This is the third time I have tried writing this post and my mind is still a jumble of confusion. Probably even more so than the first time I tried writing it.

At this point all I know are these two things.

1. Carmelo Anthony is probably the most gifted player to ever wear a Denver Nuggets uniform.

2. I believe Melo regressed last season.

I am sure there are a large number of Nugget fans who would argue both of those points with me, but I honestly believe both are true.

To me the fact that they are both true is vexing and I am not sure how to explain why.

I guess I can sum it up by saying if Melo is the most gifted Denver Nugget ever, he still has a great deal of potential left just waiting to be tapped. On the other hand, because of his performance last season, it seems as if he has been knocked off the track leading him to his potential. It is clearly not out of reach, but instead of simply following the track he was on he now has a more difficult path to traverse.

It might be easy to look at the numbers Melo put up and the honors he received and label last season a success. He was voted in as a starter in the All-Star game, was fourth in the league in scoring, easily set a new career high in rebounds in addition to career highs in field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage plus he helped lead the Nuggets to their first 50 win season in 20 years.

However, the numbers and accolades can be misleading.

The one impressive aspect of his game last year was the rebounding. When the boost in production came about made it even more pleasant. While mired in an early season shooting slump Melo realized that even though he was not scoring, he still needed to find ways to help the team win. You could see the switch simply went on against New Orleans during a 10-28 shooting performance and he began aggressively crashing the boards. What followed was a string of double digit rebounding games. He averaged 4.9 rebounds a game in November, but boosted that average to 9.1 for December.

The rebounding was a nice, although overdue, development. On the flip side there are a couple of reasons why I believe Melo took a step back last season with the primary one being his conditioning. Melo was in great shape heading into the 2006-2007 season. He had dropped a lot of the baby fat that was found around his midsection and it showed in his quickness and explosiveness. There was a physical difference between the Melo of November 2006 and the Melo of November 2007 and I do not know why.

Why come into the season in great shape one season, enjoy the obvious benefits and not carry that same level of commitment into the next offseason? Did he think his perimeter game would carry him? Did he decide the extra work was not worth it? Did he expect AI to carry the load? None of those are encouraging options for Nugget fans.

In case you do not remember what a force Melo was at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season let me remind you. He was as explosive and threatening as almost any small forward has ever been. Up until the fracas in the Garden Melo was averaging 31.6 points a game and shooting 50.4% from the field and he had accomplished that over 22 games, slightly over one quarter of the season. It was no flash in the pan.

Unfortunately, Nuggets fans have not seen that Melo since the suspension. He has been impressive over small stretches, such as last April, cough…before the playoffs…cough, cough, but he has not been the dominant force that he was two seasons ago.

The other noticeable difference in Carmelo’s game last season was he became more perimeter oriented. He settled for his jumper far too often. In his defense, he did improve his midrange shooting last season, and shot a career high 49.2%, but his overdependence on the outside shot hurt the overall offense and made him easier to guard.

According to in 2006-2007 57% of Melo’s shots were jump shots. That percentage rose to 62% last season. A five percent swing in where he takes his shots is not necessarily significant on its own, but if you look at the points he scored on “close” shots and you see it dropped from 12.2 in 2006-2007 to only 9.9 in 2007-2008. Conversely, his points on jumpers increased, but only by half a point. To put that all in perspective, Melo’s scoring average dropped from 28.9 to 25.7 and the drop off can be found in two places, his points on close shots and at the free throw line where he attempted one fewer free throw per game last season than he did on 2006-2007.

I think the decrease in scoring and in his desire to become slightly more perimeter oriented is directly related to his conditioning. I believe Melo settled for the outside shot more frequently because he was not able to beat defenders off the dribble or with his quickness in the post as easily as he did in the past because he was carrying a few extra pounds. The most jarring example of that was a game in Portland where Martell Webster was able to stay in front of Melo on more than one occasion.

His conditioning and shot selection bothered me, but if Carmelo never improves on his offensive performance from last season, which was still pretty good, it will be fine with me as long as he decides to play defense. What is keeping him out of the pantheon of MVP caliber players is not his offense, but his obvious lack of desire on defense.

Entering the season Carmelo stated that he wanted to improve his defense and if I remember correctly even broke out the I want to guard the other team’s top scorer bit. In the playoffs when the Nuggets were facing Kobe Bryant one of the best options for Denver would have been to have Melo guard the regular season MVP. However, it was painfully clear throughout the series that Melo wanted no part of that assignment.

Despite the preseason bravado in 2007-2008 Carmelo’s defense was as bad as ever. All it takes is simple focus to keep from losing track of your man or making the right rotation and Melo consistently showed that he lacked that focus. I have no idea what it will take in order to get that basic level of effort out of him. George Karl has promised to be tougher on the players next season. Will he sit Melo, or anyone else, down if they are not putting forth the effort they need to on defense? I have to wonder if he will because he has not done that since his first half season in Denver. (By the way, did anyone notice that the Nuggets played their best under Karl right after he got here, when they knew the consequences of not playing smart or not playing hard would get them benched? Hmmm…)

There is a larger issue at stake here other than Melo’s lackadaisical defense. Because Melo only plays hard on one half of the floor he cannot be a true leader on the court. There is no way to call a teammate out for poor effort on defense when you do not do it yourself. In fact, there is no single player on this team who does what it takes on both ends of the court in order to be a leader. There is a big void on this team when it comes to on court leadership. There is no one who can or will get everyone together and say we need a stop right now and if you screw up you will be accountable to me, or we need to get the ball in my hands right now and I may not score, but if I don’t I will make sure one of you do.

When Allen Iverson was traded to Denver he said it was Carmelo’s team and I think AI really wanted it to be Melo’s team too, but Melo just did not seize the reins.

(The whole thing makes me think of the movie Braveheart. When AI came onboard and basically said that he would follow Melo it was similar to the scene where William Wallace told Robert the Bruce that he would follow him. It really shocked The Bruce that Wallace would say that and he was not ready to be a leader both mentally and emotionally. In the end The Bruce did not step into his proper place of leadership, actually joining the British at one point, until Wallace was dead. Perhaps Melo was too young and overwhelmed to be the vocal on the court leader of this team when AI came on board and it may take AI getting whacked, although hopefully not drawn and quartered, to push Melo to the leadership role he should be filling.)

This all begs the question that has been asked all over the radio, the internet and the papers that has been my ultimate source of confusion.

Should the Nuggets trade Melo?

Despite what you have just spent the past five or ten minutes reading I say no way, not now and there are several reasons for that.

One guideline I follow in these situations is to avoid selling low at all costs. As high as Melo’s stock is right now, it really has never been lower since his rookie season. Other teams are hoping Denver will part with him just because they came off of a playoff sweep where Melo played rather poorly. Doing what other teams hope you will do is generally not a good business model.

I want to see how Melo responds to getting swept by the Lakers. As pointed out earlier, two years ago Melo worked his butt off in the offseason and was absolutely demolishing teams before his suspension. If Melo is ever going to come back into camp in that kind of shape again, it has to be next season. If he does, it will only mean good things for the Nuggets. If he does not, then it may be time to start seriously exploring some trade options.

Another reason not to trade Melo, and I hate using this excuse, but Melo is only 24 and who knows what kind of arc his career will take. I do not care how old these guys are, they are professionals and I expect them to conduct themselves as such, but there is also truth in the belief that it takes players time to figure things out. Michael Jordan was the best player in the league, but he did not become a champion until he started relying on his teammates.

With the Celtics in the finals there have been numerous comparisons between Carmelo and Paul Pierce during the playoffs. The underlying assumption is Pierce put it all together and has led the mythic Boston Celtics to their 17th championship. Thus the conclusion is with Melo being at least Pierce’s equal in talent it is only a matter of time before he reaches that championship level (for now, let’s forget about the whole Pierce wanting to guard Kobe and Melo wanting to guard Vladimir Radmanovic).

There is no guarantee that Melo will ever figure out what he has to do in order to be a winner in the playoffs. There is even less of a guarantee that once he figures it out that he actually does it. Nonetheless I am going to give him at least one more chance to prove that he has it in him to both figure it out and raise his performance accordingly.

So, if Joe Dumars calls again wondering about working something out for Melo, I would listen, but that is about it. If someday it becomes apparent to the Nuggets that it is in their best interest to trade Melo they will have plenty of time to work something out.

After all, he is only 24.

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