[Note: Originally Posted 04-28-2009 at 04:08 AM by DenButsu]
As a caveat, please forgive me in advance if my musings on this tend to ramble a little. After imbibing in the spirits of a little post-game celebratory action, I might be less than linear in stating my case.
But I do think there is a legitimate case to be made, or at least the foundation of one slowly coming into visibility and taking form as the Denver Nuggets play out the first round of the playoffs against the New Orleans Hornets. We are finally starting to see the true potential of what this season’s union of Chauncey Billups, with his wisdom, patience, control, and championship experience, and Carmelo Anthony, with his undeniable offensive talent, his development which seems to have always fallen a step or two shy of the potential level he should have arrived at by now, and his past transgressions which he can never seem to shake off (if not in fact, then at least in terms of how NBA fans perceive him).
I think it’s important to start with Carmelo here. Not that Billups’ overall accomplishments in this series don’t outshine his (they do), but because in the space of a single season, it’s he who has come so far. Do you remember the DUI? Do you remember “We quit”? At this point, I hardly can anymore, because when I hold up the player – and man – who Melo has become in comparison to who he was then, he’s barely recognizable. He’s no longer his former 30-plus point scoring juggernaut – nor does he need to be. And what’s more, he’s not only content with that, he’s fairly well thriving on it. He’s taking delight in playing – by far – the best defense of his entire career. He’s patient, not forced and frantic to heroically do too much – thereby undercutting the overall team effort. He can’t get enough of looking up now, when before he used to look down. He’s settling into that post, waiting for the double to come, and finding the open man. He’s averaging six assists this postseason, but if the NBA counted hockey assists, he’d be averaging six of those as well. He’s focused on the team, not himself. I’ve watched this dude play since he joined the Nuggets, tracking his development carefully. We are most definitely seeing the emergence of a new Melo.
He’s much more dangerous at 22/6/6 than he was at 23/10/2 in last year’s playoff outing against the Lakers. (Although I do admit I still wish he’s crash that glass harder). Even his very understated 13/7/2 performance in game one shows a stat line that belies the real contribution he made to that victory, which was primarily playing some very high quality defense of Peja Stojakovic (and just being snappy with his rotations and help defense in general), and being the double team drawing presence on the floor that opened up spaces and lanes for Chauncey to go crazy. I hope PSD poster Chronz doesn’t mind me paraphrasing him here, but recently in the forums he’s been commenting a lot about how Yao Ming, even when his production is low, makes an impact on the game simply by his presence on the floor being felt. I believe the expression he used was “he warps the entire court”. Now just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Melo has quite the same court presence as the 7’6″ monolith Rockets opponents must reckon with. But I just like the concept of “warping the court” as an illustration of the difference between last year’s Melo and this year’s Melo. Anthony has never before had a greater impact off the ball than he’s having now, and he’s never had a greater impact specifically by not shooting. Before, if he wasn’t scoring volumunously, then he either was making no impact or, at times, actually having a negative impact on his team’s chances for success in that game.
Enter Chauncey. Enter Chauncey at exactly the right time the Nuggets needed him to enter. Just when the Nuggets had acknowledged that the Melo-Iverson experiment had failed, and they needed to return to a more fundamental kind of basketball. Just when Carmelo, after undergoing an Olympic awakening to a new sense of purpose and a new sense of looking beyond himself to a team-oriented approach to basketball, was a Luke very badly in need of a Yoda, a Jedi Master landed smack dab in the Pepsi Center locker room. Just when Kenyon Martin had made a training camp speech apologizing for his past transgressions and vowed to be a true team captain, and George Karl at the same time was instilling a new defensive philosophy in his longtime defense-resistant personnel, and the waxed-in ears of the players needed a wise man with a Q-Tip to make them listen up and genuinely buy into the new (to the Nuggets) concept of seriousness, and purpose, and mission – the former Finals MVP who had been in the past six Eastern Conference Finals and was not going to let them get away with squandering their talent any longer descended upon them.
And it was good. It was DAMN good.
And Melo, the student who seemed to have been held back a season or two due to the fact that while he was always willing to express and cultivate his talent he was rarely willing to actually sit down and do his homework, well, his eyes snapped open a little bit. Because he liked winning. And he was smart enough to understand that a mentor had just arrived who would teach him winning ways. And so he spent his season as the apt apprentice of one Mr. Big Shot, who slowly and carefully cultivated the trust, and confidence, and abilities, and chemistry of his crew. And what are we seeing now? The culmination of a Melo who decided to change his mind and grow up, and a Billups who was ready to go home and take on a new project that he knew he could develop into something greater, and a Karl who all but admitted he had phoned it in in previous seasons but was now going to actually take proactive command of his team and make them playoff-ready. With guts. And defense. And smarts. And toughness.
And for now, because (as I told you I would) I have rambled for too long, without even getting to the actual basketball arguments for why I believe that the partnership of Carmelo and Chauncey could be a years-long enterprise with continued success. I hope, at least, you get the drift of where I’m going with this.