How Much of the Nuggets' Playoff Flop is Melo's Fault?

On April 29, the day after the Denver Nuggets were sent packing from the NBA playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers, Channel 4 morning anchor Brooke Wagner expressed satisfaction that the previous night's game had been exciting and close. And indeed, the fact that the contest hadn't turned into another ritual humiliation like the three matches that preceded it provided the only compensation Nugs' fans could glean. But it wasn't enough -- not nearly enough. Over in the NBA's much-maligned Eastern conference, the Atlanta Hawks, who ended the regular season with a below .500 record, are in a 2-2 tie with the mighty Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, your Nuggets hardly put up a fight prior to the third quarter of the elimination game when -- how novel -- they actually decided to play some defense and held the Lakers to just 15 points. In the fourth, however, Kobe Bryant's crew put up a robust 28, making the pressure shots when required. As a result, the Nuggets became the first-ever fifty-win team to be swept from the first round of the playoffs. What a proud achievement.

Now, of course, comes the blaming, and Carmelo Anthony will get his share. Not only did he get busted on a DUI charge as the playoffs approached (hence, the debonair mug shot seen here), but he chipped in with subpar performances on the court. He scored 21 in the last game -- a decent number, but hardly the superstar-level production the situation required. Hell, he was outscored by J.R. Smith, who tallied 26 in six fewer minutes.

That's not to say Melo should be dealt at this point. He's the most gifted member of the squad, and the odds the Nuggets could get equal value for him in a trade are mighty slim. Still, something major needs to be done -- and here are five suggestions about what:

1. Say goodbye to George Karl: Yeah, yeah, Karl's had a distinguished career, and he took the Nuggets to the next level. However, the team's been at more or less the same stage since the late-season run it made in 2005 shortly after Karl's hiring. He's been given plenty of resources to improve this situation since then, not the least of which was the blockbuster acquisition of Allen Iverson, and he still hasn't managed to turn the team into a consistent, cohesive unit. It's someone else's turn to try.

2. Say hello to a defense-minded coach: Scoring isn't the problem for the Nuggets. Stopping is, and an overseer who understands that, and makes it a priority, rather than simply relying on thin air to rack up victories, is necessary to change the Nuggets' culture. One name that springs to mind as a possible candidate is Jeff Van Gundy, who recently turned down the chance to interview for the New York Knicks top slot -- a wise move if ever there was one. But there are plenty of other options out there, too, and given the Nuggets' talent pool, lots of defensive experts would entertain an offer.

3. Consider trading some untradeables: Marcus Camby may have been the defensive player of the year during the 2006-2007 season, but that's mostly because he's adept at swatting away shots by players who've shaken off other defenders. In the end, he's more of a complimentary presence than a guy capable of playing the likes of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal to a draw -- and as such, he would probably be attractive to numerous franchises. The same can be said of Nene, who's been retained season after season on the basis of potential even though he's spent much of the time on the bench due to a succession of injuries and illnesses. In addition, Kenyon Martin is finally beginning to play up to his potential following his own long struggle against assorted knee problems. Teams might be interested in taking a serious look at him, too. The Nuggets should ask them -- see what they have to offer. And when they do, they should inquire about productive defenders and three-point specialists of the sort they haven't had for ages. Isn't there an outside chance of getting a player capable of making an outside shot?

4. Don't break the bank for Allen Iverson: The Iverson-Melo experiment hasn't been the disaster a lot of us anticipated, especially since A.I. has been on his best behavior since hitting town. But sharing still isn't his first instinct, he's a defensive liability, especially at playoff time, and given his age (the early thirties), he'll likely suffer a decline in productivity before long. If he wants to stay in Denver so much that he'll accept a reasonable contract that's not so long as to cripple the team in future years, fine. If not, shop him around, too.

5. Quit coddling Melo: If Anthony wants to be one of the NBA's greats, he's got to work harder, get tougher and smarter, learn to guard someone, and step up when the spotlight's shining brightest -- and the coaching staff's got to make him do it. The Nuggets will only go as far as he takes them -- and as the Lakers series demonstrated, he hasn't taken them nearly far enough. -- Michael Roberts