The Melo Deal: How Denver Came out on Top

We’re nearing the end of the regular season, and everything has gone as expected. After a disgruntled Carmelo Anthony left Denver in hopes of making a super-team in New York with Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, the three have teamed up and destroyed opponents with their array of athleticism and high-volume scoring in a fashion similar to a different three-headed beast in South Beach. Meanwhile, the now lowly Denver Nuggets’ squad escaped with some Knick reserves and draft picks, hopeful to rebuild in the next few years in a power-loaded Western Conference.

That is what happened, right? (Looks at standings) Wait. How the [expletive] did this happen?

To New York fans’ surprise, the Knicks are only 10-12 since acquiring Anthony and Billups, dropping games to the likes of Cleveland—twice. Philadelphia recently passed New York to claim the sixth seed in the East, and the Knicks are only four games up on the Pacers for the seventh seed.

On the other side of the country—probably to just as much of the surprise of Knicks fans—the Denver Nuggets are 14-4 since dealing their two superstars. An 89-75 routing of Boston at home in the team’s first game with the new lineup seemed like a fluke to some, but now that the Nuggets have continued their unlikely success all the way into April, it’s time to answer the question no one seems to have the answer to:

How did the New York-Denver trade result in such a radical reversal of everyone’s expectations?

Let’s start with New York. The most popular reason for the Knicks’ downfall being thrown around today is that Melo is cracking under the new pressure of the Big Apple, and Stoudemire and Billups aren’t helping much as his supporting cast.

If this is true, Anthony’s stats sure aren’t showing it. His points per game have gone up (25.2 pre-trade to 26.2 post-trade) despite attempting fewer shots, his field goal percentage is identical at 45%, he is turning the ball over less (2.8 TOs per game pre-trade to 2.6 post-trade) despite playing more minutes and his three-point shot seems to have dramatically improved as he is making 1.6 threes per game at a 40% clip, up from .8 threes per game at a 33% clip in Denver.

If Melo isn’t the problem, then certainly Amare is to blame, right? His Boshian (see Miami @ Chicago on February 24) 6-20 shooting performance against Orlando on March 23—in which he started the game 2-16—shows that he’s been struggling since the arrival of Anthony and Billups, doesn’t it?

Well, no. That’s not it either. Even after a miserable shooting night in the Garden against Orlando, Stoudemire’s shooting percentage in March matches his average for the season (50%). His points per game only dropped about a point (25.5 on the season compared to 24.3 in March) despite becoming the clear second option to Anthony in D’Antoni’s new offense. He even turned the ball over fewer times in March (2.7) than his season average (3.3).

Without any notable struggles from Anthony or Stoudemire, that just leaves Billups. But even Chauncey’s numbers seem to be unaffected by the team swap. Points are up (16.5 in Denver to 18.7 in New York), assists are the same (5.3 in Denver to 5.5 in New York) and turnovers are the same (2.5 in Denver, 2.3 in New York). Truly, the only noticeable change in any of New York’s superstars has been Chauncey’s shooting percentage. His field goal percentage has dropped from 44% to 41% and his three-point percentage has dropped from 44% to 32%. However, to blame an entire team’s problems on one sharpshooter losing his stroke is a bit harsh, especially considering that Billups is making just as many threes per game in New York as in Denver (2.1) and that he is scoring more points per game.

Clearly, the problem with New York recently is not a lack of production from its superstars. The real problem can only be seen by actually watching the new-look Knicks play a game.

One definitive issue is the gaping hole in the middle for the Knicks. Ronny Turiaf would not earn a starting center spot on just about any other team in the NBA, and even he has injury issues. So, while Stoudemire’s blocks per game dropped down from 2.2 in February to 1.1 in March, Jarred Jeffries and Shelden Williams have been expected to fill Turiaf’s shoes on defense. Pair this issue with an aging Chauncey Billups at point who has trouble keeping up with quick guards, and you’re left with a recipe for disaster on defense.

New York’s defensive struggles become further plagued by Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense first, defense second mindset, which requires lots of depth and athleticism to work effectively—neither of which the Knicks have.

Despite all this, New York’s future still looks bright. They have the entire off-season to try to acquire a much-needed big man (and maybe Chris Paul in 2012?) and possibly find a new coach. However, there are too many issues with the current Knicks roster to ensure any success in the post-season this year.

Let’s move to the story in Denver.

After dealing its two biggest superstars, Denver obtained four young guns that the media reported as the equivalent of NBA scrap metal. But the truth is that Denver obtained the deepest team in the NBA.

Let’s read off some names: Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington, Ty Lawson, Kenyon Martin, Nene, and J.R. Smith. Of these players, which five make Denver’s starting lineup? Pretty hard, huh? George Karl obviously has a lot of options, and he distributes playing time pretty evenly among all of his players.

Even on an all-starless team, the Nuggets’ depth keeps them moving up in the West. Since the New York trade, Denver’s bench has averaged a ridiculous 43.9 points per game. Phoenix currently leads the league with 40.5 bench points per game, to put that into perspective.

Just look at the Nuggets’ 131-101 dismantling of the Pistons on March 12. Nine nuggets scored in double digits, Kenyon Martin was one point shy with nine points, and Gallinari and Afflalo didn’t even play. Did I forget to mention that the Nuggets have had injury problems as of late? You probably didn’t notice since they have ten players on their roster that would be in the starting lineups of half the teams in the NBA.

Currently holding the fifth seed in the West, don’t be surprised if Denver gives Oklahoma City a run for its money come playoff time. However, the post-season is a time when starters see inflated minutes on just about every team, and Denver’s starting five may not be able to match up against star-loaded teams in the West. Also, no team has ever made it to the NBA Championship without an all-star.

Still, Denver’s future looks just as bright as (if not brighter than) New York’s. Karl has plenty of young players that have the potential to emerge as superstars in the league, and if that happens then they could very well become the favorite in the West.

Ultimately, Denver signals the emergence of a new type of team in the NBA: a team that focuses on depth more than star power. With more and more teams like New York trying to mirror Miami’s strategy of buying out players with max contracts, the Nuggets’ success is a refreshing change showing that the underdogs can still come out on top in superstar trades.

Tim Kreutzfeldt

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