SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was enjoying the last bit of his shrimp salad during a recent off night on the road when some news from the evening's NBA games piqued his interest.
“ 'Melo gets one point in 29 minutes?" Karl said. "Did he ever get zero in Denver?”
The answer was no. Carmelo Anthony had scored just one point – a career low – in his New York Knicks' victory over the Charlotte Bobcats that night. Karl and the Nuggets had seen Anthony two days earlier when Denver won in double overtime in New York, but the reunion was brief and there was little closure between the two parties.
Nearly a year after the Nuggets traded Anthony to the Knicks, the All-Star forward and his former franchise remain linked. Nor will the comparisons between the Knicks and Nuggets end anytime soon. Though Anthony's trade was supposed to push the Nuggets into a major rebuild, it appears to have instead liberated them, perhaps no one more than their coach.
Karl says these Nuggets are a lot easier to coach than his previous teams. In fact, he's enjoying coaching as much as he ever has.
“We were on 2½ hours of practice killing them [in training camp], just killing them,” Karl said. “Never heard one moment of bitching. Not one word of complaining, just, 'What coach wants, that’s what we are doing.' After six years, we always did something wrong with the old crew.
"It was refreshing but also motivating.”
It's shown. The Nuggets have had one of the Western Conference's best records for much of the season and have beaten some of league's elite, including the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers. Their roster has proven to be deep and balanced: Six players are averaging double figures in scoring.
After the Nuggets sent Anthony, Chauncey Billups and other pieces to the Knicks in a 13-player trade that brought them forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, guard Raymond Felton and centers Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos, two other pieces of Denver's core group – Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith – left in free agency to sign with Chinese teams. Felton was traded in the offseason for veteran point guard Andre Miller, a favorite of Karl's. The Nuggets also could re-sign Chandler once he's free from his team in China.
“We play the right way," said center Nene, who re-signed in the offseason. "We play like a team.”
Karl and many of the players are just glad to be rid of the daily trade speculation that hung over the team last season after Anthony told Nuggets officials he wanted to be moved.
"I don’t think it was stressful as much as it didn’t have a lot of reason," Karl said of the constant questioning the Nuggets faced. " Why are we doing this every day? It’s Ground Hog Day. OK, the same press conference we had yesterday, just different faces.' It wore on the players a lot."
Karl knew the trade was inevitable and prepped guards Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo to be ready for bigger roles once the deal was completed. Somehow, Karl kept the Nuggets winning through it all – and also kept Anthony engaged.
“He did an amazing job,” Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri said. “At one point he was almost doing too good of a job. The credit goes to the players, too. But credit George for getting guys motivated to play.”
The Nuggets closed last season 18-7 before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round of the playoffs. While the Thunder had All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to lean on and make free throws in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets missed their old closers: Anthony and Billups. Meanwhile, Anthony and the Knicks were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round after Billups missed all but the first game with a knee injury.
“Last year if you take the Oklahoma City game film and cut out free throws, I don’t care what you say, but it’s an even match,” Karl said. “They make the fourth-quarter plays, but they also get two calls in two-point games that, if we get those calls, it can easily be a six- or seven-game series.”
Gallinari, who was given a four-year, $42 million contract extension last month, has emerged as the Nuggets' leading scorer. Still, it remains to be seen in the playoffs if Denver will again miss Anthony's ability to take over in the closing moments of a tight game. Karl admits the Nuggets lack a "stud closer," but he's also tired of answering questions whether that's bad for the team.
“Why not run the play through the best matchup through your hottest player?” Karl said. “Why not do it with more than one guy? If you don’t know where you’re going to go, it's probably difficult for [the other team] to cover it. And, statistically, closers aren’t great. They’re all about the same – but 'Melo was pretty good at it, don’t get me wrong.”
Anthony's chance to return to Denver with the Knicks this season was cut by the NBA's lockout-shortened schedule. He told Yahoo! Sports in late December that he'd grown tired of Karl saying "crazy stuff" and insinuating the Nuggets were better off without him.
When the Nuggets visited New York on Jan. 21, Anthony sought out Karl in the visiting locker room before the game. The two hadn't spoken since the trade. Karl called the discussion "good," but said the two would benefit more from talking in the offseason. He said he might meet Anthony in Las Vegas this summer for dinner during Team USA's Olympic training camp.
“When it first started, I was like, ‘What are we going to talk about?’ ” Karl said of their Jan. 21 meeting. “He mentioned that we hadn’t talked and he wanted to get things on the table.
"I said, " ‘Melo, in times like this when it’s so emotional, sometimes it’s good to wait. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. It’s a he-said, she-said thing. I don’t know what you’re really thinking. I’m not going to trust what’s in the paper. I respect you. You’re the best scorer I ever coached. What you did [in Denver] before I got here, and what we did once we got together, is a pretty good run. It doesn’t have a lot of playoff success, but it has a lot of good basketball.’ ”
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis may be turning into the nation's best player
• Ball Don't Lie: Tim Duncan wears a pretty cool Punisher knee brace
• Tom Brady almost played catcher for the Montreal Expos