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They are not friends, but at least they're trying. � "Melo, are you trying to be my backup point guard?" Denver Nuggets coach George Karl asks 6'8" forward Carmelo Anthony, who has committed the apparent sin of handling the ball too early in transition. There is sarcasm in Karl's voice as he pulls aside his best player, suddenly one of the league's best players, after a February practice. � Silence from Anthony, who merely raises his eyebrows, as if inviting his coach to elaborate. � "Well," Karl says, "you're getting a lot of outlet passes." � "What's wrong with that?" Anthony replies without rancor. � "The best offense we have is when you're in the early post, when you're ahead of the ball before the double teams come, and you're being covered by a 6'6", 210-pound guy who has no chance against you," Karl continues, a small grin creasing his face, his voice measured. "That's my best offense, and my second-best offense is [point guard] Andre [Miller] with the ball. And when you have the f------ ball I don't have either one." � Anthony offers a small nod, nothing more. Next time around, he will let the point guard push the ball upcourt.
Long ago Anthony learned to separate the coach's message from his delivery. Beneath Karl's jabs and derision, he now knows, is constructive advice, though it often requires a little translation. "It's like he's speaking German...." Anthony says. "He speaks German a lot."
They have been together for 14 months, the old-school coach with the overbearing demeanor of Tony Soprano and the new-school star with the cornrows and tats and rakishly angled headband. There is little doubt that Karl would prefer that the NBA were more autocratic, like the NFL, in which the boss's authority is seldom challenged. The most successful coaches in recent NBA history haven't been dictators as much as they've been partners with their best players: Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs, Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I tell Pop all the time he's the luckiest son of a bitch ever in the NBA," says Karl, "because he's got a low-maintenance--or a no-maintenance--superstar."
Yet there is no doubt that Karl and Anthony have been good for each other. At week's end the small forward was seventh in the league in scoring (26.5 points per game, 5.6 more than he averaged in his first two years) on career-high 48.4% shooting. He has already won four games with buzzer-beating shots and forced overtime in a fifth (eventually lost by Denver). Though the coaches inexplicably passed him over for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team last month, Anthony is one of the 25 finalists for a Team USA roster spot in this summer's world championships. "Last year I thought he was settling for a lot of jump shots," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Now he's willing to get to the basket, which opens up the perimeter for him."
Despite injuries that have sidelined big men Nen�, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby for a combined 110 games, and a front office that very well could be dismantled this summer, the Nuggets (38-30 at week's end) are virtually assured of their first division title in 18 years and a No. 3 seed, which would preclude meeting the Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks before the conference finals. Any hopes of converting their fortunate draw into a berth in the Finals, however, depends on whether Karl and Anthony can avoid having their volatile relationship erupt into a full-fledged throw-down. So far, the signs are hopeful. "In January, he put this team on his back and saved the season," Karl said in mid-March. "When we had every excuse to give in to injuries, to give in to the schedule, we won games we weren't supposed to win."
Their first meeting did not go well.
This was in January 2005, shortly after the Nuggets had hired Karl to revive a 17-25 team. One of his first moves was to arrange private meetings with each of his players. The new coach had only seen Anthony play from afar, but he had already formed an opinion. "I thought [Carmelo] was lazy," Karl says. "I thought he was tremendously talented but not an every-day guy."
Which is what he told Anthony, who admits that he was offended. "I don't know what he was trying to do," says Anthony, who would barely speak to Karl over the next three weeks. "What he said went in one ear and out the other ear--whatever.... He spoke before even getting to know me."
At the time Anthony was hardly a sympathetic figure. Over the previous 12 months he had been in a bar fight provoked by a patron who spit a drink on his fianc�e; filmed in the notorious Stop Snitching video that features a drug dealer from Anthony's hometown of Baltimore; and blasted for his complaints about playing time at the 2004 Olympics. He also caught much of the blame for Denver's slow start, an assessment apparently shared by Karl, who benched Anthony in the fourth quarter of a late-February game at Memphis. The Nuggets came back to beat the Grizzlies in overtime.
"All I [had] heard was bad things about him before he came here," says Anthony. "Now I was like, My perception of you is true."