As I’ve argued in the (recent) past, the NBA’s experiencing somewhat of a competitive renaissance this season, with superstar-less teams like the Sixers, Pacers, Rockets, Hawks, Nuggets, Jazz, and Blazers jostling with their more talented competitors for top playoff seeds. And while the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, and Clippers are still the odds-on favorites to capture the title this spring, their dominance, which would’ve been all but a given in seasons past, has been challenged like never before by the league’s newly ascendant middle class.
But what must cause fans of these otherwise fine teams to curse the basketball gods for their cruel and capricious ways is that many of the franchises in question were once themselves blessed with, and led by, elite players. The Sixers, for instance, are having a superb season thus far, and will prove a nightmare for whichever team(s) they ultimately face in the playoffs; but imagine how formidable they’d be if Elton Brand, a bona fide low-post beast and defensive stalwart before his Achilles injury, was even 75% as effective as he once was. Or what if, miraculously, Brandon Roy’s and Greg Oden’s careers hadn’t been sabotaged by crippling injuries? Would the Blazers, who’ve managed to post a 14-12 record without them, be the best team in the league right now?
Two teams in particular, however, stand conspicuously above the middling pack in regards to their “what if” potential, and exemplify 2012 parity in the NBA, especially since (unlike in the cases discussed above) injury wasn’t a factor in either situation: the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz. Both squads shipped superstars elsewhere last season amid controversy, and both have (in the short-term, anyway) emerged relatively unscathed from crises that threatened to permanently derail each franchise.
But are these teams better off in the long run?
Of the two teams in question, the Nuggets probably regret their superstar’s departure the least. With the
second/ fourth/seventh-best record* in their conference, the highest-scoring/fastest-paced offense in the league, and a likeable young duo (Gallinari and Lawson) at the helm, Denver appears positioned to make a deep postseason run, as evidenced by victories over the Heat, Sixers, Clippers, and Lakers (though they’ve certainly suffered some setbacks of late). Furthermore, the Knicks’ early struggles, coupled with their failure to med Carmelo’s talents with those of his teammates, has only sweetened what otherwise could’ve been a very bitter divorce, and absolved Masai Ujiri and co. of their failure to retain their franchise player.
But although Carmelo’s departure was, in all likelihood, an inevitability, one has to wonder what would’ve occurred had he somehow been persuaded to resign with Denver. Would the Nuggets be appreciably better? Or would they’ve remained ensnared in the league’s middle class, as they were for most of Anthony’s tenure in the Mile High City?
Certainly, possessing a scorer of Carmelo’s caliber would (ostensibly) bolster Denver’s chances at competing for a title; for however real Danilo Gallinari’s talents, few would argue his case as a closer (according to 82games.com he’s shooting just 23% in crunchtime this season) or alpha dog. And while the Nuggets were essentially the NBA’s “Sick Man” during their long, slow fall from the heights of the ’09 season (i.e. the year they made the Conference Finals), Carmelo at least guaranteed you 50 wins a year and, provided he was teamed with someone who could shoulder the burden of leadership (Chauncey Billups being the most prominent example), a puncher’s chance of advancing in the postseason.
Yet while the Nuggets will undoubtedly fall short of the Finals without that elite scorer seemingly required of nearly every title team, dodging the disaster a Carmelo-centric future would’ve precipitated should be regarded as a victory in and of itself. For however laudatory it is to carry your team to seven consecutive 50-win seasons, failing to advance past the First Round in all but one of those years (in, again, 2009) signifies a player who, much like Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter before him, was wholly unprepared to assume the responsibilities required of a top-shelf superstar.
Carmelo could, of course, eventually transform the Knicks into a legitimate playoff contender, but the Nuggets should consider themselves lucky for having cashed in when and how they did (not they really had any other choice). Though 14 games is far too small a sample-size to declare the Knicks deal an unmitigated success for Denver, it hardly seems coincidental that the latter won 18 of its final 25 games last season following said trade, and have subsequently (and already) played at a higher level (
5.19 4.08 SRS) than at any point during Anthony’s tenure in Colorado (the Nuggets’ average SRS during the Carmelo Era: 2.21).
At first glance, the Jazz’s current situation appears remarkably similar to that of Denver’s: they’re enjoying a surprisingly successful start to the season, despite having endured an ugly split with a superstar who, coincidentally, was also swapped for a package of role players from a team residing in the New York area. That their former leader’s subsequently struggled (like Carmelo) to adjust to his new environs has, in the eyes of many, undoubtedly vindicated Kevin O’Connor’s shocking decision to preemptively move Deron Williams, and left Nets fans (like their Knicks compatriots) baffled at their new star’s relative ineffectiveness.
Yet, unlike the Nuggets, the Jazz would be much, much better off had they somehow managed to hold on to their star. Though Utah was relatively unimpressive during the first half of last season (31-26 at mid-season), when Williams captained a core that’s remained largely intact from then to now, some of that team’s shortcomings were undoubtedly a product of internal strife and behind-the-scenes drama. Maybe, as Karl Malone recently claimed, D-Will had garnered too much power within the organization, and maybe the Sloan-Williams rift exposed character flaws of the latter; but unlike Carmelo, Williams had, during his stay in Salt Lake City, proven himself capable of consistently leading (and that’s the operative word) a team to postseason success without having to relinquish that burden to a more senior player.
Pondering how the Jazz would’ve fared had they managed to placate Williams and, ultimately, induce him to remain in Utah is to wander into highly speculative territory, but one can plausibly imagine that they’d be significantly better if, by some miracle, were allowed to rescind their trade with New Jersey (imagine how THAT would go over). Whatever the virtues of Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and a future First Round pick, Deron Williams would’ve represented a perfect complement to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap (particularly after having played with them for a full season), and an enormous upgrade at point guard (sorry, Devin).
Would Deron Williams propel the Jazz to the top of the West? No, probably not. But they would almost certainly pose a very real threat to the Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, Spurs, etc. (remember: they’ve beaten Philly, Denver, Portland, and both L.A. teams this season without a competent point guard), and, provided O’Connor surrounded his stars with the proper role players, a shot at consistently competing with the league’s elite in future seasons.
*Losing streaks can really undermine an argument.