against their former team. And, of course, the Gallo versus Melo battle should be a good one.

Scouting the Knicks ...

Knicks Non-Stiffs

-Carmelo Anthony: Prior to the last month or so, Melo was having a fairy tale, MVP-caliber season. He seems to have since reverted to offense-first, defense-never Melo but that doesn't change the fact that he can go for 40 on any given night - and will want to especially against his old team.

-J.R. Smith: Always a fan favorite (but not a coaching favorite) in Denver, Smith is having his best NBA season and he, too, will want to go for 40 against his old team and coaching staff.

-Tyson Chandler: A defensive stalwart in the post, Chandler will give the Nuggets big men fits all night.

Knicks Stiffs

-Marcus Camby: Amazingly, the almost 39 year old Camby received a three-year, $12.2 million contract last summer. How's that working out?

-Age: Not surprisingly, the Knicks are the NBA's oldest squad thanks to Camby (almost 39), Kidd (almost 40), Kurt Thomas (40) and Wallace (38).

-Renaldo Balkman: Another former Nugget/Thugget who's not technically on the Knicks roster, but the Knicks are paying him $1.6 million this year.

Final Thought

Even though the Knicks play in the opposite conference and the outcome will have little effect on the Nuggets playoff positioning in their own conference, this is the biggest game of the year. I've had this one marked down on my calendar for a year and I suspect many of you have, as well.

The Nuggets have the opportunity to stand up for all the small market franchises whose star player hijacked them for a bigger or sexier market elsewhere and here's hoping they make the most of that opportunity ... while winning their 10th straight game in the process. More so than ever before: Go Nuggets!!


Save the Date - 3/19 March Madness Stiffs Night Out!

Our ninth Stiffs Night Out is right around the corner.

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!

Please RSVP here or on our Facebook event page. And we'll see you on the 19th!

***

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