DENVER — Dapper in a gray suit and the requisite headphones, Carmelo Anthony stepped off the Knicks bus at Pepsi Center on Wednesday night.
A sea of hands reached out for his. A security guard greeted his old friend. Ty Lawson, the remaining Nugget from Melo's final season here, flashed a grin Melo's way.
“I was a big fan of his shoes,” Lawson said of growing up a Melo fan on the East Coast.
Even Doug Moe emerged in the hallway to give Anthony a man hug.
The Nuggets won the game, 117-94, over the Knicks.
Did the Nuggets win The Trade?
“I don’t know what the criteria for winning trades is,” George Karl said. “The criteria for most of the trades in my career is the team that gets the best player wins.”
The coach is too smart to say it. I'm not: Yes, the Nuggets won The Trade.
Somehow, the Nuggets are closer to an NBA title right now than they were in February 2011, when the deal went down and Denver lost arguably the finest player it has ever had.
It is as clear as the Summit County sky what team got the best player.
“I probably will never have another guy like that,” Karl said. “There’s probably 10 guys in NBA history that can score like that.”
What we never could have predicted: Denver ended up the best team.
In his first game in Denver wearing a different uniform, Anthony was showered with boos from fans that showed a short memory.
There should have been cheers — directed at general manager Masai Ujiri and the Kroenke Sports Enterprises office in the Pepsi Center penthouse.
What the Nuggets have done since moving Melo to New York is nothing short of a basketball miracle. Professional franchises don't maintain a playoff pace after losing a superstar. They don’t win 14 more games, as Denver has, than the team that gained the superstar.
They don’t allow us to ask this question and not get a funny look: Is the team better after the fact?
“I think we have regrouped in a very confident way and we’re excited about what’s going to happen,” Karl said, avoiding the question like a 25-year NBA coaching veteran.
You can argue whether the Nuggets are improved since unloading Anthony in a deal that shook the NBA and the franchise that drafted him in 2003.
They certainly have maintained. After Wednesday’s triumph, Denver has won 10 straight overall and 14 straight at home.
The Knicks were a 6-inch hurdle in the Nuggets’ track meet. Denver led 64-42 at halftime, allowing the sellout crowd to do what it really came for: focus on booing Anthony.
"At that point in my career (when the trade happened), it was a decision I had to make,” Anthony said. “The team was starting to go in a different direction. A lot of guys were up for contracts, so there were decisions the front office was going to have to make."
I considered The Trade to be the darkest day for the Nuggets. It took this January and February, two months of action ball, to convince me what the Nuggets are building is real.
Flying under a Western Conference radar that sometimes ventures outside Staples Center, the Nuggets are transforming into a legitimate contender. It might not happen this season.
But it’s happening, and that’s not something I ever expected to say when the Nuggets were forced to move their third-highest career-scoring leader out of town.
“We’ve come faster than I could ever have anticipated,” Karl allowed.
After a superstar leaves, the odds of a team maintaining are roughly the same as J.R. Smith meeting an off-balance 3-pointer he doesn’t like.
Just ask the poor fans in Cleveland, Orlando and Utah — teams that backslid into irrelevancy quicker than LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams packed their Louis Vuitton travel bags.
“It’s turned into being a positive for both situations,” Karl said.
“Some fans still love him,” former Nugget Kenyon Martin said. “Some fans have something to say.”
Denver should have cheered the player who resurrected a stagnant franchise.
If not for his seven-plus seasons with the Nuggets, then for a trade demand.
The Nuggets are faster, deeper and unavoidably exciting. Somehow, two years after The Trade, the Nuggets are better for it.
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