Updated: Dec. 19, 2006, 8:08 PM ET


Nuggets now NBA title contenders? Answer: Yes

By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider

Just when you thought the West couldn't get any tougher, here comes another contender.

In one fell swoop on Tuesday, the Denver Nuggets went from a nice team that had little chance of making it past the first round to a legitimate threat to win the whole enchilada.

Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony have the potential to do great things together.

Yes, I said they can win it all. Everything.

As in, hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June, having a Coors-soaked parade under the shadow of the Rockies, and being linked to conspiracy theories all summer as the result of a few strange calls by Bennett Salvatore.

As you might have guessed, I think this trade was an absolute home run for the Nuggets, one that elevates them into the grouping with the Spurs, Suns and Mavericks when we discuss the league's elite. (Sorry Utah fans, I'm not quite ready to go there yet. Gimme another month and I'll take it under advisement.)

I'm still amazed that the price wasn't higher, and I sure hope for the Clippers' sake that Shaun Livingston -- whom they deemed untouchable -- turns out to be a big star, because otherwise they're going to be wiping egg off their faces for a long time.

Yes, Iverson can be a pain in the butt. For one thing, he's not big on the whole idea of practice. Plus, he's likely to miss some time with injuries, and he's already 31. Just to make sure we're covering all the negatives, the trade also cost the Nuggets their best (some would say "only") passer in Andre Miller, subtracted frontcourt depth with the loss of Joe Smith, and forces two of the game's most tunnel-visioned scorers to share a single leather basketball.

In spite of that, I love it. Here's why:

The system fits. Putting Iverson with Anthony works a lot better than, say, pairing Stephon Marbury with Steve Francis, because this duo scores in very different ways.

Iverson wants the ball at the beginning of the play so he can go off the dribble and create; 'Melo is end-of-the-play guy interested in finishing. The only change required is that Iverson will have to pass a bit more and shoot a bit less, but we're not talking about radical surgery for a guy who's averaged better than seven assists per game the last three seasons.

And beyond that, Denver doesn't need to change a thing. The Nuggets already are the league's fastest-paced team, so we won't see the scenes in Philly with Iverson jetting out on the break while Chris Webber gamely tries to drag his leg down the court.

Boykins may have a tough time finding minutes and shots with A.I. around.
Additionally, the Nuggets already had two players who shared traits with Iverson: a lead guard with a shaky outside shot (Miller), and a mini-Iverson (Earl Boykins, coming off the bench). As a result, Iverson will fit into George Karl's system as seamlessly as any player in the league could, especially since he can spend his first 13 or 14 games gunning at will before Anthony comes back from suspension.

And unlike some coaches, Karl doesn't seem to have a big problem working with players who are perceived as difficult. He almost seems to relish it, in fact, as Gary Payton can attest.

C'mon, would you rather see Earl Boykins take those shots? People think that the Nugget who will miss out on the most shots will be Anthony, but this isn't true. Really, the guy who's going to lose out is Boykins, who will see a precipitous drop in playing time once the suspensions end because Iverson can do his superhuman 46-minute routine on so many nights.

This is the same Boykins who is shooting 37.0 percent from the floor, has upset teammates with his poor shot selection, is on the trading block and is spending tonight trying to figure out why he's still a Nugget.

Shouldn't be a tough act to follow for the Answer. Meanwhile, having those shots transferred to Iverson's ledger should produce an uptick in baskets and a huge jump in free-throw attempts.

Look at last year's Sixers. If you want to know how these guys can share the ball, consider the 2005-06 76ers.

Like this year's Nuggets, that team had Iverson ... except it had about 1/63rd of the surrounding talent. Two players accounted for the vast chunk of the Sixers' possessions -- Iverson and Chris Webber. Webber's Usage Rate (the rate of possessions used) wasn't much different from Carmelo Anthony's a year ago, so think of it as Iverson playing with a one-legged version of Anthony.

Despite that, and the paucity of teammates who could score (for a quick refresher, Kevin Ollie played more than 1,000 minutes; John Salmons played more than 2,000; and Webber, the No.2 option, had a 48.2 True Shooting Percentage), the Sixers were an above-average offensive team a year ago, ranking 13th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency.

Now replace Webber with Carmelo Anthony. Replace Samuel Dalembert with Marcus Camby, Kevin Ollie with Boykins, Kyle Korver with J.R. Smith, and Steven Hunter with Nene. Don't you think it's possible that the Nuggets will be just a wee bit better off?

In fact, the Nuggets already are an excellent offensive team -- they rank sixth in Offensive Efficiency through Monday's games, and are within 1.1 points of second place. With the addition of Iverson, it says here that from the end of 'Melo's suspension to the end of the season, only Phoenix will be better offensively.

If A.I. feels like jacking up a shot at anytime, Evans and Camby will be ready.
The bigs don't need the rock. This is an underrated aspect of the Iverson deal, but an important one.

Look at the types of big guys the Nuggets have. There's Marcus Camby, who doesn't need to have any plays called for him and gets all his points on transition, offensive boards and kick-out jumpers. There's Eduardo Najera, who scores on hustle plays, sets bone-jarring screens and otherwise stays out of the way.

And then there's Reggie Evans. I don't think there could be a more perfect fit than putting Evans on a team with Iverson and Anthony. All those two guys want to do is shoot it, and all Evans wants to do is gather the misses.

Evans ranks second in the NBA in Offensive Rebound Rate behind Indiana's Jeff Foster, grabbing an amazing 16.4 percent of the misses when he's on the court. Thus, his greatest skill is perfectly placed to mitigate Iverson's worst trait -- his tendency to keep letting it rip on a 7-for-24 night.

The 'Sheed factor. Remember when Rasheed Wallace got traded from Portland to Atlanta to Detroit? (Yes, he was a Hawk. Even played a game for them. Both teams played hard.) Remember how he bent over backwards to show his new teammates that his reputation was wrong and he could be a great team player? And remember how he was the missing link that took Detroit from a solid-but-unspectacular playoff team to NBA Champions?

This is Iverson right now. For the first time in years he has something to prove and capable teammates to prove it with. He knows his legacy is at stake, too. It's one thing if you can't coexist with Jerry Stackhouse or Keith Van Horn -- people will forgive that. But if he can't make it work with Anthony, that's what will go down in the history books: "Great individual player. Could win only if other four guys didn't want or need the ball."

As a result of that, and the fact that Iverson has a legitimate shot at a ring for the first time in years, I have a feeling we're in for some of his best basketball. None of this will change the fact that he's 31, that he might get hurt, or that his jumper is streaky at best. But I'd rather take my chances on a focused, motivated, hell-bent-to-prove-them-wrong Iverson than on the dejected, sullen guy who was getting his brains beat in every night as a Sixer.

So overall, it's a fantastic deal for the Nuggets. One of the things Michael Lewis points out in the book "Moneyball" is that midseason trades are a tremendous opportunity, because they give teams a chance to make deals they never could get away with in the offseason.

In my view, this was that kind of trade. The Nuggets basically just got Iverson for Andre Miller. Are you kidding me? Could any team possibly have made that deal over the summer, or anything close to it? Of course not.

But they pulled it off, and because of it they have a two-year window to bring the city its first NBA championship.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.