CHICAGO – The Denver Nuggets are trying to do what the conventional wisdom says in the NBA cannot be done. Twice. And they may actually be on the way.
You are supposed to lose the trade when you give up the All-Star and all-NBA player, though the Nuggets did not seem to lose when they traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks two years ago.
Since then, the Nuggets have won more playoff games than the Knicks and more regular-season games, a winning percentage above 60 percent to about 55 percent for the Knicks.
You also aren’t supposed to be able to win an NBA title without a superstar, or certainly an All-Star, and no one that projects as a basketball Hall of Famer.
And here are the Nuggets currently on a 12-game winning streak, perhaps the most overlooked double-digit winning streak in NBA history given the Miami Heat with LeBron James are working on 23 straight amidst talk they would make a run at the all-time best 33-game win streak of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72.
Denver is quietly making a run at third in the Western Conference as it is battling with the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies in the three/four/five spots in the Western Conference for the vital home-court edge. And it is more important for the Nuggets, perhaps, than most as Denver is one of the best home teams in the league, tied going into the week with Miami at 30-3 as the Nuggets headed out on a road trip.
The Nuggets always have been a team to try to take advantage of the mile-high altitude in Denver, the highest and lightest air of any NBA city, to put together a running, active team that would tire out teams playing in the Rocky Mountains state of Colorado. And while the Nuggets still have a losing road record this season, they have improved of late and have won this season on the road against the Lakers, Clippers, Pacers, Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors.
It’s a somewhat unexpected improvement given they lost their All-Star —they didn’t have one this season — and are a mostly young team. This isn’t supposed to happen so quickly.
But the Nuggets have a future Hall of Fame coach in George Karl and added veteran influence in an offseason trade for Philadephia’s Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala isn’t a great scoring star, which is why the 76ers let him go in the multi-team trade that got them Andrew Bynum, who has yet to play this season with injuries.
But Iguodala is one of the league’s premier defenders, and he adds an element that was missing with those previous Nuggets teams that were best at home, defense.
Though the Nuggets remain an offensive team that runs to take advantage of playing in the high altitude, which tires visiting players unaccustomed to it, the Nuggets are a good defensive team with shot blocking in the explosive and sometimes erratic JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, the latter player nicknamed “Manimal” for his ferocious play.
So Denver ranks third in scoring offense. But the Nuggets also rank 11th in opponent shooting, one of the primary barometers of defensive play. They are second in total rebounding and third in rebounding differential, the kind of statistics that can translate into a long playoff run.
Again, it would be rare given teams constructed like the Nuggets aren’t supposed to win titles.
They resemble in some respects the New York Knicks championship teams of the early 1970s with the varied scoring as six Nuggets average in double figures and another two are above nine per game. But those Knicks teams that had scoring all over the floor had the go-to guy in Willis Reed and later Earl Monroe and multiple Hall of Famers.
Perhaps the better comparison to teams similarly constructed with ultimate successful results are the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 1979 Seattle Supersonics. Neither had a player who averaged 20 points or a player who projects as an eventual Hall of Famer, though players like Jack Sikma and Ben Wallace could be mentioned. But even they had Gus Williams at 19.2 per game with Seattle and Richard Hamilton at 17.6 with Detroit.
The Nuggets’ leading scorer is little point guard Ty Lawson at 16.8 per game. You could go to Hamilton or Williams for a last shot, though it seems unlikely you set up for the 178-cm Lawson, though the Nuggets have done it.
But this all becomes possible because the Nuggets traded an elite star in Anthony and “won” the trade, which is basically unheard of.
Anthony had made it clear he wouldn’t re-sign, and it became a widespread bidding with fan bitterness in Denver. But the Nuggets’ wily general manager, Masai Ujiri, remained patient and continued to allow the desperate Knicks to bid against themselves.
The Knicks feared the neighboring Nets moving to Brooklyn, and looking to make a bold move, would steal Anthony.
So they kept increasing the offer until the Nuggets effectively ended up with Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, Andre Miller and a draft pick they used to acquire Iguodala. That depth and the flexibility — with players they acquired Miller for Ray Felton, who was in the original deal — gave the Nuggets a deep, young and athletic roster with size in addition to the clever drafting that netted Lawson 18th in the draft and Faried 22nd.
It now stands as one of the best young cores of players in the NBA. It perhaps lacks a big time scoring star. But the way the Nuggets play with speed, athletic ability and forcing turnovers, as they are among the league leaders and aggressive defensively, they may not only have a chance to win a title but may provide a blueprint for many franchises.
Because the combination of a lack of great stars and stricter financial rules with the new labor agreement is limiting teams from adding high-salaried players.
Can the Denver Model succeed?
The entire NBA is watching.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”