Revel though some of us may at how selflessly dominant the Nuggets are now, the post-Anthony era wasn't met with the same enthusiasm.
Like any franchise, Denver felt slighted by its superstar wanting to play elsewhere. Even more painstaking than Melo's departure were the ramifications that were supposed to follow. Rebuilding was a necessity and the Nuggets would have to suffer through some losing as they attempted to navigate the path back to relevancy.
That arduous trek was never made, though—it didn't have to be. Anthony's departure was emotionally crippling, but the Nuggets kept winning. And they haven't stopped.
Denver finished out the 2010-11 campaign with an 18-7 record, the fourth-best record of any team throughout the final 25 games of that season. Said finish was enough to earn the Nuggets the fifth-seed in the playoffs and a series-long date with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Most of us weren't convinced, though, and a swift elimination at the hands of the Thunder only made us doubt Denver's ability to remain a playoff-caliber faction without Anthony.
Then came the lockout-truncated season of 2011-12, and with it brought some changes. Nene was shipped off to the Washington Wizards more than halfway through the year and in came a wildly athletic, but overwhelmingly raw talent in JaVale McGee.
Five games over .500 at the time, the Nuggets were decimating their core further. Moving a veteran like Nene (injuries and all) was a surefire sign that Denver was prepared to rebuild, that the team might fall out of the playoff race.
Once again, the Nuggets persevered, going 14-9 to close out the season, finishing with the sixth-best record in the conference. Another first-round elimination was on the horizon, but the Mile High's finest took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games.
We were sold. The Nuggets were indeed mediocre without Melo.
Oh how wrong we still were.
Fast forward a bit further and the Nuggets managed to package Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in the Dwight Howard blockbuster, netting the themselves veteran Andre Iguodala. He, along with a re-signed McGee, an extended Ty Lawson and the rest of the Nuggets' complementary pieces, rendered this faction a legitimate contender.
More than three-quarters of the way into the season, it has become abundantly clear we were wrong. The Nuggets aren't fine without Anthony—they're better. Far better.
Presently, Denver has a stronghold on the fifth-best record in the West and is no longer considered a dark-horse contender, but a viable title threat. Without Anthony.
Not to say that Melo is a cancer who prevents his team from contending. Conflicting views exist on that topic, but both the Nuggets and New York Knicks are, at the very least, prime examples of his ability to keep convocations relevant.
If anything, it's more of a testament to this contemporary championship model the Nuggets created and continued to exemplify.
In an era where superteams frequent the Association, Denver isn't home to a star. Cases can be made about the futures of Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Lawson (and maybe even McGee), but they're not superstars. Not yet at least.
As for Iguodala, he has one All-Star appearance to his name, but he's neither potent nor as polarizing as the league's conventional pillar.
What the Nuggets have, then, is great role players buying into a system that dictates the only number of significance is the final score. They haven't had an All-Star since 2011 (Melo) and their livelihood is predicated upon the sum being greater than that of its parts. And it's working.
Denver is tied for the fifth-most wins of any NBA team (not including playoffs) since trading Anthony 25 months ago. By comparison, the Nuggets ranked seventh in wins during Melo's full seven seasons.
A monstrous difference? No, but it's more than about those wins. It's how they're getting them.
Once upon a time, the Nuggets were reliant on Anthony. They lived and they died with him. Plenty of their teams had depth, but it began and ended with Melo (even next to Allen Iverson).
Now, it's more about the team. About moving the ball from one to the other. About milking the hot hand, and not just Anthony's. Denver has nine players currently averaging eight or more points per game, the most of any team.
Which is what the Nuggets needed. After six first-round postseason exits in seven years, they needed to change the dynamic. They needed to reinvent themselves, free from the shackles that became of Anthony's scoring prowess.
Again, our attempt is not to belittle what Melo did. He led the Nuggets to the playoffs immediately upon his arrival. But no matter who Denver put around Anthony, that championship plateau couldn't be crossed.
Arguably, it has yet to be crossed even now. Impressive as the Nuggets have been, they have yet to make it out of the first round sans Melo in two tries. They've only won four total playoff games in those two trips as well.
Bear in mind that they won just four games through their first five playoff series with Anthony, though. For five consecutive years, the Nuggets rattled off just one victory per series or fell in stride.
In 2009, Denver did make it to the Western Conference Finals, but fell in six games to the Lakers. Then in 2010, the Nuggets regressed to their mean, mustering up just two victories before being shown the all-too-familiar first-round door.
When we look back, that's what matters most. Not that these Nuggets rank second in assists per game (24.6) and possessions used per 48 minutes. Not that they rank fourth in offensive efficiency and in the top half of points allowed per 100 possessions. They often did the same with Melo, so none of that matters.
What does matter is that this team has found similar, if not equal success in a shorter period of time.
The Nuggets are also on pace to win 54 games this season. They only totaled 54 victories with him once, and it took them six years to do it.
Does that mean Denver wins a title this season? Or the next? Or the one after that?
We don't know.
What we do know is that this outfit's ability to contend has not been impeded by Anthony's absence. The Nuggets are not worse off for having sent him to New York.
They're actually better.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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