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Last Shot: The complete Carmelo

Maybe it was Carmelo Anthony's time with Team USA over the summer that started him thinking about the way people perceived him as a player. He had seen Kobe Bryant go to his coach in the FIBA Americas tournament and ask to be assigned to every opponent's top scorer. Anthony understood this was Bryant's way of taking leadership for the Americans, that it was his way of challenging his teammates to rise with him.

Until then, Anthony thought no one had ever considered his own talent beyond a peerless ability to make baskets.

"I never want anyone to just limit me as one of the best offensive players in the game," Anthony said. "When you think of me, I want you to think of the total package."

So, Anthony has returned to the Denver Nuggets insisting that the franchise's fresh resolve to defense begins with him. These days, the Nuggets are desperate for that transformation. They swaggered into the season promising Western Conference contention, and suddenly they've lost three straight games, including Wednesday's 119-93 defeat to Boston when they once trailed by 39 points.

A Western Conference scout talked about the difference between the Indiana Pacers under new coach Jim O'Brien, who's 3-1 to start the season, and the deposed Rick Carlisle.

"I think Arenas said something about how the Pacers looked like robots last year, and he's right," the scout said. "With technology now, we now have every play, every verbal, every hand signal and you've got to bring something a little different every night. O'Brien is doing that. I think he's got Mike Dunleavy playing the best basketball of his career, and you can really see how the parts there are fitting his style. The experts could be wrong on this team."

Just before Tuesday night's late collapse against New York, Anthony said, "You mention all the top teams in the West and you should mention us." Now, Denver has lost Nene for six weeks with a thumb injury, just as it's trying to work Kenyon Martin back from microfracture knee surgery. The Nuggets need to find themselves in the unforgiving Western Conference, and ultimately it'll take Anthony and Allen Iverson to work them out of this mess.

"We haven't had any problems," Anthony said. "When he got here, everyone was saying, 'It wasn't going to work. Who's going to take the shots?' None of that stuff has happened. I think any two great players can do it. That's what makes them great."

In a lot of ways, Anthony has been determined to remake himself since last December, when a sucker punch thrown at the Knicks' Mardy Collins cost him a 15-game suspension. He was still second in the league at 28.9 points per game, but his season was clouded by the brawl at Madison Square Garden. "For people to say that I didn't have a great season, I sit back and laugh at that," Anthony said.

With the way the Nuggets have surrounded him with talent, much more is expected of him. So, much of the burden of the Iverson-Anthony partnership falls on him because, make no mistake, these Nuggets belong to Anthony. He's the star on his way into his prime, the way Iverson is starting to slide out of his.

For those two, Anthony said, the next step is "just being leaders."

"We all know we can put the ball in the hole, and we all know that, when we want to, we can stop any team in the NBA," he said. "I think the overall thing is being a leader."

The Nuggets have shown they can outscore any team in the league, but stop them? Not yet. Yes, Denver has the defending Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Camby, but George Karl is so right when he says that it was most important that Anthony returned this season determined to play defense.

"He surprised us with his enthusiasm to do this," Karl said. "He's done everything we asked – and more."

Anthony has played the part of the class clown, behaving downright immaturely at times. However, he's smart and he cares and those within Team USA witnessed a dramatic transformation with him over the summer. Anthony could see the way that Bryant and Jason Kidd played for the Americans, the way they led with much more deed than word, and it resonated with him. He's the best pure scorer in the sport. He thinks he can be more, and he's right. Carmelo Anthony can be it all.


1. Marc Cornstein, the agent for the Cleveland Cavaliers' Sasha Pavlovic, ended months of contentious negotiations with general manager Danny Ferry and agreed on a three-year, $13.75 million contract for his client this week. Around the league, executives are taking tougher stands on paying restricted free agents and nowhere has it played out as dramatically as Cleveland.

"The way the system is right now is very flawed," Cornstein said.

Unlike agent Dan Fegan's negotiations with forward Anderson Varejao, there was never a sense that the Cavaliers and Pavlovic were hopelessly apart on a deal. Nevertheless, talks dragged into the first week of the season before Pavlovic re-signed with Cleveland. Cornstein understands teams can stick it to restricted free agents these days, but he wonders how those hurt feelings will bear out with team chemistry.

The Milwaukee Bucks let Mo Williams and Charlie Bell get offer sheets from the Miami Heat before matching, but most teams in the league believe it's a waste of time to overbid on these players. If they're really good, they expect the old team will match and keep the player. Even so, few franchises have salary cap space to overpay, and many more are reluctant to give out full mid-level exceptions anymore.

"There are two approaches to restricted free agency now," said Cornstein, a New York-based agent whose clients include the Memphis Grizzlies' Darko Milicic and the New Jersey Nets' Nenad Krstic. "You can handle it like Detroit did with Amir Johnson (three years, $11 million) and not really be concerned with the other 29 teams and say, 'We like our young player, and we'll take care of him within our budget and treat him like an unrestricted free agent.

"Or the second approach, which is we're not going to make an offer, or have any real discussions until the market bears itself out. Then we will try to scare off all those other teams from making an offer sheet – which just every team with a restricted free agent was able to do. We'll negotiate from a position of power knowing that there's really not another team the player can turn to.

"I think this is the prevalent thinking for most teams' management now."

The Cavaliers have struggled to a 2-3 start with Pavlovic joining them late and Varejao still being unsigned. LeBron James has been seething over the Cavs' inability to get his two teammates into camp – never mind the fact that Ferry was unable to improve the team over the summer. Most GMs will tell you that they believe players get past hard feelings over difficult contact talks fairly quickly, and good teammates are good teammates in the long run.

Still, Cornstein is curious.

"I think how Cleveland does this year could impact other teams' thinking for the future," Cornstein said. "If they're really struggling, and Varejao is not signed, teams will probably look at that and think, 'God, this is really a disastrous situation. Yes, they're saving money on the bottom line, but they took a team that went to the NBA finals and put it in disarray."

2. Between now and the 2008 NBA draft, how many more times must we listen to USC coach Tim Floyd tell the story nobody in the sport believes about how O.J. Mayo, unprompted, just picked up the telephone and called him about playing for the Trojans.

Stop it, please. First of all, Mayo is tied closely to Los Angeles "promoter" Rodney Guillory, who has gotten other former California college basketball players in trouble with the NCAA. In a year, Mayo will be in the pros, and no one will care how he got to USC. Still, there are no accidents in big-time recruiting, especially with monumental talents like Mayo.

The only thing more ridiculous than the idea Floyd keeps floating about Mayo just showing up at USC?

It has to be the one that John Calipari keeps telling about how he urged Dajuan Wagner to leave school after his freshman year in 2002. Coach Life Skills keeps telling that myth because he's insisting he'll do the same thing with freshman star Derrick Rose next spring. The difference is, Wagner had only gotten the University of Memphis and Calipari to the NIT Final Four, and maybe this year, Rose gets Cal to the NCAA Final Four.

If so, Cal will be thinking that he can finally get back into the NBA with the kid.

3. Here I am, thumbing through a national magazine, and Pony is declaring its re-entrance into the sneakers wars with a splashy full-page ad selling a new pitchman.

Wilson Chandler?

He wasn't even a star in the Big East at DePaul before declaring for the 2007 draft, and now he's buried on the Knicks' bench for the foreseeable future. Who's going to buy a shoe because his name's on it? His agent, Chris Grier? Well, give him this: His only bigger accomplishment than selling Knicks scout Rodney Heard and Isiah Thomas on his client had to be pitching Pony, too. Perhaps Pony should've brought back Darryl Dawkins (if there are even 10 kids who remember "Chocolate Thunder.")

4. Tyson Chandler was the 12th man on Team USA in Las Vegas, but perhaps no player left the summer feeling like his experience was responsible for such a dramatic boost in his belief. The New Orleans Hornets have won four of five to start the season, and so much of the success goes to the remarkable resurgence of the 7-footer's career.

After leading the league in rebounding a year ago, Chandler found his daily work against Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire was a boon to his belief. "When you're making moves on guys like that every day in practice, and they're working, you start to think they'll work on the rest of the league, too," said Chandler, who's averaging 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds for New Orleans.

"A different player," Hornets coach Byron Scott said in training camp.

5. Listen, David Stern can rip Seattle political officials forever, but no one's intelligence should be insulted into believing that Clay Bennett ever intended to do anything with the Seattle Sonics but move them back to his hometown of Oklahoma City.

For goodness sakes, one of his partners came out and admitted it. Right now, the Sonics are in shambles. Wherever they play, it'll be a long time until they'll have the talent to support Kevin Durant. P.J. Carlesimo needs a lot of patience from a management team that has given him a complete mess.

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