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A peek at Denver’s future?

Without Anthony, issues will mount

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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The Nuggets were subjected to life without Carmelo Anthony last night at TD Garden. After working out on the court, Anthony was told by team officials to sit out the game against the Celtics, and will undergo an MRI on his right knee today.

Anthony could be in his final days in Denver. He no longer embraces the role as face of the franchise. He apparently isn’t comfortable with the future of the Nuggets, and the East Coast kid is yearning to play in the Eastern Conference, seeking to soak in the added exposure, as well as a mammoth contract.

So, it was apropos that the Nuggets took on the Celtics without their most essential piece. They looked lost at times in the 105-89 defeat, impressive in others, and with sprinkles of ordinary in between. Perhaps Anthony is right, the Nuggets are too old in key places and too inexperienced in others to compete with the Lakers in the Western Conference.

Denver is a franchise that desperately has tried to run parallel with the Lakers for years, and two years ago it was close. But the Nuggets blew a chance in the Western Conference finals and last season bowed out in the first round to the Utah Jazz, despite winning 53 games.

Coach George Karl has bravely battled cancer while forwards Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen have missed extensive time because of injury, and the Nuggets still are a wasteful offensive team. They are fifth in the league in scoring but 20th in field goal percentage, meaning they launch ill-advised shots.

Such was the case last night. Al Harrington and J.R. Smith combined for 28 shots, and made 10. Shelden Williams was a 10th man for the Celtics last season and now is the Nuggets’ starting power forward, a testament to their lack of toughness and depth in the paint.

Even Chauncey Billups is showing signs of age. The career 41.6 percent shooter is at 35.8 this season, and is averaging his fewest assists in eight years. He still has hope, however, despite Anthony tip-toeing out of the team’s once-bright future.

“I really won’t be able to answer that until we get 100 percent healthy,’’ Billups said, when asked how far the Nuggets (13-8) are from competing in the West. “If we could get everybody back. With those guys for a month, everybody can kind of get back in [a groove], I’ll probably have a better answer for you. But talent-wise, we got the talent to contend and compete at a high, high level.’’

Until the Nuggets consistently play defense and rebound, they will be afterthoughts, and the question is whether they can improve enough to entice Anthony to stay. The answer, likely, is no. In a treacherous NBA climate with a lockout looming, the three-time All-Star is letting a three-year, $65 million extension sit on the table and collect dust. He has yet to make a decision on the offer, nor has he said he wants to be traded.

But when asked on several occasions to express his loyalty to Denver, he merely says he is there for now. So the Nuggets rumble on, uncertain if Anthony will be there past February, uncertain if it’s time to start over.

The Nuggets are stuck between present and future. They are good enough to reach the playoffs, but hardly talented enough to win a title. They have fared well with their draft picks, but it’s difficult to rebuild when you draft in the 20s.

Billups, Martin, Andersen, and Harrington all are in their 30s, making the window of opportunity smaller, especially when your primary scorer and leading rebounder likely wants out. Anthony has attempted to keep his desires quiet during the season, but his impatience is evident. He already has nine technical fouls, after just 13 all of last season. And after averaging a career-best 28.2 points last season, he is at just 22.8 this year.

Perhaps it’s best for Anthony to move on and allow the Nuggets to rebuild using expiring contracts while remaining competitive with players such as Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, but it’s discouraging that Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Chris Paul are clamoring or did clamor to play in big cities, unwilling to exhibit the patience to reach success in smaller markets.

The competitive balance of the league could shift in the coming years because most of the NBA’s star players want to play in a handful of places. Anthony obviously has soured on Denver, and it’s a shame because it’s a top sports market. He’s mum right now, but you wonder whether his heart is invested in the Nuggets.

And right now, that ambivalence is the white elephant in the room.

“I am sure teams wouldn’t be able to continue on the same pace with all the adversity, all the injuries, and all the things we have surrounding our team,’’ Billups said. “It hasn’t been that much of a distraction at all inside the locker room. Outside the locker room, you read all the stuff, listen to everybody talking. I heard the same things y’all hear. Inside the locker room it’s been great. [Anthony] hasn’t brought all that stuff inside the locker room. Nobody really talks about it.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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