Theirs is a turf war of sorts, not violent by any means, but ceaseless. Every day Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony is asked by coach George Karl to yield a little ground, sometimes a lot of ground. Carmelo, don't stand at the three-point line. Carmelo, move without the ball. Carmelo, get back on defense. And each day, Anthony says, he tries to be accommodating. But on occasion he gets his back up and tries to reclaim a few centimeters. During a game Karl points to a spot on the floor where he says Anthony is supposed to be. Anthony shakes his head and says, "No, I was supposed to
be here." During a practice Karl says he wants everyone cutting and running hard, even in dummy drills. Anthony dogs it a little, playing what Karl calls "the rebellious young talent who wants to do it his way." Karl gives him a look but doesn't challenge him. I'll get him next time.
Such thrust-and-parry between star and coach is never-ending in NBA franchises, and, in reality, Anthony and Karl appear to be engaging in it with a high degree of congeniality. The rest of the league has paid the price. Since Karl seized the coaching reins on Jan. 27, the Nuggets, who were marching in lockstep toward the lottery, have done an about-face; at week's end they had won 24 of 30 games and appeared to be the favorite among three teams ( Memphis and Minnesota being the others) trying to grab the final two Western Conference playoff spots. With a record of 41--31, Denver still had an outside chance of finishing as high as fifth.
The 6'8", 220-pound Anthony was averaging a team-high 20.1 points through Monday, but it would be a vast overstatement to say that he has been the main reason for the Nuggets' reversal. Karl has gotten leadership on offense from point guard Andre Miller, presence on defense from center Marcus Camby (one of the league's most underrated players, with double figures in both points and rebounds and almost three blocks per game) and reserve strength from a 10-deep rotation. In fact, Anthony sometimes finds himself sitting (and trying not to stew) at key points in games. But like his teammates, he has played with more efficiency and, most starkly, passion over the last two months. And Denver's stunning improvement is best studied through the Karl-Anthony relationship, potentially volatile but so far fruitful.
"I am a better player since Coach Karl got here," says Anthony. "I really believe that."
That is a major admission for the headstrong 20-year-old, whose on-court and off-court stock plummeted through the last six months of 2004. Anthony la-di-da'd through the Olympic Games under Larry Brown ( Karl's coaching hero), then appeared in an underground DVD that glamorized drug dealers, in footage that was shot in his hometown of Baltimore after he returned from the Olympics. Add the ankle sprains that plagued him for much of the first three months of this season and the Nuggets' slow start, and 'Melo was anything but mellow, his dispiritedness a mood that pervaded the entire franchise before Karl arrived.
Denver is a classic example of how NBA players tune out some coaches and listen to others. The hangman's noose always dangled just over the head of former coach Jeff Bzdelik, who never had the full backing of management. He was fired when the Nuggets got off to a 13--15 start, and his replacement, Michael Cooper, who went 4--10, was shown the door when Karl was hired. Karl brought with him a 708--499 career record and a reputation as a hard-driving turnaround artist. Miraculously, ears opened. "When we had Jeff, we never knew how long he was going to be here," says Anthony. "Then we got Coop, and he did a good job, but it was the same thing. Now we have George. O.K., now we know the deal."
The deal is this: You move on offense and play hard on defense or you take a seat. Karl invited back to the bench one of the patron saints of motion offense, former Denver coach Doug Moe, and made one word his coaching mantra: Move! The Nuggets are averaging more than eight more points per game (103.1) under Karl than they did under Bzdelik and Cooper.
Karl says his efforts in that area remain an ongoing struggle. "Players will tell you they want to play fast and run and get easy baskets," he says. "But they're not committed to doing it. I tell you, on this team we have more...."
"Yeah, I know," says Anthony, rolling his eyes when asked about his coach's offensive philosophy. "'Ball stoppers.' That's like Coach Karl's favorite word."