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Basketball Notes

In Denver, mountain air just got a little bit fresher

By Gary Washburn
February 27, 2011

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This season cannot have been good for George Karl’s health and peace of mind. The Nuggets coach — a cancer survivor — was subjected to Carmelo Anthony’s passive-aggressive trade demands, wondering every night whether Anthony’s heart was truly invested in playing for Denver or being Broadway’s next sensation in New York.

We will never truly know the answer. Anthony, along with Chauncey Billups and two others, was traded last week to the Knicks, his preferred team, for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton, and three draft picks. The state of the Nuggets franchise changed dramatically in just hours.

A perennial Western Conference contender with Anthony spearheading the charge, the Nuggets are now a team with potential but uncertainty.

Karl couldn’t help but take some parting shots at Anthony.

His lightly veiled statements expressing sorrow for the loss of Billups and Anthony Carter — but excluding Anthony — were compliments in comparison to his criticism of Anthony’s defensive focus. It has long been said that what separates Anthony from the game’s greats is his inability to commit to defense.

So without saying it in such harsh terms, it was “good riddance,’’ as Karl attempted to spin the change as a rebirth.

“I woke up this morning excited,’’ Karl said. “The other day I woke up a little sad. There’s going to be a lot of good stuff come out of this. Is it going to be good enough to get us to a special place? I still think there’s that possibility, I really do.

“I respect the Western Conference, but there’s only a few teams I have tremendous fear of. I think if we put some pieces together and figure it out quickly, I think we can get a first-round [playoff] matchup that’s beneficial and to our advantage.’’

Karl tried to maintain full respect for Anthony’s impact. But trading him removes a season-long cloud that was hovering over the franchise. Every night, Nuggets fans wondered whether Anthony’s next game would be his last in Denver. And his absolute refusal to acknowledge the situation or that he desired to play in another city made the situation even worse for a diehard fan base.

As the Nuggets were clinching an 89-75 victory over the Celtics Thursday, the Pepsi Center faithful chanted, “Who needs Melo?’’ And Karl seemed relieved that the situation was concluded and he would inherit a group of players who wanted in, not out.

“Against Memphis [the first game without Anthony], I think everybody saw there was a togetherness that we haven’t had in a while,’’ said Karl.

Karl said he is convinced that a team can win without two dominant superstars. He believes a team with solid players, and with a healthy amount of teamwork and defensive commitment, can be successful. In today’s NBA, Karl may be kidding himself, but hope is what kept him coaching through radiation treatments and the “Melodrama,’’ so forgive him if he is being overly idealistic.

“There’s four things that are as good as it’s ever been [with Denver],’’ Karl said. “We’re bigger than we’ve ever been. We’re younger than we’ve ever been. But I feel it will be the best running team we’ve ever had. I feel we’ve been running with non-running players. And from what I see, it is going to be the best passing team.

“Those things, to me, excite the hell out of coaching. The things that make a team work, we’ve added some of those pieces.’’

There’s no question the Nuggets can maintain their playoff status with the talented Gallinari and Chandler blending into the up-tempo offense and Felton continuing the momentum generated from a strong first half with the Knicks.

But the Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs, or revamped Thunder likely await in the first round, and without Anthony, the Nuggets don’t stand much of a chance against those clubs. But the departure of Anthony appears to have revived Karl and the organization.

There was a breath of fresh air this week in Denver. While the franchise lost one of its all-time great players, it gained freedom and the ability to move forward with a team concept.

“I think once you get above this line of talent, you can get too much talent,’’ said Karl. “Are we above that line of talent? I think most people would say no. That’s yet to be determined.

“Once you’re above that line of talent, the intangibles of the game become more important. Playing hard is definitely the most underrated personality of an NBA player that you don’t talk about. Hustle players. Experienced players. Smart players.

“I’m excited about this. This team is not going to be talented. It’s not going to have a superstar. Why can’t you win with 10 really good players? Why are we hung up on this? I think we can win with what we have. I’ve always liked to do the different thing, the out-of-the-box thing.’’

HARVARD MAN TESTED
Lin perseveres in rookie year His entry-level job has been just as difficult as those of his Harvard buddies who studied medicine, law, or engineering. The life of an NBA rookie — especially a second-round pick from an Ivy League school — has its share of difficulties, unless your last name is Griffin.

And Jeremy Lin and Blake Griffin live in different worlds indeed. Lin is resigned to the fact that he won’t be a major contributor with the Warriors this season, that it may take time.

As with most 22-year-olds, patience is not Lin’s strong suit. But chasing Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis daily in practice has reminded Lin that his heartwarming story is far from complete. Making it to the NBA has been accomplished. Staying there is still in doubt.

“It’s been really tough, I just think, in general,’’ he said. “It’s a very slow climb. As a player, when I first got here to now, it’s completely different. It took a lot of time and a lot of tough games and took a lot of long nights.

“I’m encouraged that I’m on the right path. It’s coming very slowly.’’

Lin has played in 22 games for Golden State, averaging 2.2 points. He has spent time in the D-League and amassed a bunch of DNP-CDs. Lin wants to prove that he’s more than just a fan attraction because of his Asian-American heritage. He wants to be respected as a legitimate NBA player, not a publicity stunt.

The pressure of playing in his home area (he is from Palo Alto, Calif.) also seems to have worn on Lin, who has played more than 10 minutes in a game just once since Dec. 20.

“It’s been tough at times, because I’ve really struggled here,’’ he said. “And I’ve been through a lot of tough situations and tough games.

“You are always under the spotlight, but at the same time it’s something I embraced and enjoyed because it’s my family and friends.

“I think it’s good for me to go through the life of a rookie, for people to see it’s not all that easy and you really have to fight your way in this league.’’

Lin gets ribbing from his teammates because of his Harvard education, especially when he errs on an assignment. Harvard kids are supposed to know everything, even how to survive when everyone else around you is better. But he is proud of his background.

“I embrace every part of my story,’’ he said. “Me being from Harvard, I’m really proud to see that because of the way the program is turning around.

“If I went to any other university in the country, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. I owe a lot to Harvard and coach [Tommy] Amaker and what the school did for me.’’

ETC.
On the skids in Detroit Don’t expect the Pistons to fire coach John Kuester. It’s not that team president Joe Dumars is enamored with Kuester’s coaching skills, it’s that the Pistons are already paying off former coach Michael Curry (they’ve paid off Flip Saunders), and Kuester would make it another ex-coach on the payroll. That doesn’t look attractive to potential buyers of the team. And that likely means no buyout of Richard Hamilton, who is owed $24 million over the next two-plus seasons. The Cavaliers, in total rebuilding mode, would have taken on his contract but Hamilton wasn’t pleased with the terms, so he remains in Detroit. Meanwhile, most of the roster, including Hamilton, despises Kuester, so the Pistons are a franchise in swift decline. Dumars allowed the roster to get old, made the ill-fated trade for Allen Iverson, and then signed Hamilton to an above-market deal. Good times in Motown.

No green light for Redd One of the primary reasons the Bucks didn’t buy out the contract of guard Michael Redd and why they are not eager for him to return is the insurance policy on his surgically repaired left knee. Redd is making $18.3 million in the final year of his maximum contract, and part of that salary is being paid by insurance. If Redd returns to action, the Bucks could be on the hook for the remaining portion of that deal. The Bucks are out of the playoff race, one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and it’s uncertain why they would stick Redd into the lineup instead of developing their younger core.

Layups Call Minnesota general manager David Kahn bizarre, but he is certainly stockpiling some young talent, most recently acquiring gifted forward Anthony Randolph, who collected dust in New York when he fell out of coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Randolph played well in spurts in Golden State and is just 21 years old. He joins Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Kevin Love, Wayne Ellington, Jonny Flynn, and Martell Webster as the future of the franchise. The question is whether such a young team can learn to win in the competitive Western Conference. Randolph was once considered a potential cornerstone, so maybe the low-key atmosphere in Minnesota will allow him to grow . . . The folks who wondered what you’d get if you mixed Nate Robinson’s gunner mentality with Golden State’s no-conscience offense almost got their wish, as the Warriors pursued Robinson and Kendrick Perkins before the trade deadline, but they couldn’t reach a deal with Boston . . . The Celtics are looking for a 3-point gunner and they are very interested in Philadelphia’s Jason Kapono, who is expecting a buyout. They left three roster spots open for a reason . . . The 2011 draft is expected to be one of the worst in recent memory, and teams are not privately thrilled about how the prospects are lining up. North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes has had a disappointing freshman season, as has Baylor freshman Perry Jones. Duke’s Kyrie Irving is emerging as the No. 1 prospect, but he has played in only eight college games because of a foot injury. The Clippers thought so little of the draft that they handed the Cavaliers their first-round pick in the Baron Davis deal. That pick is expected to be in the top 12-15.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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