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DEFIANT IN DENVER
Lee Jenkins
March 14, 2011
Losing a superstar is normally a disaster in the NBA. But no one told that to the surging post-Carmelo Nuggets, who have finally become a team its coach can love
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March 14, 2011

Defiant In Denver

Losing a superstar is normally a disaster in the NBA. But no one told that to the surging post-Carmelo Nuggets, who have finally become a team its coach can love

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For the first week post-Anthony, the Nuggets did not use the same starting lineup twice. They did not have the same leading scorer twice. They didn't run more than 10 different plays. In a timeout against the Celtics, Karl told them to play "crazy fast." In a huddle against the Trail Blazers, he couldn't identify anybody to take the ball out-of-bounds. He went with the point guard, assuming the point guard could pass. He joked that nobody could prepare for the Nuggets because nobody knew what they were going to do, himself included.

By Week 2 they had a lineup, though not a rotation. They were up to 15 plays, though not everybody could remember them all. They were looking forward to a four-day break starting on March 6, which they came to call "training camp." Karl will not be turning any more practices over to his assistants. "Oh, no," he says. "There are too many exciting days." He compares the NBA with Microsoft; this operation is a start-up.

The Nuggets have no stars and no scrubs, eight players who average double figures in points and 12 who average double figures in minutes—a recipe for a mutiny. Felton signed as a free agent with the Knicks last summer, became a co-captain, nearly made the All-Star team and is now backing up Lawson, whom he once hosted on a recruiting visit to North Carolina. Karl estimates that he has at least two meetings per day with players asking for more minutes. "It's called competition," he tells them. He could never bench Anthony for jogging back on defense. Now he can bench the first guy to break stride.

Karl concedes that the winner of an NBA trade is the team that winds up with the best player, but he won't concede who that player will be. Maybe one of the exiled Knicks who hasn't developed yet, he suggests, or one of the holdover Nuggets who had been forced to suppress his game. He mentions Afflalo, 25, a 6'5" defensive stopper tied for the best true shooting percentage among two guards in the league; he was averaging 12.9 points on 9.2 shots at week's end. In Anthony's last game at the Pepsi Center, Afflalo scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Mavericks at the buzzer. Once Anthony left, Afflalo closed out the Celtics and did the same to the Jazz. "Maybe we do have a go-to guy," says assistant coach Chad Iske, "and we don't know it yet and he doesn't know it yet."

The franchise is moving on from the Anthony era, quickly and gracefully, after months of bracing for his departure. Attendance at the Pepsi Center is almost unchanged. Who needs Melo? chants are more common than organ music. There is no jersey burning. There is no need. "I don't like those superstar deals anyway," says Vicki Ray, a Nuggets fan who greets players at the parking lot with handmade signs and has done so for all but two games in the past 18 years. "These guys play hard. They play defense. That's what the sport is supposed to be about."

Denver heads into spring with the fury of a small market scorned. Karl whispers in players' ears, "Are you ready for the playoffs? Are you ready to win a round in the playoffs?" His catchwords, like team-ness and one-ness, do not sound so funny anymore. "It's about the five," Afflalo says. "I think people will appreciate a group rather than individuals."

Karl is not claiming that they are better than the Knicks, or better than the Western Conference elites or even better than they were with Anthony. He is just heeding the wisdom of little Kaci Grace: He likes his teme.

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Read more on pro basketball from Lee Jenkins and Ian Thomsen at SI.com/nba

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