When Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks last month, the talk was all about the future of the Knicks, the formation of super-teams, and Carmelo's own debatable position as an NBA superstar. 'Melo hasn't exactly stopped making news -- good and bad -- in New York, but surprisingly, it's the team he left behind that has experienced immediate success.
SBNation.com NBA editor Tom Ziller pondered Monday if the current incarnation of the Denver Nuggets is actually a better team than the Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire-led Knicks. With Monday's important road victory at the New Orleans Hornets, the Nuggets have won eight of their first 10 games of the post-Anthony era. And it raises an interesting parallel point to Ziller's original question -- did Denver get better by trading Carmelo Anthony?
On paper at least, it seems silly. Denver essentially replaced Anthony (an All-Star starter) and Chauncey Billups (one of the league's most efficient points) with Wilson Chandler (a shot-happy, middle efficiency player), Danilo Gallinari (two games as a Nugget), Timofey Mozgov (26 minutes total as a Nugget), and Raymond Felton (decent, but not Chauncey). Even if we admit that Denver may have gotten a solid long-term return for Anthony, there's an undeniable inexplicability inherent to its performance since the trade.
It began as a half-joke -- despite Carmelo Anthony's offensive abilities, maybe, just maybe, his defense (or lack thereof) justified the trade from Denver's perspective. Nobody really took the argument that his negative defense could entirely cancel his potent offense very seriously. But at the same time, George Karl's takedown of Carmelo's defense on national television was certainly not the first time the subject was broached.
Right as New York began allowing massive point totals to substandard opponents, the Nuggets began to head in the opposite direction. Coincidence or not, Denver's defense in the 10 games following Anthony's departure has been nothing short of stunning.
The above chart depicts average allowed points per 100 possessions. As you can see, it may be a while yet before Denver's "without Carmelo" trend stabilizes; if Monday's game against New Orleans is any indication, their overall defensive efficiency may be headed up as the season closes. In any case, here's the important number: 99.3, Denver's allowed points per 100 possessions without Carmelo. That easily tops the mark of the current best defense in the NBA, that of the Boston Celtics. It's a drop of nearly 10 points per 100 possessions from the 'Melo run this season, about equal to the difference in defensive efficiency between the Celtics and Golden State Warriors. It's staggering.
While Denver hasn't had a murderer's row of a schedule over the past couple weeks, they haven't exactly been beating up on the NBA's worst offenses either. During this 10-game stretch of defensive excellence, Denver has faced opponents averaging 106.8 points per 100 possessions on the season; the league mean is 107. The Nuggets' elite defense has been played against essentially the average NBA opponent.
What exactly are the Nuggets doing on the floor that has fueled this defensive turnaround? In a word: everything. Opponents are shooting nearly 3 percent worse from the floor (a seemingly small figure, but keep in mind the spread from first to 30th in the NBA is less than 7 percent), turning the ball over 14 percent more frequently, visiting the foul line 23 percent less frequently, and Denver has upped its defensive rebounding rate to almost 80 percent during the stretch (Orlando leads the league at 77 percent). This is a completely different team on the defensive end.
At the same time, it's very important to note that none of these things are blanket indictments of Anthony's defense. 'Melo's departure has likely allowed George Karl to place a renewed focus on the defensive side of the ball; at the same time, two of Denver's primary defensive improvements -- defensive rebounding and foul rate -- have been in areas Anthony historically excels in. Correlation does not imply causation, but in the words of Randall Munroe, "it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there.'"
Ultimately, the Denver-New York question neither has a right answer nor requires one. Come the summer, the Nuggets embark on a rebuilding process, and it's anybody's guess as to what the future holds (Chris Paul? Deron Williams?) for New York. For now, the Nuggets are simply proving that for at least the remainder of the season, there is indeed life after Carmelo Anthony.