We continue on our Stiffs Denver Nuggets “What If” series with the question that spawned the idea for the series in the first place: what if Carmelo Anthony doesn’t leave the Nuggets in 2011? As Ryan Blackburn pointed out in the first piece in this series, Melo is one of the most influential players in terms of the Nuggets franchise history as there has ever been, pulling the franchise from the ashes of a confluence of bizarre circumstances that destroyed a core that once looked so promising in 1994...someone should probably write a “What-If” article about that too, but I digress.
Carmelo’s time in Denver ultimately produced mixed feelings and results. He never once missed the playoffs while playing for the Nuggets. Pretty much no one who played more than a season or two with Denver other than Melo’s teammates can say that. Not Alex English, not David Thompson, not Dan Issel, not Dikembe Mutombo, not Chauncey Billups, not Nikola Jokic...just Melo and a couple of the guys he was surrounded by. One would think for a ringless franchise those seven straight postseason appearances would be enough to guarantee Melo as a sure fire jersey retirement. That’s not the case of course, because Carmelo Anthony didn’t leave the Nuggets because he succumbed to personal demons, or gradually faded past his prime or even was refused to be paid what he thought he was worth, Carmelo Anthony left because he wanted to leave.
And that brings us to our “What If” question of the day. Let’s assume Melo didn’t want to leave and he instead signed the max extension the Nuggets offered him during the summer of 2010 which would have kept him in a Nuggets uniform until 2015. How much does that alter the franchise? Would the Nuggets have been better or worse?
The immediate aftermath
There is a very interesting factor at play in this hypothetical, or really two interesting factors: Masai Ujiri and a boat load of money in free agency but nothing to do with it. When Denver traded Melo they were poised to have plenty of cash. Nene, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith alone accounted for $33 million dollars of expiring contracts in a year where the salary cap was $58 million. Melo and Chauncey would have accounted for just about $31 million themselves but otherwise the Nuggets had no contracts of true consequence other than Al Harrington who was headed into the second year of his five year, $34 million dollar deal (Mark Warkentein’s final gift to the franchise).
For basically the first time in Melo’s career the Nuggets would have had flexibility with their salary cap and for the first time in his career he had a forward thinking and bright executive to lead the roster construction. Unfortunately there wouldn’t have been very much in the way of players to get. The free agent classes of 2011 and 2012 were not exactly barn burners, in fact Marc Stein classified Nene as “widely regarded as the No. 1 free agent on the 2011 market.” 2012 wasn’t much better with Deron Williams and 38 year old Steve Nash headlining the group. The fact of the matter is there wouldn’t be much in the way of improvement the Nuggets could have made with their salary cap. In all likelihood they still re-sign Aron Afflalo, probably Nene as well. For the most part in fact the Nugget would likely run it back sans K-Mart and J.R.
There are other developments that likely still take place as well though. Denver probably still finishes the 2010-2011 season in similar position and still likely would need to address power forward depth in the draft. The chances of Kenneth Faried being their pick seem very high. Ty Lawson was already on the roster at that point as well. In hindsight it appeared Masai only re-signed Nene to ensure he didn’t lose him for nothing and there’s a good chance the Nene-Javale McGee trade still happens. As crazy as it sounds, roster construction in the 2011 and 2012 offseason probably wasn’t effected much by the Melo trade.
The question is really how much longer could Chauncey and Melo compete at the highest level as headliners? It didn’t last very long at all in New York, the summer following the Melo trade the Knicks used the amnesty clause to move off of Billups’ contract. The Los Angeles Clippers claimed him off waivers, he blew out his achilles twenty games into the next season and his career was essentially over. Does Chauncey decline as quickly if he never leaves Denver? Impossible to say but what is probably fair to say is the Melo/Chauncey pairing would have worked for a season or two longer before the Nuggets would have to make a change. The thing is though they were prepared for that. Lawson was waiting in the wings and maybe a few more years under Chauncey’s wing would have helped Lawson avoid the pitfalls in his own career. Denver may have still struggled to add talent in free agency but they had the pieces to build a young exciting team for a hypothetical second half of the Melo era.
Ujiri never made his hay in free agency anyways. It’s not crazy to think he would have found a way to make other trades that perhaps would have had a better outcome than the McGee/Nene trade. It certainly isn’t far fetched to think he could have continued to find solid contributing talent with late first round picks like he did with Faried and Evan Fournier. The big question mostly with Ujiri is if Melo stays, does he stay? Very tough to say and depends on your view of the Nuggets potential to continue to compete at the highest level and whether that would have overcome the desire to return Toronto and the boat load of cash the Raptors were willing to give Ujiri.
The other big question is George Karl. Mere weeks after Carmelo Anthony was traded, Karl and the team finalized a three year extension. Karl was described as “visibly relaxed” when both matters were concluded. Karl likewise made no secret of the fact the he and Melo didn’t get along all that well in his book “Furious George.” If Melo stays it’s fair to wonder if the Nuggets get that extension done or if Karl is already out as head coach. The optics of firing a coach who had been to the Western Conference Finals two years prior and didn’t get a chance to repeat because he was battling cancer would be terrible, but if Melo was under contract until 2015, one has to imagine he’d have quite a bit of power in dictating the direction the team went with the coach and it’s not a stretch by any means to say he would have wanted the team to go in another direction.
It’s fun to think about the tag team of Melo and Ujiri and what they might have been able to accomplish together, but when you look at the actually reality of it I’m not sure all that much would have changed. My first assumption would be that George Karl gets fired after the 2011 season. The Melo trade didn’t really effect the Nuggets negatively in the standings that season. They went 17-7 after the trade, secured the five seed and a first round matchup with the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden/Serge Ibaka Oklahoma City Thunder. Maybe they play better in the first half of the season without the Melodrama hanging over their heads but they finished five games back of OKC and seven back of the third seeded Dallas Mavericks that year. In all likelihood, the Thunder are their first round matchup that season.
Durant played out of his mind in that series, and over nearly 42 minutes a game as well. Melo arguably would have fared even worse than Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler in attempting to stop him. I’m not sure Billups slows down Westbrook, who killed Denver in more than one game in that series, all that much either. Ibaka still probably erases every shot at the rim. Bottom line, Melo trade or no the Nuggets probably still bow out in the first round in 2011. With no Melo trade though, Karl probably isn’t extended and more likely is let go two years before he actually was. The coaching options that year were about as good as the free agent class, headlined by the likes of Mark Jackson, Mike Brown and Rick Adelman. Who knows who the Nuggets would have hired, heck it might have even been Brian Shaw who just got snubbed by the Lakers in favor of Brown.
A new coach maybe has some impact but the rest is probably still going pretty similar to how it actually happened. Lawson takes over for Billups, Nene doesn’t last very much longer in a Nuggets uniform, Faried works his way into the starting rotation, Afflalo is still around. There’s a good chance the next starting lineup in the Melo era is Lawson/Afflalo/Melo/Faried/McGee and that lineup is probably still getting bounced in the first round more often than not. The big impact they could make is still going after Iguodala. That trade was actually the side portion of the bigger Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Dwight Howard to L.A. deal which was going to happen regardless of any Melo deals and the Nuggets used Afflalo and a future first rounder, which they still would have had, in the trade. It’s a decent bet Ujiri still chases Iguodala to shore up the perimeter defense and the Nuggets create a core around Melo, Iguodala, Lawson and Faried. This is where it gets really interesting. Does that team win 57 games, particularly if the coach isn’t Karl? Would they beat the Golden State Warriors dynasty while it was still in it’s infancy? Would they have even played them? After the season is over does Iguodala re-sign? What happens with Ujiri?
I tend to think a team built around Melo and Iguodala with Ujiri at the helm has a pretty darn good shot of competing. However, I don’t think Ujiri is at the helm after 2013 regardless of whether or not Melo is there. Masai wanted to go back to Toronto, Josh Kroenke was not going to come close to paying him what Toronto paid him. This is where it starts to fall apart in my estimation. The Nuggets didn’t actually have Time Connelly as their top choice to replace Ujiri, the man they wanted was already in house: Pete D’Alessandro. Pete would end up being part of that 2013 mass exodus that re-shaped this franchise forever when he took the job of Executive Vice President with the Sacramento Kings. He remarked at the time about wanting to build something of his own and maybe there wouldn’t have been that opportunity right off the bat in Denver (Kroenke played a big role in decision making immediately after Ujiri left, most notably in the hire of Brian Shaw) but I tend to think if the entire management structure and roster of the Nuggets wasn’t in complete flux Pete probably stays and takes over as top guy.
If you’re not aware of how Pete’s run in Sacramento goes, let’s just say not great. Ironically under the thumb of an even more controlling owner, D’Alessandro over turned pretty much the entire roster but was unsuccessful in executing a vision of a fast paced team around Demarcus Cousins. He notoriously clashed with a rookie coach by the name of Michael Malone, and failed to both bring in viable talent and retain his own viable talent. Pete ultimately just wasn’t that good at being the top guy, and it makes some sense when you consider his background. He’s not a scout who cut his teeth in high school and college gyms or in the stands of European leagues like Ujiri and Connelly. Pete was a numbers guy, a process guy, a lawyer with an affinity for sports who found his way in the business and came up through front offices by being the smart guy who runs the cap and analytics. He’s like Jonah Hill in Moneyball. It’s an absolutely valuable role to play in any NBA organization and Pete was one of the best at it, but I don’t think he finds any more success in Denver than he did in Sacramento as the lead decision maker for the franchise.
Which I think best case scenario leaves the Nuggets retaining Iguodala and running with that core group for a couple more seasons until 30 year old Melo’s deal expires in 2015. It’s not long after that before Melo began his decline from being one of the best players in the league. Iguodala quickly evolved into an elite role player rather than a franchise centerpiece. Maybe those guys win some playoff series together but are they really going to be better than those same Durant Thunder teams, or the Kawhi Leonard San Antonio Spurs? They certainly wouldn’t be at the same level as Golden State when they rose to prominence. Honestly I don’t think they make much noise in the playoffs at all, which brings me to my conclusion on this “What If” question .
If Carmelo Anthony doesn’t leave the Nuggets in 2011 what in all likelihood it means is a quicker exit for George Karl, perhaps a couple of playoff series wins and extra appearances but ultimately not much more. Tim Connelly never takes over as GM which also very likely means that Nikola Jokic is never drafted by Denver and that Michael Malone never becomes coach. In my opinion, it ultimately is nothing more than delaying an inevitable rebuild on the horizon and potentially leaving this franchise in a much worse position today. So if you’re angry about the way Melo left then you are certainly justified, but at the end of the day it actually was one of the best things to happen to this franchise.