Frank Franklin II/Associated Press file photo
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press file photo
DENVER – Carmelo Anthony simply won’t recognize these Denver Nuggets – even though he had just about everything to do with the makeup of their roster.
The New York Knicks will visit the Pepsi Center tonight in Anthony’s first trip back to Denver since forcing his way out of town more than two years ago in a blockbuster trade that reshaped both franchises.
The only familiar face he’ll see is that of point guard Ty Lawson. None of the other Nuggets were here when he was wearing powder blue and gold.
“This game is going to be huge,” Lawson said. “It might be the most exciting game of the year because Carmelo is going to come in. It is going to be a fun game. I can’t wait.”
The trade is turning out to be a win-win for both teams.
The high-flying Nuggets landed a bevy of young players, trade exemptions and draft picks they’ve used to retool their roster, and the Knicks got a bona fide superstar to build a team around.
The resurgent Knicks (38-23) are leading the Atlantic Division, and the Nuggets (43-22) are in the hunt for home-court advantage in the playoffs, and they’re out to prove coach George Karl’s proclamation that an NBA franchise doesn’t need a superstar to be great.
Karl has repeated that line so often this season that it’s become his mantra, although he acknowledges there’s a caveat: If the Nuggets keep on rolling, Lawson and/or forward Danilo Gallinari will be considered stars before long.
Gallinari came over in the ’Melo deal along with fellow starter Kosta Koufos, key reserve Wilson Chandler and emergency center Timofey Mozgov. The Nuggets also got Raymond Felton, whom they flipped for point guard Andre Miller and two draft picks, one of which landed them Jordan Hamilton.
They used trade exemptions from the deal to acquire Corey Brewer from Dallas and JaVale McGee from Washington. A first-round draft pick acquired in the blockbuster trade was used to get starter Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia last summer, and Denver used a second-round pick from the deal to draft Quincy Miller.
That’s 10 Nuggets connected to Anthony’s departure from Denver.
The Nuggets were first-round playoff fodder in each of the last two seasons after Anthony’s exit, but then again they only advanced out of the first round once in Anthony’s time in Denver. They’re trying to catch Memphis for the fourth seed or even the Clippers for the third seed, which could go a long way in helping them go deeper in this year’s playoffs.
After all, they’re 27-3 at home.
The Knicks are ahead of Brooklyn and Boston atop the Atlantic Division and are second in the Eastern Conference behind defending champion Miami.
Anthony isn’t 100 percent for his return to the Rocky Mountains, however.
A nagging right knee injury sidelined him for three games before he returned Monday night and collected 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Knicks’ 92-63 blowout loss at Golden State.
“I just want to play at this point, just try to win the game,” Anthony said of his Denver return. “There’s definitely going to be some emotions up in the air, but I can’t really worry about that. I don’t want to go into the game with my knee being on my mind. I just want to try to play through it and just see what happens.”
The Nuggets are eager to face Anthony.
“With ’Melo they are a different team,” Karl said. “Without ’Melo they are a three-point shooting team. It will be interesting to see how we can be aggressive with them and still cover the three-ball. I am sure we will have a lot of guys ready to go after ’Melo. We will have three or four guys who probably enjoy the challenge of taking on one of the best – if not the best – offensive player in basketball.”
Even though it’s been so long since his departure, fans are sure to let ’Melo have it much like they boo Kobe Bryant every time he touches the ball in Denver. After all, Anthony was jeered at home in the months leading up to his trade in February 2011.
To be sure, some will show him some love for all the memories of last-second shots and 30-point nights over his eight seasons in Denver that included a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
“I hope it is a celebration, but then when the game gets started, I hope they are supportive of us and crazy wild for us,” Karl said. “The Knicks are one of the teams that travel well in the NBA and has a lot of fans. Our fans have done a good job of drowning out the Laker fans and drowning out the Chicago Bull fans.”
Lawson figures it will be a playoff atmosphere when the game tips off at 8:30 p.m. today, a nationally televised game on ESPN and regionally on Altitude.
“This game is going to be crazy,” Lawson said. “It will be exciting. Probably the most exciting game of the year. There is going to be so much energy in the gym, and they will have the fire to beat us.”