DENVER – Less than three weeks into the season, and already Carmelo Anthony(notes) is hearing people mention him as a leading MVP candidate. Around the NBA, they're talking about 'Melo's 30-point nights, about how his game has expanded, about how he's finally realizing his enormous potential.
Anthony laughs when he hears this. He's been a big-time scorer for years now. The difference isn't in his game. It's the perception of him that has changed.
Slowed by hand and elbow injuries, Carmelo Anthony was left off last season’s All-Star team.
All those first-round exits, all that off-the-court drama, finally have been pushed aside. These days, Anthony shines so bright that not even those old dark clouds can hide him.
"I don't think I'm doing anything different than I've done in the past," Anthony said in a recent phone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "I have no idea why everyone's surprised. I've been doing the same thing for six years. I don't know why people are acting like I just learned how to play this season."
Anthony scored plenty during his first five years in the NBA, but his long list of transgressions sometimes overshadowed his game. While LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) both advanced to the NBA Finals – and Wade even won a championship – Anthony couldn't get past the first round. Last season, Western Conference coaches showed their disrespect (or dislike) for Anthony by leaving him off the West All-Star team – even though his greatest sins were a broken right hand and sore elbow which limited his scoring.
Anthony healed enough to end his string of one-and-dones. With Chauncey Billups(notes) at his side, Anthony helped lead the Nuggets into the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1985, beating the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks along the way. The Nuggets pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the West finals before losing the series. Anthony ended his playoff run as one of the postseason's most dominant performers, averaging more than 27 points.
Anthony had always taken his first-round exits hard; after the Nuggets fell behind the San Antonio Spurs 3-1 in 2005, he cried at his locker for nearly 30 minutes. Still, that didn't compare to the disappointment Anthony felt after finishing two wins shy of last season's Finals.
"I was messed up," he said. "I got so close. … To come up so close and fall short? I kind of took that hard.
"I didn't have a chance to play with USA Basketball [last summer] so I had a lot of time to reflect on it. My goal at the end of the day is to win a championship. [The pain is] still in there. It never is going to go away."
Anthony will be reminded of that pain when the Nuggets play the Lakers on Friday for the first time since their meeting in the conference finals. The Nuggets have stated loudly that they believe they beat themselves more than the Lakers beat them.
"Don't get me wrong; they played extremely well," Anthony said. "They did the right things to win the whole thing. But in my eyes and our eyes, it basically came down to a couple plays. And that's how we look at it. We were right there. We were going back and forth with them. Some minor things happened, which happen sometimes. We just learned from that experience."
After reaching the conference finals, respect has since been hard to come by for the Nuggets. The Lakers signed Ron Artest(notes), the Spurs added Richard Jefferson(notes) and Antonio McDyess(notes). Dallas brought in Shawn Marion(notes). The Portland Trail Blazers landed Andre Miller(notes).
They drafted point guard Ty Lawson(notes), then were criticized for letting that stand as their most significant offseason acquisition. In the meantime, they lost guard Dahntay Jones(notes) and key forward Linas Kleiza(notes).
Said Anthony: "People were saying in so many words that our season was a fluke."
Anthony found motivation in the skepticism and reported to training camp weighing a svelte 228 pounds. He topped 40 points in two of the Nuggets' first three games and is averaging 30.2 for the season. His aggressiveness also has been rewarded – he's averaging just under 12 free-throw attempts per game. Most important, he feels healthy and refreshed.
His goal now is to get past the Lakers and take the Nuggets to the Finals.
"For me, all the pressure would go off," Anthony said. "It would mean a lot. I was part of the rebuilding process. I came in when we won only 17 games the year before. I was part of that squad that turned everything around.
"My main goal is for the team to be successful. It's not like I'm going into this like I want to be MVP, I want to do this, I want to do that. No. When we win, everybody can shine."
Homecoming in New Orleans?
As soon as Byron Scott’s firing from the New Orleans Hornets appeared imminent, Avery Johnson’s name quickly surfaced as a possible replacement. Johnson is beloved in his hometown in New Orleans and remains one of the most successful coaches available. He also is a former point guard, which could help him connect with Hornets star Chris Paul(notes).
Johnson, however, hasn’t heard from the Hornets and he doesn’t expect to for the remainder of the season. Hornets general manager Jeff Bower replaced Scott and the team said it has no current plans to search for another coach. Still, Bower also isn’t looking past this season.
Would A.J. be interested if the Hornets did call?
“I’m always concerned with the city of New Orleans, whatever it is,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “The Saints. The Hornets. The rebuilding of New Orleans. Anything that concerns New Orleans I’m concerned with it. So in this situation, I just hope for the best.”
Avery Johnson was the NBA's Coach of the Year in 2006.
Johnson, who is working as an analyst for ESPN, is one of the New Orleans’ favorite sons after playing on St. Augustine High School’s 1983 state championship team then going on to lead the nation in assists at Southern University. The “Lil’ General” went from being an undrafted NBA player to enjoying a 15-year career that included a 1999 championship with the San Antonio Spurs.
Johnson went 194-70 as the Dallas Mavericks’ head coach in three-plus seasons before the team fired him on April 30, 2008. He was named Coach of the Year in 2006, the same season he helped guide the Mavs to the NBA Finals, where they blew a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat. He has been a candidate for recent openings in Detroit and Memphis.
Johnson’s TV contract lasts through this season, and he said he’d love to return to coaching at the right time or maybe take a front-office role with some team.
“I miss coaching. I miss managing. I miss leading. I miss the interaction with players and fans and even referees,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he felt bad for Scott, who guided the Hornets within a game of the 2008 Western Conference finals.
“Byron was just Coach of the Year. What happened to Byron is what happened to Doc Rivers and what happened to me,” Johnson said. “You’re Coach of the Year one year and then you’re fired the next year or two. That’s what happens in our business.”
Johnson doesn’t have a personal relationship with Hornets owner George Shinn. But if the Hornets do call after the season, Johnson will listen.
“Then we’ll have to look at it,” Johnson said. “There is not one situation that has come across my desk that I’m not going to take a look at.”
Frank safe in New Jersey
With Byron Scott fired in New Orleans, New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank would seem to be close to following his old boss in the unemployment line. Frank’s job status was in question at the end of last season, and the Nets entered Friday as the NBA’s only winless team with an 0-8 record.
NBA sources, however, continue to insist that Frank is safe for now. The Nets’ roster has been shredded by injuries, most recently leaving them with only eight players, just one of whom – center Brook Lopez(notes) – was projected to be a regular starter. All-Star point guard Devin Harris(notes) has played in only two games because of a strained right groin, starting small forward Chris Douglas-Roberts(notes) has recently been sidelined with the H1NA virus, power forward Yi Jianlian(notes) is out with a sprained right knee and shooting guard Courtney Lee(notes) has missed the past two games because of a groin strain.
Expectations also were already low for the Nets, who were facing a rebuilding season after trading forward Vince Carter(notes) to Orlando in June. Three of the Nets’ eight losses were by three points or less.
Worried about Iverson
The Memphis Grizzlies gave Iverson an indefinite leave of absence to attend to some personal issues, but most people close to the guard don’t expect him to return to the team after he repeatedly expressed frustration about his reserve role. While Anthony has talked to Iverson on the phone recently, he says he doesn’t know Iverson’s future plans.
“It’s a tough situation for him, man,” Anthony said. “I had a chance to talk to him (when Memphis played at Denver on Nov. 1), and we sat down in the locker room for a long time and we just chopped it up. It’s a tough situation for him. I hate to see him go out the way he is going out.”
Kaman rebounds for Clippers
Chris Kaman missed 31 games last year.
Kaman averaged 12 points and eight rebounds last season while injuries limited him to 31 games. He entered Friday averaging a career-high 21.9 points with 9.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy says the big difference is Kaman’s shooting. As in, he’s actually shooting.
“He’s always had this kind of mentality that I can’t get too many shots or I need to get closer to the basket,” Dunleavy said. “If you saw him from the time he came in, he had the ability to shoot left-handed 3-pointers and make them with a stroke that looks gorgeous. But for ever he’d get the ball and say, ‘I got to get the ball on the floor, and hopefully I can get closer to try and score.’
“We are always like, ‘Just shoot it. Go left, go right and go score. If you’re outside and you got a good open look, go shoot it.’ He’s just doing that more.”
One NBA general manager says he expects the Cleveland Cavaliers to eventually find a way to acquire Golden State Warriors forward Stephen Jackson(notes), though a third team might need to be involved. One Warrior who doesn’t want to see Jackson leave: guard Monta Ellis(notes). “Right now he's with us still, and he's still a part of this team,” Ellis said. “He can still put up numbers and still can help us win. So that's all I'm focused on." Ellis also doesn’t find Jackson’s ongoing trade saga to be a distraction. “I block it out,” he said. “I don't read the paper. It's garbage to me." …Mike Dunleavy thinks his son, Indiana Pacers swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr., probably tried to return too soon from his knee injury. “They thought it would be opening day with the way he was playing and things like that and what he was doing,” the Clippers coach said. “But it’s the same type of thing. He probably rushed it, and did a little bit too much. He was frustrated when the setback happened, but he gets it.” … Two NBA scouts said heralded Mississippi State freshman forward Renardo Sidney, a 2009 Parade All-American, is hurting his chances of being a top prospect in the coming NBA draft. “He’s been way overweight for like a year now,” one scout said. The Bulldogs’ web site lists the 19-year-old at 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds. The NCAA also is investigating Sidney’s amateur status and has yet to clear him to play. …Every year there is confusion as to which players make the All-Star ballot and which don’t. Three things to consider: Each team must have three players on the ballot; last season’s statistics are heavily factored in the selection process; and the ballot is chosen early in the preseason, making it more difficult to judge rookies and young players.