NEW ORLEANS -- I’ve spent the day with the Denver Nuggets, and now my head hurts.
Maybe it was from all the different concepts pumped into my brain by Nuggets coach George Karl, who, in the time it took to walk from the New Orleans Arena court to the team bus waiting outside after morning shootaround, managed to hit on Deepak Chopra, how capitalism has overtaken our political system, and the near-criminal negligence when it comes to safeguarding the food we eat.
Maybe it’s because Karl tried to sell me on the notion that all of the unsteadiness that’s surrounded this team -- from front office turnover to Carmelo Anthony’s wishes to leave town -- has actually made thing better for the Nuggets. Maybe it’s because Chauncey Billups supports that theory. Maybe it’s because, after watching them come back from an 18-point deficit against the Hornets to briefly hold a fourth-quarter lead on a night they could have easily quit, I kind of agree with Karl and Billups.
“It’s weird, right?” Billups says.
On the surface, there can’t be a greater disparity between a coach and his players than what exists with the Nuggets. Their coach came back from throat cancer, only to return to a superstar who’d rather try something new instead of taking $65 million the Nuggets have offered him and a power forward who said he’s in no rush to return from an injury because there’s no extension waiting for him.
You could excuse Karl if he wondered why he spent the springtime getting his throat zapped with radiation for 15 minutes on a daily basis if this is how he was rewarded. That could drive anyone to quit. Instead he sounds more eager to coach this team than ever … and he couldn’t be more excited about Carmelo Anthony.
“This is a stronger Melo than we’ve ever had,” Karl said. “Why he’s doing it, what he’s thinking … that world … that’s for someone else to interpret for me. If he’s giving me this, I’ve got to give him more, because he’s giving me what I want.”
Melo gave him a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds in Denver’s 101-95 loss to the Hornets. Throughout the preseason and first two games that count, Anthony has provided constant reminders of why he’s the most coveted free-agent-to-be in the post-LeBron class. If he isn’t happy that the Nuggets haven’t traded him yet, if he can’t wait to get to a new team, there’s no evidence on the basketball court.
“Business is business, basketball is basketball,” Anthony said.
“I just want to win. If it’s here, then this is the place to be. If it’s elsewhere, then somewhere else. At the end of the day, that’s my ultimate goal.”
You never quite know what Anthony’s going to say, other than he won’t make a long-term commitment to being a Nugget. Everything else is fair game, including his remarks to Yahoo! Sports that it’s “time for a change.”
“It’s to a point now where it’s like ... ’Oh, really?’ Billups said. “What next? When?”
“I just try to get these guys to [not] worry about what 15’s going to do. Melo’s in with us right now. He’s into the games, he’s into practice, he’s all in. He’s trying to get wins. So let’s not worry about what’s going on out there. Let’s worry about what we’ve got inside this locker room. Let’s try to play good basketball. Whatever happens when you go home or you watch the TV, you can’t control that.”
By this point the Nuggets should be experts at that.
“It’s always something,” Kenyon Martin said. “We do a pretty good job of blocking it out and focusing on the task at hand, which is winning basketball game.”
He was one of the somethings when he described his comeback from knee surgery thusly, "Ain't nobody in a hurry to give me [an extension] … so why would I be in a hurry to risk further injury? I'm not rushing into it."
The latest timetable involves an evaluation from the doctor at the end of November, and a possible return to the court in January. Until then, there’s no apology, but there is a verbal ceasefire.
“I told management I wasn’t going to speak on it anymore,” Martin said. “It was the way I felt. It is what it is. I’m in the last year of my deal, would love to have an extension. It hasn’t happened yet. So the only thing I can do is when I get back on the court is just play basketball.”
Perhaps because getting paid to play basketball sounds like a pretty good deal compared to, say, battling cancer.
“That’s an awesome way to put everything into perspective,” Billups says. “What [Karl] went through last year, it makes you say, ‘Man, we’re doing good. We’re all right.’”
If Karl’s mere presence can be an inspiration, so be it.
“I think most leadership is unspoken,” Karl says. “It’s your approach, it’s your attitude, it’s your energy. Leadership is highly overrated if it’s by word. I think the best coaching is passionate coaching. My passion has a little bit of life to it.”
So they’re responding to Karl, even if he’s sitting instead of standing, sighing instead of yelling after his players make a mistake. In a strange way, his cancer might have provided a necessary reset. The common belief in the NBA is that players tune out a coach after five years. Karl took over the Nuggets for the final 40 games of the 2004-05 season, and the toll the cancer treatments took on his body forced him to take a leave just over five years later. The Nuggets got their break and found out how much they missed him during a first-round loss to the Utah Jazz.
So he can be grateful for that, even grateful for what Karl describes as “the NBA” -- contract talks and unhappiness -- rearing its head.
“When all this hit, I never thought about trying to turn it into a positive,” Karl said. “But in a strange way it’s strengthened this. No one wants to write this. When we go on the court, it’s basketball. We talked about that’s what we’ve got to do this year. We can’t keep the outside of basketball infiltrating our social life, our home life. It’s going to be there. But we can control when we walk in the locker room. It’s basketball.”
And now, a J.R. Smith interlude.
In one first-half sequence Smith drove into the lane, launched a shot that missed, and grabbed the rebound. Despite a Nuggets assistant screaming “Move the ball!” Smith dribbled and dribbled, then put up another shot. At least he was fouled and got two free throws out of the deal.
The next two times Smith had the rock he did try to move the ball. Both passes resulted in turnovers.
In my favorite moment, the Hornets public address announcer handed out candy to the Hornets mascot and a couple of kids who were trick-or-treating during a timeout skit. Some of the candy dropped on the sideline. When the players returned to the court Smith noticed a packet of candy, picked it up, poured some into his hand and ate it.
Smith also wound up as the most productive reserve for the Nuggets, with 12 points and three rebounds.
Ladies and gentlemen, J.R. Smith.
Scouts say the Nuggets remain a formidable threat. One general manager said that when they get Martin and Chris Andersen back from their injuries they’ll be “scary.”
Couldn’t be more frightening than the prospects that threaten to tear the team apart ... the very things that Karl embraces.
“I have two long-distance relationships,” Karl said. “I have a relationship with my organization, and their philosophy kind of frustrates you. And then you have your team. I can’t deny Melo, what he’s doing, doesn’t frustrate me. But why worry about it?
“You’ve got to have a little Buddhism here. You’ve got to think about your space and your time for you, not the other stuff you can’t control.”
Does all this stuff make sense to you? Me neither. That’s why I’m headed to Bourbon Street, which after this extended Nuggets session will feel like a dose of sanity.