DENVER — The great experiment at Pepsi Center has been under way since Carmelo Anthony forced the Nuggets to deal away their franchise savior.
All that's missing is a white lab coat to replace their Big Bird-yellow jerseys.
The experiment is this: Can a roster of complementary players find the right mixture to overcome the absence of a true superstar and reach the NBA Finals?
The answer is this: “No. I don’t care how much team basketball you play or how much talent you have all spread out. You can’t win in this league without a superstar.”
Can’t win — or can’t win big?
“You can’t win a championship. I don’t even think you can even advance in the playoffs without that marquee player.”
Guess who told me that Wednesday?
A veteran in his 13th season in the NBA.
In addition to his refreshing honesty, Andre Miller is playing at a level that should be applauded. Quietly, his style, the point guard is a significant reason the Nuggets are hunting their eighth straight victory when the Bulls visit Thursday.
George Karl appreciates the stability Miller brings to a lineup that can be as wild as it is fun to watch. The coach leans on his eldest player at critical moments in games, knowing the trusty point guard is adept at making the wise decision.
"He comes in to work every day and goes hard every practice,” forward Corey Brewer said. “It shows in the game.”
When Miller signed for three more years in July, I didn’t know how much butter he still had in his popcorn. The 36-year-old has enough to fill a multiplex.
The Nuggets are storming toward the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Since mid-December, no team has more wins than Denver (20).
At home, where their record is 21-3, these Nuggets are must-see TV.
This is not to disparage Denver’s rip-roaring start to the new year. This is simply cold, hard, playoff truth.
It said something when Denver approached Boston about the availability of center Kevin Garnett, according to a report in The Denver Post.
It said the Nuggets acknowledge their ceiling is limited with their current makeup — in spite of their best run since Melo ditched the big mountains for the Big Apple.
"I think we have enough here to play well during the (regular) season,” Miller said. “The goal right now is to position ourselves for homecourt advantage (in the playoffs). Maybe that will help; I’m not sure. But we’ll have to play a lot smarter."
Miller, who is the backup to Ty Lawson, said his career goal is to play 15 seasons in the NBA. Lawson is their point guard of the future and their starter of the present.
“I want more minutes,” Miller said. “If we were losing I would really be complaining. But it’s going as it goes.”
"I don't know how much longer they want me here. I definitely would like to contribute more,” Miller added when I asked if he wants to finish in Denver. “I’m not just going to sit back and settle in and be a backup and let my career just fade away. I’m competitive in that way.”
The Bulls (29-19) offer a fair comparison for the Nuggets (31-18) — a lineup flourishing without a superstar.
“They don’t have a lot of stars,” Karl said. “They play as a team.”
But the Bulls come to town with an ace in their back pocket: A true superstar. Derrick Rose, named NBA MVP at age 22, practiced in Denver on Wednesday and is expected to return from injury after the All-Star break.
Can the Nuggets' great experiment lead to the NBA Finals? One seasoned veteran says the key ingredient still is missing.