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Shaun Powell

Danilo Gallinari, George Karl
Danilo Gallinari listens to coach George Karl in a Nuggets huddle.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nuggets winning without a superstar ... but for how long?


Posted Mar 25 2011 9:43AM

Few scenes are more breathtaking to behold than a Denver sunset, when the high-rise buildings turn to copper and the thin air turns crispy cool and the mountains stand like a sentry in the night.

Who knew a shutdown could be this sensational? Makes you wonder how things will look when sunset finally greets the Nuggets.

Right now, it's all good, all pretty, all so perfect, the way they're playing in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony trade. He went one way; they went another. He's losing while they're winning. He needs help; they have help. The Nuggets are 11-4 since swapping 'Melo for a collection of more coachable and defensive-minded players, the Knicks 7-10. Strike up a victory, then, in the name of t-e-a-m, which the Nuggets embody right now, and a crushing defeat in the name of individualism, which is what 'Melo seemed to signify.

A star? Who needs a team built around a star?

Of course, the answer to that is simple: Any team that hopes to win a championship some day.

Sunset should, and probably will, threaten the Nuggets at some point early in the playoffs, because the postseason historically has served as the Moment Of Truth. That's when a team turns to a reliable player in the clutch, someone tried and tested, someone who rises like yeast to the occasion.

Maybe he doesn't always take the last shot or the tough shot, but he impacts the last shot and tough shot. He's the difference between a team lifting the Lawrence O'Brien trophy and dropping it. Or never getting their fingers around it in the first place.

This isn't to say the Nuggets lost that when they traded 'Melo because, truth is, he never was or is a superstar. A tremendous scorer? Yes. Kobe? No.

It is to say the Nuggets, blessed with balance and a solid coach and flying high right now, are still missing the most important element. Which makes them no different than three-fourths of the NBA.

When the season begins, only five or six teams have a realistic shot at being champs because they have the stars. The rest are hoping to make playoff money and live another month or two, that's all. And those who aren't fortunate or good enough to make the playoffs are hoping to land such star in the Draft lottery.

Only one team in recent memory won a championship without a true franchise player. But were the 2004 Pistons really that good, or did they win because the Lakers' stars imploded in the NBA Finals? Curiously, the Pistons of the last decade never won another title. They did knock on the door a half-dozen times, only to come up short. Maybe a superstar short.

All we can do with these Nuggets is compare them to the 'Melo Nuggets and conclude the obvious, that everyone's happier and the team is more unpredictable. This is a team a coach loves, because he can do more tinkering with lineups and strategy and minutes. Nobody knows who'll take the next shot, or the last, which is the beauty of the Nuggets.

"It took us only one practice to know they were pretty good," George Karl said about Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and putting them in the mix. "We got some good pieces. There is competition going on for minutes in every game."

Those ex-Knicks -- along with J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson, Nene in contract mode and a healthy Kenyon Martin -- make for a deep and balanced team, which isn't top or bottom heavy. Their best player, whoever he is, has roughly the same value as the No. 7 guy.

The Nuggets have changed their entire personality in mid-season, causing other teams to throw out those old scouting reports. Denver is winning partly because Karl has done a terrific job molding a team on the fly, but also because nobody has figured the Nuggets out yet.

Eventually, they will. In a best-of-seven playoff series, where you need only to study one team, somebody will size up the Nuggets and find a soft spot. They'll play the Nuggets straight up on defense, since nobody is dangerous enough to warrant a double team. And somebody will dare Gallinari or Smith or Felton to beat them. Not saying those players can't, on occasion. But consistently? Under the April and May heat? They'll have to prove it.

Even Karl admits the playoffs will tell, and added: "Everyone thinks we won't be any good, and that's fine."

Actually, the evidence so far says the Nuggets will be good. But to go deep in the playoffs, greatness is required. They'll probably get a first-round matchup against Oklahoma City, and if so, the best player on the floor will be Kevin Durant.

When the Moment of Truth arrives in that series, who do you think will deliver?

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. 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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