Part IV: They Did Chauncey Dirty

The Nuggets started the 2009-10 season very impressively. For example:

They seemed to pick up right where they’d left off at their peak the prior season, and were right on the hated Lakers’ heels in the standings all the way into the All Star Break.

And speaking of the All Star game that year… George Karl ended up being named the coach for the Western Conference team. That honor would usually have gone to Phil Jackson, whose hated Lakers were in first place at the time, but there’s a rule saying that the same coach can’t do it two seasons in a row, so the honor went to Karl. Steve Nash, then of the Phoenix Suns, was one of the All Star guards. I’ll never forget this: he talked to Karl during a practice, and afterwards walked around bewildered, saying to people “Did you know that the Nuggets don’t have any inbounds pass plays?!?” Yes, that’s right – EVEN AFTER WHAT HAPPENED IN THE 2009 WCF, Karl still didn’t see fit to draw up any inbounds pass plays.

The All Star break ended, and then NuggLife reared its head again. Suddenly the news came along in February that Coach Karl had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He handed the reins to assistant Adrian Dantley and went into treatment. I remember seeing a report about it where the entire team was shown gathered around him, their heads sunk solemnly.

Just to add more NuggLife to the NuggLife, in March Kenyon Martin started complaining of horrible pain in his knees, and went on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Suddenly the Nuggets had only two capable big men in the rotation, Nene and Andersen. If only Issel hadn’t locked McDyess’s friends out in a blizzard that night. And then there was the fact that they’d passed up on DeJuan Blair in the draft, and the Spurs were making great use of him instead. At some point, I thought about this and wondered if Vince McMahon had a point the year before, during the whole WWE event scheduling fiasco. Was it true that Stan Kroenke didn’t believe in this team? Was it his actual plan to just put a semi-competitive product on the floor? Was 50 wins and a first round playoff loss all he wanted?

Then somehow, after all the medical tragedy, JR Smith saw fit to pull an April Fool’s prank on Martin and fill his SUV with buttered popcorn. Martin was furious to see how the white interior of the vehicle was ruined, and was on the verge of physical violence.

By the time the season ended, the Nuggets had fallen from second to fourth place. Tim Legler assessed them in a playoff preview by saying “They’re leaking oil.” They lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round in six games. I have a memory of Birdman limping off the court at some point, leaving the Nuggets with hardly any capable front court players. Deron Williams flopped all over the place and seemed to be laughing at the free throw line along with his teammates at how easy it was. The hated Lakers ended up beating the Celtics for the title that year. Those two teams, again? I can’t believe anybody bothered to watch. Who cares?

It was during the press conferences following the game 6 loss to the Jazz when Anthony uttered a familiar sounding refrain. He couldn’t go out there and win a playoff series all by himself. “I need some help.” Superstar players in recent memory had liked using that phrase as a prelude to jumping ship. That was another thing to worry about, after Karl’s cancer and Martin’s knees. This was a particularly dark period of NuggLife.

But we got our hopes up again for the following season. Karl returned. Martin remained on injured reserve. It was hard to know how the season might go. The team offered Carmelo Anthony a maximum contract extension, and he didn’t sign it. The “Melodrama” was underway.

I still remember seeing him at a press conference being asked if he was planning to sign the extension at any point, and this sort of sheepish grin spread across his face and he dodged the question. The many months that followed were agonizing and divisive for Nuggets fans. Some thought the team hadn’t done right by him, so it was only natural that he wanted out. Others felt betrayed. I was in the latter camp. I continue to hope that someday, someone will write a book about the whole affair. Someone who can get multiple parties to talk freely about everything that happened behind closed doors. Someone who can interview Anthony, Masai Ujiri, LaLa Vasquez, representatives from the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets, and so on.

For the first stretch of the season, there was still some hope that Anthony would sign the extension and stay in Denver. He wasn’t definitively saying he wouldn’t. A major complication of the situation was the fact that he’d be sacrificing millions of dollars if he became a free agent. The only way he could maximize his earnings would be to sign the extension, so if he was set against staying with the Nuggets, he’d need an extend-and-trade. All the chatter was that he wanted to return to the east coast, where he had roots. (He grew up in west Baltimore, but somehow the Washington Wizards never came up in any discussions.) I recall some interview where he was asked about the possibility of playing in New York, and he answered something like “Oh man, of course I’d love to go home…”

Just the season before, LeBron James and Chris Bosh worked their way to join Dwayne Wade in the glitzy coastal market of Miami. We’d suffered through two consecutive championships by the hated Lakers. And now our superstar seemed to have eyes on New York City. There was a lot of hand-wringing over the difficulty of being an unglamorous mid-to-small market team. The San Antonio Spurs had the incredible, dumb, dumb luck of landing Tim Duncan, a dominating superstar who was humble and loyal, and unconcerned with the bright lights of the flashy markets. It seemed like if your flyover market team wasn’t that lucky, then too bad for you. Gosh, imagine the ratings if the Heat and hated Lakers end up facing each other in the Finals!

Rumors kept springing up for many weeks about what kind of package the Nets might come up with, versus what the Knicks could offer. We were wondering if we’d end up with Derrick Favors. LaLa made some remark about “Well, at the end of the day, maybe the best choice is to just stay right where you are,” but many Nuggets fans suspected that she was a driving force behind the desire for a trade, so that she could be in a better market for her television pursuits.

Finally, the All Star break came along, with the trade deadline impending. At one point during the telecast of the game, Anthony was interviewed, with his good friend Kobe Bryant sitting next to him. He was asked what was coming up for the Nuggets, and he grinned and said “I think we’re playing Cleveland next?” and Bryant intruded on the interview and said Anthony should be left alone and not bothered with any questions about a possible trade, because “big brother said so!” At another point Bryant was asked to weigh in about Anthony’s situation – this was after the trade – and he said of the Nuggets’ predicament, “It’s not about market. It’s about making good business decisions.” This, from someone who’d advised other teams not to draft him, because he was set on playing for the hated Lakers. And the Nuggets’ GM Mark Warkentein had just won the Executive of the Year award in 2009. And Ujiri was going to win it the following season. But otherwise, sure, whatever you say.


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The trade was finally announced, and it was off to Madison Square Garden with Carmelo Anthony, who was given a friendly greeting on the internet by one of the Beastie Boys, who welcomed him back to New York and asked him to put in more effort on defense. I might’ve felt some relief that the whole saga was finally over, but it turned out that Chauncey Billups was being sent to the Knicks as well. It seemed like he’d hoped to finish his career in Denver, and it was reported that he cleared out his locker and departed the facility without saying a word, looking terribly unhappy. “They did Chauncey dirty,” reported Jeff Morton of Denver Stiffs. (Make sure to read this recent piece by Jeff regarding a current perspective on these events )

Ujiri explained to the press that the decision to include Billups pained him, but he’d been working feverishly on the trade all season long, and the only way to make it work to the Nuggets’ advantage “was to make the trade bigger.” It certainly was a big trade. There are trees out there to describe it (here’s a particularly good one). It included a couple of draft pick swaps and a bunch of players, several of them actual starters for the Knicks: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Kosta Koufos, and Timofey Mozgov. Suddenly, just like that, right in the middle of a season, a new Nuggets era was beginning.

March 18, 2011; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Austin Daye (5) shoots over New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) and guard Chauncey Billups (4) during the third quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

I hoped the new guys might be worth something, but even more, I hoped Billups wasn’t mad at us Nuggets fans.