Ignore the numbers if you want. Look past the standings where one team is surging and one is falling apart. Forget about the names. And definitely don't try to find the superstar or the go-to player.
There is none.
This is the place where you'll find George Karl. The Nuggets coach is enjoying his role as the leader of his new team after Denver sent Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to New York for what was perceived as a bunch of scrubs.
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On Feb. 22, the Knicks were viewed as the darlings of the NBA world. They had gotten their man in Anthony, and the Nuggets were left with what looked like a mismatched roster in getting back Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov.
The prevailing thought was the Nuggets, without their superstar, would head into rebuilding mode and possibly suffer the same fate as Cleveland (minus LeBron James) or Toronto (minus Chris Bosh) as a team without a face. But Karl never saw it that way. He just saw a team.
"The gossip of the trade was one-sided," Karl said Monday after the Nuggets beat the Raptors 123-90. "Celebrations in New York and we just got the scraps. We never felt that way. We felt we had a hell of a chance to be a good team and all of [the players] are better than I thought they were."
The Nuggets are now 42-29 after beating the Raptors and locked into fifth place in the Western Conference. Denver trails Oklahoma City by four games for the No. 4 spot, and Karl said "let's try to scare them." He is thinking big even though many didn't give this team much of a chance. That's just the way Karl is.
A year ago, Karl took an indefinite leave of absence for throat and neck cancer -- his second battle with the disease in his life after overcoming prostate cancer in 2005. He had to undergo radiation treatment, eat through a feeding tube and sleep with an oxygen tank. Coming back from that was hard, so he welcomed the challenge of finding a way for this team to succeed without its best player in Anthony or floor general in Billups.
So far, everything is working out great in Karl's eyes. The Nuggets are 10-4 since the trade, including victories against playoff contenders Boston, New Orleans and Atlanta, while the Knicks are 7-9 and going in a different direction. It's not to say that Anthony and Billups leaving made the Nuggets better -- far from it -- but Karl can now utilize his entire roster and get everyone involved. No one is standing around watching one player pound the ball in isolation plays.
"I think sometimes the league thinks there's only one way to win in the NBA, and I've always felt the creativity of basketball is there's 20 ways to win," Karl said. "They say you can only win in pro ball with superstars ... I don't think that's true."
|George Karl's ability to adjust on the fly has the Nuggets jelling in an unexpected way. (Getty Images)|
Ty Lawson, now starting at point guard with Billups gone, said a big difference for the Nuggets has been the improved play of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin. Karl said the defense overall has been better, and he likes the way Chandler and Gallinari have competed. He's also used a lineup of two point guards in Lawson and Felton, which has created a fast-paced offense.
"We have 10 players who can play and can probably start on any team or play a big role on any team," Lawson said. "It's not really surprising. Once we jell we'll be good."
Karl is looking at the Nuggets as a work in progress. He continues to draw up plays in the huddle for the first time and is unsure what he's going to get almost on a nightly basis, but Denver has caught the attention of the rest of the league with how quickly things have worked out.
The Heat, in compiling their Big 3, got off to a slow start, the Knicks have struggled since overhauling their roster and even Boston has been sluggish since trading Kendrick Perkins. But the Nuggets are 7-3 in March, including three 30-point victories.
"There's nobody playing at the level they're playing at right now," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said last week.
Added Heat guard Dwyane Wade: "This is a very good team that has been playing well since the trade of Carmelo."
The Nuggets have a tough stretch run to end the regular season with games remaining against San Antonio, the Lakers, Oklahoma City twice and Dallas, but Karl expects his team to be ready. He's also looking forward to the playoffs.
No matter how the season ends, Karl is enjoying the ride. He just wants to see how far this team without a face can go.