One week after the Nuggets traded forward Carmelo Anthony, when six-year-old Kaci Grace Karl had been able to fully evaluate their deal with the Knicks, she went to her watercolor class in school, cut a piece of green construction paper into a heart shape and scrawled in the middle: Dear Dad, You shod like ur teme. She punched a hole in the top, threaded a red pipe cleaner through it and added a rainbow border made of tissue paper.
Denver coach George Karl taped this piece of artistic reassurance to his office wall at the Pepsi Center, right over his computer. As he read the message aloud—"You should like your team"—he nodded slowly. The girl knows her basketball. She also knows her father, so she had to understand that he did not always like his team.
To say that Karl did not like Anthony is far too first grade. Rather, he did not like what the Nuggets had become with Anthony, a symbol of much that ails the modern NBA: passive on defense and predictable on offense, with endless isolation plays for a disgruntled superstar whose teammates stand on the fringe and wonder what they could accomplish if given the chance. "Do you like watching that kind of basketball?" Karl says. "I don't either."
At this time a year ago Karl was undergoing radiation treatments for throat and neck cancer. He took an indefinite leave while eating through a feeding tube and sleeping with an oxygen tank. His family inspired him to keep fighting, but Anthony inspired him to continue coaching. "I came back more than anything to make Melo and I better," Karl says. He wanted to have hard conversations with Anthony about the defensive improvements necessary to become a true superstar. Then in August, just before doctors cleared Karl to return, Anthony asked for a trade. Karl could not have those hard conversations and risk alienating his franchise player further. He asked himself why he bothered coming back at all.
Karl dreaded Anthony's exit, but point guard Chauncey Billups kept telling him, "We'll be fine without Melo." Billups played for the 2003--04 Pistons, the last team to win a championship without a headliner. He sold Karl on a move that would take six months to make. One week Anthony was headed to New Jersey, the next New York. There were days Karl had to walk out of the Pepsi Center, sometimes for a couple of hours and sometimes for many more, to escape what he called "the junk." There were practices he handed over to assistants because he was too angry to run them himself. He felt the season being sabotaged and begged Nuggets executives to make a deal, reminding them what Gen. George Patton once said: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."
On Feb. 22, Denver shipped five players to the Knicks, including Anthony and, ironically, Billups. They got five in return, including four who are under 25, three who were starting in New York and two who are 7 feet tall. Karl clicked onto the Synergy Sports website and queued up footage of their past 100 touches. He saw how radically his club was about to change—from small to big, old to young, slow to fast, shallow to deep, one great player to 10 good ones. Karl could not recall another playoff contender changing a third of its roster with less than a third of the season remaining. It was the equivalent of an NFL team's gaining 20 new members in the first week of December.
The Nuggets' playbook was filled with "Melo plays" and "Chauncey plays," and most of them would have to go. There would be no more two-man game between Anthony and Billups, and far fewer end-of-game isolations. Karl flashed back to a classroom at Penn Hills High in Pittsburgh. "I had a chemistry teacher who used to cover the chalkboard with all these complicated formulas," Karl says. "Then one day she came in and wiped it clean. It was so refreshing to see that bright green chalkboard with nothing on it. That's exactly how I felt."
While small-market general managers held up Denver as Exhibit A in the case for keeping marquee players with the organizations that drafted them, Karl adopted a different cause. He is challenging the widely held belief that an NBA team stocked with solid talent can't beat one with a couple of stars. "Why can't we?" Karl asks. "Why can't we get creative? Why can't we have more passing, more movement, more guys with the ball, better defense, better spacing?" You can tell him that no team in the past 40 years has won a title without a Hall of Famer or a shoo-in—outside of those '04 Pistons—but this is a man who staved off cancer twice. As the Knicks' highlights come on the television in his office, he does not even look up. He fishes out a blurb on the Nuggets from a national website. "They don't have their superstar anymore," he parrots. "Welcome to lottery land." He will share it with the locker room later. "All you f------ who think we won't be good anymore, f--- you," Karl says. "That's what I tell myself every morning now."
In Cleveland and Toronto, they are bitter over their stars' defection. In Denver, they are defiant. Through Sunday the Nuggets were 5--2 since Anthony's exit, rising from seventh to fifth in the Western Conference. They were allowing 10.9 fewer points per game, dishing out 2.8 more assists, demonstrating the might of a basketball democracy. When they disemboweled the Bobcats by 40 on March 2, seven players scored 10 or more points but none had 20. On one possession point guard Ty Lawson passed up an open three-pointer to feed forward Kenyon Martin down low, who passed up a short jumper to kick to guard Arron Afflalo outside, who passed up another open three to dish to Lawson, who was all alone but found forward Wilson Chandler, one of the ex-Knicks, inside for a layup.
"This ain't mixed doubles," crows Martin. "It still takes five to get it done." The Nuggets have undergone an identity overhaul in the past two weeks, and while it may seem entirely Karl's doing, he demurs. "I'm most proud of those two guys upstairs," he says. "They gave us this opportunity."