Can the no-star Nuggets win it all?
Give it up for the Denver Nuggets, the team that's still winning after trading its star player last season, the team that's still winning even though three players signed inescapable contracts in China during the lockout. The Lakers will have two All-Star starters; the Nuggets have a better record.
So the Nuggets are going to upend the league's system, break the grip of big markets and star stacking, and prove that a team game can trump big names ... right, Andre Miller?
"I still think you need a star to win in this league," the Nuggets guard said. "That's how it tends to happen in a high-level game like this."
But can't this team be the exception?
"It won't be the exception," Miller said. "I'd like to say that, but it's the [regular] season. Once you get to the playoffs, it's a totally different story. The stars run the league, and the league wants that, for the promotion. I don't know when the last team that didn't have the stars won the championship."
OK, then. So much for that storyline. But Miller has always been a guy that thinks in linear terms, and he plays the same way. There's nothing unnecessary in his game, just the essentials to get the job done, which has made him an effective point guard and as good a spokesman as any for this team. Miller can be both realistic about Denver's championship prospects, yet simultaneously give the team a chance to overcome the odds with his play.
I still think you need a star to win in this league. That's how it tends to happen in a high-level game like this.” -- Nuggets point guard Andre Miller
The coach sure believes in this squad. And after everything George Karl has been through the past few years, isn't he entitled to that feeling, the same way he's entitled to this hassle-free squad?
He missed the end of the 2009-10 season while undergoing cancer treatment and watched a promising team fall apart and lose in the first round in his absence. With the cancer in remission, he came back only to find that Carmelo Anthony wanted out. He spent the first half of last season dealing with that, then saw his team surge with the influx of new players in the second half. The Nuggets couldn't build off the momentum in the summer when the league shut down, and the lockout left Karl with nothing to do for 5½ months. He was getting so antsy to coach he even considered heading to Europe and consulting with teams there.
And now ... he has a team that is among the best in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are as deep as anyone in the league. They have six players who average double-digit points, thanks in part to the players they acquired for Anthony and those they spun off in later deals. They might get a boost for the playoffs if they re-sign restricted free agent Wilson Chandler, who was the only restricted free agent of the three players in China (the others are Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith) and the only one they seem interested in bringing back. Chandler fits the culture of this team, which might be as easy to deal with as any group Karl has had.
"It's a calmer group of guys, probably a stress-reliever for him," said Miller, who is in his second tour of duty under Karl. "We have more of a college atmosphere, there's no true standout stars that you're looking at."
The bonus for the players is that it's an equal-opportunity system.
"I think every player in this league wants to play in an offense like this, because it's how they grew up, basically," Miller said. "Just running. Scoring, sharing the ball, playing unselfish basketball."
The flip side is they're the kind of players a coach wants to have. It's as if coaching this group has been good for Karl's health. Or at least his soul. He looks more vibrant than he did a month ago, despite the grueling schedule forced upon everyone because of the lockout. While he doesn't have as much time to spend with them in practice as he'd like, Karl has the type of players that he covets.
"I think all coaches would prefer to coach 90 percent of the time and ego-manage 10 percent of the time," Karl said. "But every NBA team has its egos. It comes in different packages. Sometimes it's shot selections, sometimes it's being on time. Sometimes it's not liking practice.
"I kid [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] all the time: He's always had a 90-10 team. And I probably have a 90-10 team now."
And for a coach who constantly preaches the need to share the ball, he has to be thrilled that the Nuggets lead the NBA in assists.
"Very much so," Karl said. "I've always felt, coming from North Carolina, the system predicated on the pass is more important to the team than any skill they can bring to the team."
He said that championships teams tend to have good passers at every position -- even Dennis Rodman when he was with the Bulls. Then again, championship teams tend to have stars. Twenty-eight of the past 31 champions featured at least one of these nine players: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The Nuggets don't have any players on the 20-man roster of finalists for the U.S. Olympic team. Their only chance of an All-Star is center Nene.
"I think if you consistently win with the type of team we have now, someone's going to become a star," Karl said. "Someone will elevate into that area of All-Star or elevate into that area of special player. The process builds a special player ... if you win."
But can you win without a star? It goes against everything we know about the NBA. That suits Karl, who is one of the last people still actively carrying that countercultural ABA flag.
Karl differentiates between basketball and the NBA. Basketball is the game he loves. The NBA is the agents, endorsements, media and everything else that diverts attention away from what should matter most: the players on the court. Nothing would make him happier than to see his basketball team conquer the NBA.
Anthony chose the NBA over basketball. He wanted New York, Madison Square Garden, everything except the situation most conducive to winning. He left a team that had been to the Western Conference finals two years prior for a team that hasn't won a playoff series in more than a decade.
It's not for Karl to say, and he says it isn't within his realm to know, but maybe, just maybe, Melo regrets the decision.
Even though I don't have a close relationship with Melo, I think he liked playing for us. I think he sees how much we're having fun playing, and he's in that 'hell' of basketball right now that we all have been in.” -- Nuggets coach George Karl
"Even though I don't have a close relationship with Melo, I think he liked playing for us," Karl said. "I think he sees how much we're having fun playing, and he's in that 'hell' of basketball right now that we all have been in."
That's not to say that there's nothing about Melo that the Nuggets miss. The Nuggets might have flouted my Headline Rule (the NBA team that gets the player named in the headline automatically wins the trade), but they're not so adept at defying my Shoe Rule, which states that only players with their own signature line of shoes should get the shots at the end of a game.
The Nuggets are 3-4 in games decided in overtime or by four points or less. Karl resists the notion that the Nuggets lack a closer. He chastised the team beat writer for suggesting just that after a loss to Memphis in which their final shot was a desperate 3 by Rudy Fernandez, who had not made a basket all game. Very un-Shoe Rule.
"We lost [Tuesday] night because we couldn't rebound the damn ball and couldn't make a free throw," Karl insisted a day later.
Then he conceded: "For seven years I had Melo. Basically all you had to do was give him the ball and make sure you space the court and he would win the game for you at the best level in basketball.
"Now we're going to have to get cuter."
Cute. Kind of like the notion that a team can win without a superstar.
Miller said that star-studded teams such as Miami "get leeway defensively and offensively. If they're not scoring the ball, they're at the free throw line. So everything is high percentage for them."
The perception is that stars always get the calls. But guess who's getting to the free throw line more times per game than any other team in the league? The Denver Nuggets.
And guess who scores more points in the paint than any other team? You guessed it. Nene is a guy you can throw it to and have him go score inside. The Oklahoma City Thunder don't have that. Neither do the Dallas Mavericks or Los Angeles Clippers.
Maybe the lockout knocked the NBA world off its axis enough to make the things the Nuggets do well more relevant. Maybe things could break their way this season.
"This year's wild," Karl said, with a gleam in his eye.
He likes it that way.