Make It Through The Wall

Professional contest eaters have my utmost respect. Yes, it’s a crude showing of excess; it’s overindulgence to the point of physical and psychological torture. But it’s a gift that requires a complete dismissal of all the body’s warning signs and defense mechanisms. That takes a certain combination of willpower and crazy. Eating is the easy part. Persevering as everything slows to a crawl and your body begins to collapse. That’s hard.

It’s something you have to face personally to understand.

I ate 85 chicken nuggets at a local eating contest. I didn’t win it, but I surely didn’t lose it. There were men and women decades (and upwards of 250 pounds) my senior that weren’t able to put down as many as I did. But eventually – for me, at around the 70th nugget – the people eyeing the same goal as you fade away. There is nothing but you and the mound of flesh, glistening with oil and fat, staring you dead in the eye. At that point, two seems like a pretty lonely number.

You feel your body begin to cave. You see the pile of nuggets, steadfast in their plans to destroy you. You feel your jaws begin to falter, and you feel the oil begin to crawl towards the back of your throat. You taste defeat. It’s salty and monotonous. Monotony is lethal.

Drudging towards 80, I felt my hands and feet begin to tingle. Curiously, I asked for five more. If 80 was my unscalable wall, 85 would be my victory, my consolation prize, my token of self-respect.

For Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri, the number was four. Four new players: a victory if one could exist in such a hopeless situation, a consolation prize consisting of four promising athletes with significant talent, and a deal that kept Denver’s self-respect intact.

(h/t to James Herbert of Outside the NBA)

With that, a sigh of relief and more. Wide-eyed and smiling, Karl had an unmistakable rosy glow on the Thursday night following the trade.

He was clearly drunk.

Plastered. In excitement, in the new opportunities afforded, in hope. So much has been made about Carmelo Anthony leaving this Denver Nuggets team in ruin. Immediately after rumors of Anthony’s trade to New York were confirmed, we saw a haggard Karl answer questions listlessly outside his car. Something changed between Monday night and Thursday’s broadcast. Something forced him out of the gloom, and forced him to marvel at the freedom of the roster and the freedom in his control.

Whatever changed his outlook, we witnessed it against the Boston Celtics.

The team was assembled less than a week ago, nowhere near the amount of time needed to build sufficient chemistry. Nonetheless, there was a distinct sense of unity amongst the players. After all, Melo wasn’t the only one who was traded, and he wasn’t the only one who had to face uncertainty for months on end. The four Knicks traded were essentially told their contributions to New York’s resurgence weren’t good enough. The Nuggets that have remained played through the first half of the season in an inoperable haze without so much as a scheme or identity. These Nuggets, if only for the rest of this season, have one. While their backgrounds and talents differ, they’ve been brought together because of Carmelo’s shadow. Now the only thing left to do is escape.

This shouldn’t be too difficult. The Nuggets losing their two most potent scorers and most dominant ball-handlers will provide an opportunity for neglected offensive schemes, and a swift death to isolation-heavy offense. In the three games before the trade, Denver logged 51 assists. In the first three games without Anthony, the team logged 71. Ball movement will be imperative, and it would be surprising if more pick and roll opportunities aren’t created with Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, and J.R. Smith all sharing ball handling duties.

One very intriguing element to this new team is the versatility of Wilson Chandler. While he’s played only one game in Denver, he’s already established himself as an extremely important two-way player. Chandler defended almost every position on the floor against the Celtics, including some impressive defense against Glen Davis who outweighs Chandler by at least 50 pounds. In less playing time in his previous 51 games with the Knicks, Chandler is efficiently producing better numbers. There aren’t any drastic leaps for better or worse in any statistical category, but there are incremental improvements across the board. It may be a small sample size, but an efficient and improving Wilson Chandler can only mean good things for Denver’s future.

There are too many questions regarding the future. We don’t know how Nene will handle the extra defensive attention with Melo gone. We don’t know for certain if Ty Lawson will keep his starting role. We don’t even know if this same team will exist past the season. But if Thursday was any indication, these Nuggets should be a thrill ride full of hell-raising defensive pressure, a lot of ball movement, and a lot of explosive scoring from an array of sources, however long it lasts. The Celtics game may have just been a mirage, but this team could legitimately go 10 deep. Against Boston, Karl played 10 players, none playing over 31 minutes, and none playing less than 13. Even more astounding is the shot distribution, as only one Nuggets player, Kenyon Martin, took more than 10 shots. Granted, this isn’t going to happen every night, but it’s a testament to the depth that this team now possesses.

Perhaps this was the only way that Denver could have operated in a post-Melo era. After allowing one player to overshadow the entire franchise for months, the only conceivable way for the team to progress was to construct an identity contrary to Anthony’s. Karl has a chance to construct one of the more creative and dynamic teams in the league, while stressing what was once the calling card for a Nuggets franchise at the cusp of an NBA Finals appearance two seasons ago. A commitment to team ball and defense. Sounds fun. Sounds almost foreign the way the first half of the season had gone for Denver.

Seven years have passed since Carmelo Anthony first shook David Stern’s hand, solidifying his place in Nuggets history. Seven years have passed and this team finds itself without its leader, without its cornerstone. But Denver finds itself in exciting territory far removed from the road to ruin that was once anticipated.

Carmelo was the wall. Denver has gotten over. It aches for a bit, but nothing that time and a few antacids can’t fix.

Seth Carstens