HoopsHype.com Behind the Beat
Chris Tomasson: "Anthony is starting to get it"
Talk about the impact Chauncey Billups is having on this team off the court.
Chris Tomasson: Nuggets coach George Karl said it best to me recently. He said Billups is like an Army general. When he walks into the room, he commands instant respect. Nobody on the Nuggets has won an NBA title, let alone been MVP of the Finals, as Billups was in 2004. Not that he has to parade around with his ring, but everybody knows what he can do. He has had no problem coming in and offering insight on what players need to do. From a basketball standpoint, he’s given Karl the point guard he's craved since Andre Miller was traded in December 2006. Yes, Karl loved having Allen Iverson around. But he wasn’t a true point guard.
Do you feel any player on the team was happy to see Allen Iverson traded?
CT: When the deal was done, I don’t think any players were doing jumping jacks. But, as time has gone by, I think there’s been a realization among the players that the Nuggets needed a true point guard. As mentioned above, as great as Iverson has been in his career, he’s not a true point. The Nuggets needed someone to get the ball to Nenê, a blossoming talent at center. They needed someone to provide more of a defensive presence, with Karl’s preseason goal having been to improve the defense. And having Iverson around might have stunted the growth of up-and-coming shooting guard JR Smith, who got off to a slow start but showed how much talent he has by erupting for 32 points last Thursday against New Orleans on TNT.
Have we seen the best of Carmelo already?
CT: I don’t think so. Anthony is starting to get it. He’s become a better all-around player this season. His shooting percentage is on pace to be a career low and his scoring average is down about five points from last season, but he doesn’t seem to mind since the Nuggets are off to a good start. Karl has been in Anthony’s ear for years, trying to get him to become more of an all-around player, and Anthony, bound for career highs in rebounding and assists, finally is starting to listen. Five straight first-round playoff wipeouts can do that to a guy. Anthony does admit to some frustration that defenses, without Iverson around, are focusing on him much more. But he also sees a positive in that all of these double teams might be helping his passing game. And, when Anthony puts his mind to it, which he’s doing this season, he really can be a board hoard.
What are your expectations for this team this season and what do they need to get over the hump?
CT: Karl, who relishes the underdog role, loved it during the preseason when everybody was picking his team to miss the playoffs. I recently asked him how he likess it now that expectations have increased since the acquisition of Billups. For the first time since the last appearance of Halley’s Comet, Karl didn’t have much to say. Another reason expectations have increased is the West so far isn’t looking as tough as many had predicted. If the Nuggets can stay healthy, they’ve got a decent shot at being able to win their first playoff series since 1994. But they are one big-man injury away from being an average team. The Nuggets are knocking on oak, maple and even particle board that neither Kenyon Martin nor Nenê, who often have been hurt in their careers, goes down with a significant injury.
How much has Chris Andersen changed compared to his first stint in Denver?
CT: Just look at the Birdman’s hair. Gone are the wild and crazy locks that once defined him. I told him it was with great regret I couldn’t include him on the All-NBA hair team I did prior to the season. Andersen, with his short hair, is a much more restrained than during the days before his two-year NBA drug suspension (January 2006-March 2008). He says he never goes out anymore, preferring to retreat to his home in a distant Denver suburb. As far as on the court, I thought Andersen would be a bit rusty after hardly playing in the past two years and I wondered if, at 30, he might have lost a little of his jumping ability. I was quite wrong. The Birdman is as athletic as ever, and he’s also a smarter player than when he left Denver in 2004.
Kenyon Martin looks like a jerk sometimes. What's his attitude in the locker room?
CT: Martin certainly has had his moments in Denver. Obviously, he bottomed out when he was suspended during the 2006 playoffs for directing an obsencity-laced tirade at Karl. No one figured then he’d return to the Nuggets, much less eventually get back his captain’s role. The latter happened this fall. Martin’s attitude has improved since the 2006 incident, and he seems to have embraced being captain again. Having a second microfracture surgery in November 2006 might have given him a bit of a reality check that he’s fortunate to be playing in the NBA. Martin still has some occasional interesting moments with reporters, and, on the court, still sometimes picks up imprudent technicals. But the players on the team have great respect for him. Overall, he’s a better guy than he was a few years ago. He’s also making a big effort to help underprivileged youngsters through his new Kenyon Martin Foundation.
If given the chance, don't you think most NBA journalists would trade their job for a job as general manager of an NBA team? Would you? How'd that work?
CT: Well, I might be a better general manager than Michael Jordan. At least I’d show up for work every now and then. All kidding aside, while that’s a fun topic to ponder, there’s no way I would be an effective NBA general manager. Most of those guys are top notch. Sure, everybody makes mistakes, but it’s amazing how good many NBA general managers are at evaluating talent. As for me, while covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1999, I thought it was a huge mistake when Cleveland waived free-agent rookie Jamel Thomas before the season. I figured the move would come back to haunt them. Well, Thomas played in 12 career NBA games. That shows how much I know.
What's the best job you can get as a guy covering the league? ESPN analyst or what?
CT: Regardless of affiliation, I think the best job one can get is as a league-wide reporter. In the old days, all the big newspapers had a reporter who covered the NBA as a whole as well as having a beat writer covering the team. Budgets allowed the NBA reporter to travel around and look for interesting stories throughout the league. But, due to the cutback in the newspaper industry, those jobs are being eliminated. Many big papers only have a reporter covering the team. While you do mention ESPN, I have great respect for those guys. But even those guys (I’m referring to ESPN print journalists rather than on-air talent) can’t always get great seats at NBA games. When once all traveling writers and league-wide writers got seats on the floor, we’re now increasingly being moved to the top of the lower bowl or into the corners of the arena while the seats we once occupied are being sold for $750 a game.
How do you feel about all these journalists leaving newspapers to work exclusively for websites?
CT: Sounds like they’re ahead of some of us. I’m still a dinosaur. I still like to pick up the paper the next day and see my printed byline. Of course, who knows how long actual newspapers will last. Come back around the time LeBron James is setting the all-time NBA scoring record, and we might all be writing for websites. As it stands now, I sometimes feel I’m writing for a Website since any time news breaks I rush to put it on the Rocky Mountain News site.
What do you do when you feel like you've milked dry all the sports cliches and story lines surrounding your beat dry?
CT: That’s when you’re glad you cover a team with Karl as the coach. Karl might be the best quote among NBA coaches. He’s candid and witty. He often doesn’t feel he can’t say something simply because somebody in the Nuggets organization might like it. There are times when I’m going to a Nuggets practice and my bank of ideas is as dry as the Gobi Desert. Then, after I ask Karl a few questions, suddenly I’ve got more than I can fit in the paper. It hasn’t gotten to the point where I’ve asked Karl, “What should I write about today, George?’’ But maybe that’s not a bad idea.
Tell us what you think about this Behind the Beat. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com