Carmelo's woes don't dampen Denver's hopes

Editor's Note: ESPN.com's 2004-05 NBA Preview continues with a look at the "Darlings That Must Deliver." Today the spotlight falls on the Denver Nuggets.

The ceaseless comparisons. The constant questions about the other guy. The controversial voting that made him a Rookie of the Year runner-up, even though his team made the playoffs and the ROY winner's team didn't.

All that doesn't sound so bad now.

Carmelo Anthony must miss those long-ago days when his biggest problem was getting out-pubbed by his buddy LeBron James, justly or unjustly.

Those were good times, no matter how much spotlight Bron hogged. The Denver Nuggets, and Carmelo specifically, were cuddly darlings back then.

It's different today. As a 20-year-old, Anthony has some real problems to handle. He is widely expected to co-lead the Nuggets, with newcomer Kenyon Martin, to meet Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke expectations of a top four finish in the rugged Western Conference. At the same time, Anthony's trying to restore some of his darling status after a string of incidents that have stained his reputation.

"On me?" Anthony said, repeating a question about pressure.

"There's a lot. A lot."

Melo made that admission in a recent ESPN.com interview even before it was disclosed publicly that officials at Denver International Airport found less than an ounce of marijuana in one of Anthony's bags before a flight to Milwaukee. Whether or not the petty-offense charge is dropped -- with a close friend having taken responsibility for putting the marijuana there -- Anthony's to-do list for Year 2 is suddenly a lot longer than he expected.

That's because this incident, no matter who's at fault, tainted Anthony's name for at least the third time since the end of last season. Before the many Car-mellow jokes in circulation began, there were repeated clashes with Olympic coach Larry Brown in July and August, followed by a New York nightclub scuffle in September. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound manchild, as a result, has been increasingly labeled as a problem child.

The salvation? Anthony can hush a lot of those whispers with a season that keeps him on par with James and delivers Denver a step higher than last season's 43-39 breakthrough season. Better still, with the acquisition of Martin, Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe has created a team that can help Anthony and the Nuggets get there.

With the new Nuggets, all Anthony really has to do is score -- his specialty -- and improve his ball-sharing to keep others involved. Martin is a fiery leader who doubles as one of the league's best frontcourt defenders. As a bonus, Martin doesn't demand the ball, which makes him a handy complement to Anthony.

Denver also has Marcus Camby and Nene in its frontcourt rotation, giving coach Jeff Bzdelik arguably the league's best unit there, with the unheralded Francisco Elson as a fine No. 4 option. Those bigs, with K-Mart, can offset Anthony's defensive shortcomings. Martin, meanwhile, has the clout and voice to pull the locker-room occupants together, which is a bit much to ask Anthony at his age.

"I accept the role," Martin said. "It's cool. It's great for them to look at me for that."

After a pause, and before letting the subject switch, Martin added: "We have a great frontline, man."

Seeing all the size gather for the past month has convinced 5-5 guard Earl Boykins, another of last season's darlings, that the Nuggets will have the requisite success that gets folks talking about something besides Melo's recent foibles.

"It's going to be hard, but it's a step that we have to make," Boykins said. "Expectations are high around Denver, but they should be. Pressure comes with success, and when you improve from 17 to 43 wins, the next step is a 50-win season."

Said Vandeweghe, when asked to explain his confidence in the Nuggets' ability to make a run at 50 wins and compete for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs: "With all due respect to Chris Andersen, we've basically traded Chris for Kenyon Martin."

As with any club this time of year, optimism overshadows the potential trouble sources, and the Nuggets do have a few. Voshon Lenard is Denver's only recognized perimeter threat, and the half-court offense, where Denver's execution tends to break down, looks like it'll be an issue yet again. Vandeweghe's desire to find a perimeter defensive specialist to further ease Anthony's load led to the free-agent signings of Greg Buckner and Bryon Russell, but neither played much last season and they will have to reestablish themselves.

Not that Vandeweghe will admit to any deep concern about any of the above.

"It's always tough to say when someone asks you about realistic expectations," Vandeweghe offered. "What I will say is that we believe we can compete with anybody."

Said Martin: "Sky's the limit. We're young, we're athletic. We're not putting that pressure on ourselves that we have to win 50 games or it's a failure. But if we go out and play the right way, we will win 50 games."

That would certainly help Bzdelik, the lame-duck coach who isn't likely to last beyond this season with the Nuggets. How Anthony interacts with Bzdelik -- whose contract stipulated that only a playoff berth last season would keep him coaching this season -- will be another handy topic for the Melo Watch.

"It's been a tough summer for Carmelo, for a variety of reasons," Vandeweghe said. "But Carmelo is a good kid who's really trying to use all these experiences as lessons. He's doing the right thing. And once the season starts, and he gets playing again, I think you'll see the same old Carmelo."

And what does Melo expect to see from Melo, besides the inevitable links to LeBron?

"A better player," he said, "and a better person than I was last year."

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.