Karl: 'Every game Carmelo's coming a little closer'

LeBron James has faded out of the MVP chase because his Cleveland Cavaliers can't win road games and can't even be sure that they're going to the playoffs.

Carmelo Anthony?

"If his team is successful," George Karl says, "I think Carmelo should be given some credit, too."

Well, then, here it is.

It might be the first dose of credit Anthony has received in a season of widespread Melo-bashing, but he certainly deserves it. His ankles have healed some, his mood has brightened considerably and the Nuggets, riding Anthony's increased efficiency, have lost to only one team (twice to Phoenix) in their past 19 games.

Karl, meanwhile, knows his future star is going to be compared to King James for eternity, and so he doesn't even try to fight it. Melo's new coach is instead lobbying folks to recognize (and publicize) what has happened since that All-Star Weekend in Denver, where Bron made his first start in the Sunday special and Melo was relegated to being Rookie Challenge MVP and local ambassador.

And Friday seemed a good time to take notice, with both members of this inseparable twosome playing on ESPN: LeBron and the Cavs hosting Sacramento before San Antonio visits Melo's Nuggets.

LeBron did his part, scoring a game-high 35 points and tying for game highs in rebounds (eight) and assists (nine) in a 128-109 loss to the Kings, who have beaten Cleveland nine straight times.

Melo contributed 18 points to the Nuggets' 102-84 rout of the Tim Duncan-less Spurs, whose modest three-game win streak was snapped convincingly.

A day later, Anthony led Denver with 23 points in a 103-97 victory at Portland.

"Carmelo has an opportunity now, with Cleveland kind of drifting a little bit. ... If we can make some type of hit in the playoffs and LeBron kind of has trouble in the playoffs, I think that would say a lot for Carmelo," Karl said. "I'm not saying he'd be equal ... but every game Carmelo's coming a little closer to what we want him to be."

Karl-Anthony tension has been anticipated since the coach replaced Michael Cooper in late January, but the relationship is off to a fine start. Anthony has responded to Karl's constant carping about working his way closer to the bucket before firing and can claim a leading role in Denver's vastly improved ball movement. And when there has been coach-player tension, coach and player have dealt with it ... as seen when they met for 45 minutes after Anthony's late-game benching in a late February win over Memphis.

"Carmelo has gotten a lot of hype, a lot of prestige, a lot of elite status around the country," Karl said during a recent "Pardon The Interruption" visit. "I want him to understand that he's going to get more of that if the Denver Nuggets win, and put that on his priority list. And then the second thing I think we've got to do is get him to do is become a leader of this team."

The latter project's going well, Karl insists.

"I just see him listening a lot," Karl said. "Not only to me, but he's listening to the team a little better. And for him to be the leader he's got to do that.

"The comment I've actually said [to Anthony] is, 'Don't shoot my team with your shot selection.' ... We've just told him we want him to shoot the ball a lot, but we want it to be within the team [structure]. ... But I'll be honest with you. He listens. He's been attentive."

I'm thinking ...

That sparing LeBron from some bashing of his own was a big reason new Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert fired coach Paul Silas so late in the season. Reason being: If the Cavs do keep sliding all the way out of the playoff race, whose reputation would take the biggest hit? Silas undoubtedly would have taken the fall anyway, but missing the playoffs for two straight seasons would be a blow to LeBron's rep, and Gilbert – obviously desperate to re-sign James when he hits free agency in a couple years – doesn't want to subject Akron's favorite son to that sort of criticism. So the change was made to arrest a slide that didn't look like it would end any time soon, with Cavs players clearly tuning out Silas and Silas clearly wanting out after the owner who hired him, Gordon Gund, sold the franchise. The way the Cavs were going in Silas' final days, they eventually would have dropped out of the top eight, giving James good reason to start thinking about other cities. ...

And that this has to be Rick Carlisle's best-ever coaching job, even though he won't win 50 games for the first time in his four seasons as a head coach. One of Carlisle's bosses in Indiana agrees with me, too. "I'm tremendously impressed and proud," said Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "I don't think anybody in the history of the NBA has been through a year like this, and the only reason I'm confident in saying that is because nobody has ever received suspensions like we have. This [season's coaching] is as good as it gets. We haven't had at least three starters in every game that I can remember." ...

And that Charles Barkley can talk about how "disappointed" he is in "the writers" for not electing Dominique Wilkins to the Hall of Fame, but he forgets one key element. This isn't baseball. The writers don't hold voting rights for basketball's Hall of Fame. I wish we did, because (a) I'm sure we'd do a better job and (b) I have no idea who's on these ambiguous screening committees that do choose basketball's Hall of Famers. Or how they even get there.

I'm hearing ...

That Sen. Herb Kohl is getting serious again – more serious than ever, actually – about finally selling the Bucks. According to league sources, Kohl has seen the gobs of money teams are fetching these days (Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston all sold in the $400 million range) and wants to cash in. The challenge, as always, is finding a buyer who wants to keep the team in Milwaukee, because that's important to Kohl. Yet a sale might actually help the Bucks' chances of keeping hold of free agent-to-be Michael Redd, because Redd is bound to question how much Kohl is willing to spend to build around him when the Cavs make their pitch to pilfer the former Ohio Stater. Bucks general manager Larry Harris has ably managed the team's salary cap to create sufficient flexibility to offer Redd a rich new contract and bring in some new help, but Kohl has been reluctant to spend after Milwaukee's spiral from the 2001 East finals under Karl to a messy parting with the $7-million-a-year coach. It's not yet known if Michael Jordan, part of a group that nearly bought the Bucks from Kohl in the summer of 2003, will rekindle his interest. ...

And that Val Ackerman's appointment as president of USA Basketball gives NBA commissioner David Stern a stronger pipeline into USAB affairs, which Le Commish has been seeking after the Team USA disappointments at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis and last summer's Olympics in Athens. Look for the coming-soon appointment of the Suns' Jerry Colangelo, a longtime Stern ally, as the new impresario of the men's program, with the final say on player and coach selection. ...

And that Indiana's Larry Bird, recently spotted in Israel on a scouting mission, spent some time there huddling with Sarunas Jasikevicius, Maccabi Tel-Aviv's Lithuanian point guard. The Pacers apparently have some interest in signing Jasikevicius, who is well-known to Americans for his play at Maryland and his many stellar showings against Team USA in international play. We've been saying for years that Jasikevicius should be in the NBA, in spite of concerns about his speed and defense, because he's a killer shot maker with boundless confidence and fire. But sources indicate that any NBA move for the pick-and-roll specialist wouldn't come until next season ... and that's assuming Jasikevicius can be lured stateside. He makes good, tax-free money overseas as Europe's best point guard and isn't likely to leave unless an NBA team promises a substantial role.

The Tao of AI ...

Melo has had a rough year, but his Olympic teammate Allen Iverson is the real expert on dealing with bashing.

Iverson's advice for the youngster? AI explained his approach in a recent TV sitdown with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith.

"That's a big thing with me because I've always battled with that all my life, trying to defend myself all the time," Iverson said. "Even from being incarcerated when I was 18 years old for something I didn't do ... all the time just always defending yourself.

"And then I get to the point where I am 29 years old, where I am a father of three, a husband – with another kid on the way. I sit back and say: 'Damn you're a grown man. At some point, don't you get tired of defending yourself? Like, what are you defending yourself for?' The only thing that matters is the people that care about you."

Iverson was also asked for opinions about the Lakers and increasing finger pointing faced by Kobe Bryant after the departures of Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson and the Lakers' subsequent struggles.

"Problems," Iverson said. "Major problems, man. It's not the same team. You don't look at them the same way. But this is when you find out what Kobe Bryant is about.

"He's going through the same thing that Allen Iverson went through for years and years in his career, and this is the way we'll find out what type of basketball player and person he is for real, when everything is not peaches and cream."

Briefly ...

We relish any chance to mention the Buffalo Braves, as you know, and this is actually a timely reason: Phoenix is the first team since the Braves of 1973-74 with five players averaging at least 15 points per game. Every member of the Suns' starting five scores at least 15.3 points nightly; Buffalo's five were Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillan, Randy Smith, Gar Heard and Ernie DiGregorio. ... If you were thinking that all these recent coaching changes must be some sort of record, you're right. There have been nine coaching changes since the season began, eclipsing the previous record of seven in 1996-97 and last season. ... Go figure: LeBron's buzzer-beater to force overtime in Chicago on Thursday night was the fifth such OT-forcing buzzer shot this season, but in all five instances the team that scored at the regulation buzzer lost the game. The other wasted heroics came from Miami's Eddie Jones against Chicago on Feb. 22, Philadelphia's Kyle Korver against New Orleans on Jan. 28, Toronto's Jalen Rose on Jan. 7 against Milwaukee, and Washington's Jarvis Hayes on Nov. 26 against Philly. ... The league's top three producers of double-digit fourth quarters are all on the young side: Chicago rookie Ben Gordon (22) is trailed by LeBron (20) and Washington's Gilbert Arenas (20). ... Props to Denver's Marcus Camby, and not just for his big numbers (12.9 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 3.4 bpg) in 10 games this month, during which the Nuggets are 9-1. Back in January, even before Furious George took over, this is what Camby told me: "We still feel like we can make a run like Phoenix and Seattle did in the first part of the season. Our run is coming."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.