The Lakers have to a large degree sucked up much of the available oxygen in the NBA universe over the last month-plus, and rightly so. Seventeen wins in 18 games, a run taking them from a third seed in the Western Conference to the brink of catching San Antonio atop the West, with a chance to earn the league's best record? That'll draw a little attention.
But if some call the L.A. story No. 1 across the league, the Denver Nuggets are surely Story No. 1A.
At 46-29, the Nuggets not only haven't fallen apart as many expected they would in the wake of trading superstar forward Carmelo Anthony (and Chauncey Billups, don't forget) to the Knicks -- go ahead and ask your best New Yorker buddy about how that's gone thus far for the Knickerbockers -- George Karl's crew has thrived. After beating Sacramento on Friday night, Denver ran its record to 14-4 in the post-Melo era. As Andy pointed out earlier in the week, just about everything about "these" Nuggets is better than "those" Nuggets, but Denver is doing it primarily with something most fans thought impossible in the Mile High City: defense.
The new-look Nuggets have held opponents to only 95.2 points on 42.1 percent shooting over those 18 games. No longer are they a powder-blue sieve ripe for exploitation. These Nuggets make the opposition work to score. And unlike some previous incarnations, they're a much easier team to root for. For what it's worth, I don't begrudge Anthony his desire to leave Denver, nor do I think he handled it particularly poorly, given the context. It's not that Melo is an awful person or a bad player -- he's neither.
But while finally exiting the MeloDrama has unquestionably lifted the Nuggets psychologically, the trade has simultaneously turned Denver into a very interesting NBA experiment. No longer do they have a star, but Karl's team arguably has more B-minus to B-plus talent than any other in the league.
Nene, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Chris Andersen, and Kenyon Martin. All are players with a solid degree of utility, each tends to be very good in at least one area, and all of them provide Karl with a great deal of flexibility. Conventional wisdom says it's difficult to advance in the postseason without that A-list player. Certainly this year, and perhaps going forward depending on what their front office does this summer, the Nuggets are in position to challenge the narrative.
In the very short term, the remarkable story of the post-Melo Nuggets means the Lakers have a tough game on their hands Sunday afternoon. To get a better feel of what it'll look like, during Saturday's edition of ESPNLA On Air, I -- along with ESPNLA.com's Ramona Shelburne, filling in for Andy -- talked to Benjamin Hochman, who covers the team for the Denver Post.
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:
On how the Nuggets have played so well since the mega-trade: “They’re playing defense. And the two words I use to describe the Nuggets are camaraderie, but competition, in this regard: The guys are really bonding -- they’re an actual team, they like each other, things like that. But there’s also competition. The Nuggets don’t have any All-Stars, but they’ve got 10 or 11 guys who can play quality minutes. Most teams don’t have that deep of a roster. So because of that, the shooting guard [for example] knows if he doesn’t play his butt off on defense, there’s another guy, or two other guys, that can easily take his spot.
Whereas in the past, if you look at for instance, Chris “The Birdman” Andersen, the center, in the past he’d come in, and he’d play his 15 or 20 minutes, he’d give it a good 87 percent. But now he knows that if he doesn’t give it 110 percent, that Timofey Mozgov is going to come off the bench and play his minutes.”
On the impact of Karl on the team: “To have a team buy into what he’s preaching, after years of basically just Carmelo doing his own thing out there, and not playing defense, but George couldn’t do anything about it because Carmelo was such a great scorer. ... I think we’re seeing here where coaching is huge, because the team is buying into his philosophy. And he’s been very strategic. George Karl has played Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton together. Not only for minutes here and there, but multiple minutes, and it’s working. Not a lot of coaches would do that.”
On the question of who gets the ball in a last-second situation, and the play of Afflalo: “If I’m the coach and I do have to draw up a final play for the Denver Nuggets, I’m going to Afflalo. Here’s a guy who’s having a breakout year -- of course, he’s an L.A. native, UCLA, the whole story -- but he’s just been amazing out there. Because he used to be the guy who would kind of hang out in the left corner, the right corner, wait for Carmelo to get quadruple-teamed, and then hit the corner 3. But now here’s a guy who is creating his own shot, he’s more confident than ever, and he’s more pesky on the defensive end. Loves to guard Kobe, loves this challenge.”
Note -- Hochman reports Afflalo, who strained a hamstring Friday night against Sacramento, will be a gametime decision for Sunday's game.
On the matchup with L.A. on Sunday: “Speed vs. size. And I’m not saying the Nuggets have no size, I’m not saying the Lakers have no speed, but there are different philosophies out there on the court.
For the complete conversation, make sure to click on the interview at right.