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Since his pre-Christmas arrival in Denver, Allen Iverson has broadened the fan base, energized his teammates, charmed the local media, played his butt off and generally sent a positive current through a franchise undercut by suspensions and languishing in unrealized potential. One thing Iverson hasn't been able to do much about is the weather. A blizzard delayed his trip from Philadelphia, another substantial snowfall greeted him before his third game as a Nugget, and now, he says, "I'm lickin' my lips all the time" because they're chapped from the cold. Iverson's new coach, George Karl, busted AI's chops by telling him last week, "Man, this is the best weather we've had since I've been here."
There's one more thing Iverson hasn't quite been able to control: Denver's record. At week's end the Nuggets were 2--3 since he first donned powder blue and yellow ("the best-lookin' unis in the league," Iverson says) on Dec. 22, in a 101--96 loss to the Sacramento Kings. In acquiring Iverson and forward Ivan McFarlin from the 76ers on Dec. 19 for point guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith and two No. 1 picks, owner Stan Kroenke did not agree to pay a total of perhaps $20 million in luxury tax in the next two seasons to move up to, say, fourth place in the Western Conference this year. (Through Sunday 16--12 Denver was in seventh place.) And fans did not gobble up more than 14,500 single seats, 800 season tickets and 1,140 five-game packages after the trade to watch their team settle for second place in the Northwest Division.
No, landing Iverson and taking on a contract that pays him $17.2 million this season and almost $40 million over the next two was a chest-beating announcement by the Nuggets: We can win it all now. It goes without saying that a ring is also on the 31-year-old Answer's mind. "I don't want to close the book without winning a championship," said Iverson, whose only trip to the Finals with the 76ers, in 2001, ended in a five-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
That the team has not torn up the league would not seem to be Iverson's fault, judging from his production (28.6 points per game on 48.6% shooting and 8.8 assists). Some form of that previous sentence was written 127,849 times during AI's 10-plus seasons in Philadelphia, but at least there is now a muzzle-loaded cavalry behind him. The real Nuggets--the ones with a shot at a title--do not debut until Jan. 22, when All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony returns from his 15-game suspension for throwing a punch in the Dec. 16 Madison Square Garden melee, and the NBA finds out if the league's two leading scorers can coexist with one leather Spalding. "How can we not play good together?" Anthony asked last week. He intended the question to be rhetorical, but it's about as open-ended as you can get. (See, among others: Kobe- Shaq, The Last Years.)
There are other issues to consider. Trigger-happy guard Earl Boykins has benefited from the defensive attention given Iverson and has averaged 24.6 points since AI's arrival. But with both Anthony and Iverson in the lineup, Boykins's shot attempts will start to go boink. And what happens to J.R. Smith, another suspended Nugget due to return on Jan. 10? The talented 21-year-old guard--one Western Conference coach says he was "praying" that Smith would be sent to Philly instead of Miller--also needs the ball. So if you're scoring at home, that's three gunners plus Iverson, euphemistically known as a "high-volume shooter." Not to mention the team's defensive shortcomings: Anthony is fundamentally horrible; the 5'5" Boykins is too small to guard anyone except himself; and Smith is, as one rival assistant coach puts it, "an unwilling defender."
Still, there are reasons for optimism, including the return of center Marcus Camby on Sunday from a broken right finger and the fondness Iverson and Anthony feel for each other (Life of Reilly, page 72). In fact, Iverson's teammates through the years have generally liked him, even those who have watched him fuss and fume at management and treat practice as if it were a Michael Bolton concert. Guard DerMarr Johnson took number 8, willingly ceding his 3 to Iverson. "AI's got a legacy behind that number," said Johnson. And unless the Nuggets are total dolts--and it should be noted here that temperamental forward Kenyon Martin is on the shelf for the rest of the season with a knee injury--Iverson will inspire them to play hard, a characteristic often missing in the pre-AI days. "The only message I want to send to my teammates is that I want to play every game like it's my last," said Iverson.
Then, too, there is a buzz in the seven-year-old Pepsi Center that hasn't been there since, well, ever. Iverson needed about two minutes to adjust to the Denver altitude; now, he said, "I can run forever." That makes the Nuggets' fast break the fastest in the league.
At some point after Anthony returns, though, one of the Big Two will have to defer to the other. Should Anthony cede shots to Iverson, a future Hall of Famer who has won one MVP award (2001) and four scoring titles? Or should Iverson give them up for Anthony, who is younger (by nine years) and less banged up (Iverson has played only one full season and has injured countless areas of his body because of his pell-mell style) and who was, after all, the main man (averaging a league-high 31.6 points) before AI got to Denver? "Whatever Coach wants me to do," said Iverson. "I'm just a general in his army." Which raises the question: What rank is Melo?