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Scott Howard-Cooper

Carmelo Anthony & J.R. Smith
The futures of Carmelo Anthony (left) and J.R. Smith as Nuggets are very much up in the air.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Looming end to these Nuggets coming much too quickly

Posted Aug 30 2010 8:53PM

Farewell, special Nuggets. Farewell to the inspirational vibe, to the talk of staying on the Lakers' heels in the West, to the personnel bosses who built a contender. Farewell (maybe) to the star small forward and farewell (maybe), worst of all, to the coach who embodies a kind of internal toughness the entire organization needs.

The good times are gone even if the familiar roster isn't. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith (until further notice, anyway), Chauncey Billups, Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and coach George Karl -- that's a group still capable of doing damage, maybe even to someone else.

It all happened so fast, too.

A year ago, they were coming off the unexpected ride to the conference finals, a particularly joyous ride after Nene and Karl had come back from cancer. Martin had come back from a pair of major knee injuries to remain a defensive factor. Andersen had come back from a drug ban and Billups had come back to his hometown in an early-season deal and helped contain the emotions that sprayed in every direction. Mark Warkentien was voted Executive of the Year by his peers.

The roster that previously too often led with emotions had learned to play with composure, won big games in tight fourth quarters on the road and made itself into the second-best team in the West.

That was summer 2009. In summer 2010, Anthony looks to be trying to force a trade, though no one from his camp has said so publicly and won't because it would trigger a fine from the league and a severe PR backlash. Smith has clearly worn out his welcome. Warkentien, the vice president of basketball operations, was fired along with vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman. Josh Kroenke -- 30-year-old Josh Kroenke -- is taking over the personnel and financial decisions after his billionaire father, Stan, bought controlling interest in the St. Louis Rams (NFL rules prohibit majority ownership of sports in two major leagues). And, Karl, forced to take a leave in mid-March after being diagnosed with neck cancer, is planning a return to the bench, but his continued availability will obviously depend on how he feels.

It feels gloomy, and this is a team that won 53 games last season despite playing rookie Lawson big minutes, an injury to Martin and a passive first few months in a poor response to elevated status of a conference finalist that gets the best effort from opponents.

This comes down to Anthony, of course. If he leaves, the house tumbles down around the remaining inhabitants, because the Nuggets are not going to get a star of equal value in return. It would have to be a package deal of several lesser pieces -- established productive players, promising prospects, draft picks, expiring contracts.

That's the typical mode of transportation in such rescue jobs, except that the Nuggets are not the typical team gasping along. They're not a title threat either, but, they had 53 wins in difficult circumstances. That's why it's so wrong for Anthony to start digging a tunnel now.

LeBron James could look around and realize several landing spots gave him a better basketball situation than the Cavaliers -- the likewise was true for Chris Bosh. Chris Paul has reason to be concerned about the chances of the Hornets returning to contender status. Melo, though, isn't going to find many better chances to win than he has now.

The trickle down of the so-called ownership change will be much tougher to diagram. Control went from father to son, and there's no way of knowing if Stan will still be calling the shots from the background, like a baseball manager game planning from the tunnel after being ejected. Kroenke to Kroenke, it might not make a difference anyway.

But the move to replace Warkentien and Chapman showed they didn't really want much of a move. The Nuggets had reportedly settled on David Griffin, only to have the respected former Suns executive pull out during negotiations. And if an out-of-work personnel guy turns down the chance to take over as general manager in a good city with a strong tradition, message delivered. The owners either weren't willing to pay or, as word went around the league, weren't interested in giving the hire the loudest voice in the room. In the new management team, Griffin apparently wouldn't have been the No. 1 voice in basketball ops.

Raptors assistant general manager Masai Ujiri, a former Nuggets scout, got the job, and the problems that suddenly go with it. Suddenly being the operative word, because NBA life in Denver has changed so fast, to where the good times only a year old feel so long ago.


Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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