Used to be that a Denver-Detroit game on the schedule was when you stopped to measure the considerable development gulf between Darko Milicic and the player drafted right after him. Kid named Carmelo Anthony.
They have a bit more in common now, Melo and Darko.
Not in development terms, of course. Anthony is a 20-year-old who continues to give you 20 points a night. Milicic, at 19, still rarely leaves the bench.
You can call them Bashed Brothers, though.
Especially after Anthony's 2-for-13 shooting night on Wednesday in Denver's 87-70 road loss to the Pistons, one day after Anthony had 32 in the Nuggets' 111-107 defeat at Chicago.
Anthony has actually absorbed more scrutiny and scorn than Milicic since last season. Darko was in the lead for a whole year, after the Pistons controversially selected the 7-foot project over the college champion from Syracuse, and fresh shame is coming soon for the Serbian lefty when he's excluded from the Rookies vs. Sophomores game at All-Star Weekend for the second successive year.
Yet that can't compare to the much more public disappointment Melo is facing next month.
All-Star Weekend, remember, will be in Denver, and the Rookie Challenge is likely the only game Anthony will be asked to play in.
"I'm going to wait and see what happens," Anthony said. "If I don't [make it into the All-Star Game], I'm not going to be upset.
"I can take it."
He has been bracing for the letdown for days, knowing it's probably unavoidable. Even if Amare Stoudemire is chosen by the West coaches as a backup center, as expected, chances are Anthony would have to beat out all but two of the following forwards to earn a reserve spot on the big stage: Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber, Rashard Lewis, Shawn Marion and Pau Gasol.
Right. The chances are less than slim.
Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe is nonetheless encouraged that Anthony has no plans to hide out while his 2003 draft contemporaries -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- graduate to the Sunday extravaganza. Anthony says he's ready to take on any ambassadorial assignments the league gives him, and Vandeweghe insists his franchise player has been toughened by the fallout from a string of controversies that have trailed him since the Olympics, when Anthony clashed with Pistons coach Larry Brown.
"It's tough for a 20-year-old to have a lot of fame and then have some incidents -- some of his own doing, some of it a little bit out of his control -- all add up at once," Vandeweghe said. "One thing about Carmelo -- it's not that he's naïve, but I don't think he understands how famous he is, and that people at times will try to take advantage of him. You have to grow up a little bit and understand where you are and how a lot of people look up to you. So these have been good but hard lessons."
As for the All-Star Game ...
"He's going to be disappointed," Vandeweghe said, "no question about it. But he understands, too, because he just hasn't been healthy. I think had he been healthy all year, and if we as a team had been healthy and having a good year, he'd be more disappointed if it didn't happen then."
Said Anthony: "It won't be hard this year. I know first of all I had a slow start. And then I had three major injuries that slowed me down."
They are the first three ankle sprains of Anthony's career, and they have stunted the explosion for what Vandeweghe refers to as "an explosion player," limiting his ability to create easier shots for himself. While Anthony's production hasn't dropped off at all -- his current averages (before Wednesday's game) and rookie averages are almost identical (20.7 ppg and 5.8 rpg compared with 21 and 6 as a rook) -- there is a noticeable dip in shooting percentage, from .426 last season to the current reading of .395.
Anthony's arrest in October for marijuana possession (charges were later dropped) and his appearance in a bootleg DVD that showed Anthony with alleged drug dealers in his hometown of Baltimore will inevitably be cited as factors for the forthcoming All-Star snub. Yet Anthony seems to be moving past those incidents, which never meant much to West coaches anyway. It's the lack of cooperation from his body, and the Nuggets' struggles as a group, that really aborted Anthony's All-Star campaign.
Even spotlight-shy Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke expected his team to compete for a top-four slot in the ever-deep West after the acquisition of Kenyon Martin and the re-signing of Marcus Camby. Just making the playoffs would be an achievement now, given the doubts about how well this mix of players meshes and after a series of setbacks that began Opening Night, when Denver lost its only established perimeter threat (Voshon Lenard) to a season-ending heel injury. Every key member of what was forecast as an imposing frontcourt rotation (Anthony, Camby, Nene and Kenyon Martin) has subsequently missed time for health reasons, and continuity has been further shaken by ongoing instability on the bench.
Vandeweghe wanted to dismiss Jeff Bzdelik after last season, despite Denver's (and Anthony's) rise to darling status with a 26-win improvement and a trip to the playoffs. Kroenke preferred to bring Bzdelik back, without a contract extension, which led to widespread suspicions that the coach wouldn't last the season. The change was finally made on Dec. 28, after a loss to Golden State dropped Denver to 13-15.
With Michael Cooper at 4-10 as the Nuggets' interim coach, the club is in advanced negotiations with George Karl on a deal that could install Karl as Denver's third bench boss of the season. Vandeweghe is not prepared to accept the conclusion that Anthony, Martin and scoring point guard Andre Miller are an ill-matched trio, but he is convinced that the Nuggets need a veteran coach to give his young roster direction and discipline.
The injuries have undeniably been a factor, but more than one scout has remarked how casual and listless the Nuggets can look. Which is not what anyone envisioned when Martin was acquired to partner Camby, another defensive ace.
"You always want to live up to or exceed expectations, and when you don't do that, there's a certain kind of disappointment even if mentally you understand why," Vandeweghe said.
"But the biggest disappointment I've really had is that we haven't been able to evaluate this team. You don't know if the pieces are going to work together or not because we haven't seen them together enough."
Management has a long list of to-dos even if it can complete the Karl hiring. It will have to weigh the possibility of moving Miller for more of a passing point guard -- yes, Jason Kidd comes to mind -- and parting with its only front-line bulk (Nene) for Kidd or a shooter like Michael Redd ... and sorting out Vandeweghe's status, too. The GM has only a season left on his deal.
It will be a relief, then, if the Nuggets don't have to worry about Anthony. The kid hasn't been healthy enough even to continue the afternoon skill workouts with Vandeweghe that began early in the season, but his boss is still a big believer.
It was only a year ago, Vandeweghe reminds, that Anthony was seen in some precincts as more effective than James. Wade was only occasionally mentioned in the comparison conversation, and Milicic didn't factor in at all, bringing scorn to the Pistons for passing on Melo.
Perceptions have changed drastically, but Anthony scoffs when someone suggests that he has forgotten how to win.
"That's going to happen," Anthony said. "People are going to say what they want to say. I can take criticism. All I can do is go out, keep playing, try to get healthy, try to get right.
"I want to be [an All-Star], but whatever they want me to do that week, I'm going to do. I'm still going to have fun and show everybody that it's my town."