DENVER (AP) — George Karl excitedly declared he had his best team in his 5 1/2 seasons in Denver.
These comments came AFTER the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks that stripped the Nuggets of their star power, leading many to call Karl a wishful thinker, eternal optimist or even delusional.
How about prophetic?
The Nuggets are 5-1 since sending Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks in a three-team, 13-player trade that brought them Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov from New York and Kosta Koufus from Minnesota.
Karl is mashing and meshing a deep lineup of hustlers who buy into his defense-produces-offense philosophy that had been collecting dust over the last decade as he coached teams in Milwaukee and Denver that were loaded with offensive personalities.
Sure, they’ve missed Melo at times.
Gallinari is out with a broken toe, and in Denver’s lone loss since Anthony’s departure, the Nuggets couldn’t hit the clutch shots down the stretch in a 107-106 overtime loss at Portland.
But they’ve also shown that defense can dominate, shutting down Boston (75 points), Charlotte (80) and Atlanta (90).
In a 120-80 shellacking of the Bobcats, the Nuggets had seven players score in double figures, led by Chandler’s 16. It’s the kind of stat sheet Karl loves to see.
“I know the other team doesn’t know how we’re going to score because I don’t know how we’re going to score,” Karl said. “But we do score.”
Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson said Anthony’s exit has changed the personality of the Nuggets.
“They’re playing more open,” Jackson said. “I think they have four or five guys on the court that are aggressive instead of waiting for ‘Melo to shoot all the balls. They’re playing with two point guards, so they’re making plays and everybody is getting shots. They’re not depending on one guy to score.”
The 40-point margin of victory surpassed Denver’s previous high this season, a 34-point win against Phoenix on Jan. 11. Ty Lawson also had 10 of the Nuggets’ 34 assists for his first career double-double.
“We’re playing together and we’re winning right now,” Lawson said. “That’s fun for everybody. There’s no sticky hands out there. We’re passing the ball, getting everybody involved. It feels a lot better when everybody is happy. The bigs are happy. The wings are happy. Everybody is touching the ball, and that’s the way basketball should be played.”
While noting the Nuggets have a long way to go and a tough road ahead, Karl said they’ve come together quickly because the team is committed to competing through defense, which was always a deficiency in Denver since he took over the team in 2005.
“We’re pretty focused at both ends of the court,” Karl said, “which has always been the headache of the Nuggets teams I’ve had coaching here: the defensive end of the court never was our forte. I think you’re seeing a team that could be not only a good offensive team, it might become a special defensive team.
“We have size, we have speed. We’re not giving up transition points. Our transition defense is the best it’s ever been since I’ve been here.”
Karl admittedly spent his first night after the trade lamenting the loss of his top two players and backups Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Shelden Williams. But by practice the next day, he was excited.
“I think we’re going to be better than people think we’re going to be,” he said last week. “And I think we’re going to be really good by the end of the year. Somehow, someway, we got to fight our way into the playoffs. It’s going to take some time to figure out who plays where and who likes playing with each other. I’m going to make mistakes with that and they’re going to make mistakes not being familiar with each other. We’re going to have a growing-together period of time.”
Still, he had bold predictions for a team that has moved up from seventh in the Western Conference standings to fifth and was within two games of Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division heading into the Thunder’s game at Atlanta Friday night.
“I think it’s the deepest team I’ve ever had here,” Karl said. “I have 12 guys who can play basketball, maybe 14. That’s usually too many, but that’s a nice problem to have.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)