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Perfect on paper: the Carmelo Anthony & Allen Iverson dynamic

The two superstars sent Denver crazy when they combined in 2006

In December 2006, Carmelo Anthony led the NBA in scoring. Sitting behind him in second was Allen Iverson, who was headed to Denver to team up with Anthony and in the process form one of the most intriguing and surprising star duos in league history.

If the same stat leaders were to join forces today, we would have Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis in a starting lineup. Perspective enough?

Five days remained until Christmas and Nugget fans were unwrapping a gift they couldn’t possibly match when the real presents needed tearing through. Denver sent Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 first round picks to Philadelphia for the services of Allen Iverson, the original ‘AI’ when these days we only talk about something far more scientific. Reebok’s biggest ambassador since cornrows began, Iverson was despite all the talk of being past his prime at 31 years of age averaging 31.2 points and 7.3 assists a game. In other words, prime numbers.

The hair, the baggy shorts, the chains; this transcendent talent was joining a small market team in the thin air of Colorado, one that already had one of the best offensive players in the game, Anthony, at the age of just 22.

This was a championship move, a team creating space and giving up picks midseason to co-align two stars - one new and one old - to win now. This move far exceeded the hope a portion of Knicks fans had when Derrick Rose joined Anthony in New York last offseason, mostly because unlike Rose, Iverson’s health hadn’t been much of a concern. If anything he had played too many games. If you could put Rose with Anthony before 2011 and shaved three or four years off Iverson’s legs when he jumped to Denver, you may have had a match.

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But would even artificial intelligence be able to answer this lingering question: How was this going to work?

You would be forgiven for thinking George Karl was solely an author after all that we’ve heard the last month or so from his new book ‘Furious George’, but he was the head coach in Denver from 2004 to 2013 and in charge of making this transition work, along with both Iverson and Anthony putting their egos aside for the greater good. They had great reason to do so, attempting to bring back to contention a team that was coming off the back of three consecutive first-round playoff exits, preceded by a postseason drought dating back to 1995.

Long before the current cap spike went cactus on us and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade decided to be best buddies, the NBA was giddy and surprised to see this tandem together. There would be a delay, however. When Iverson signed, Anthony was starting a 15-game suspension for punching New York Knick Mardy Collins during a brawl with the Knicks, the former Syracuse national title winner doing a terrible job of interviewing for the team he now plays for.

This meant the two had less chance to build chemistry and Iverson was unintentionally able to establish control of a team that included bigs Marcus Camby - that year’s Defensive Player of the Year winner - and Kenyon Martin. Anthony watched from the sidelines, a young man who had been ‘the guy’ the moment he joined the organisation in 2003. He was itching, like all of us watching from the outside, to return to the court.

***

It was January 22nd, 2007 when the two played together for the first time, a late Christmas present if you will. The Pepsi Center was welcoming in two bonafide stars, 18,000 fans screaming for all phases of lights, camera, action, awaiting not just the game but lay-up lines, too. Unlike today’s NBA where free agent destinations are spread across the country, it was hard back then to prevent these type of players from Los Angeles and the like. ‘Anthony & Iverson = Killer Duo’ read one sign and the rowdy commentary booth was as far from the tones of legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully as is humanly possible, everyone ready for the show and not shy to throw out bold statements about where this team could go.

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From the opening tip Iverson was looking for Anthony, three times the fresh face lobbing it up to the forward for alley-oops. The first created little emotion from either, the second a pointed acknowledgment from Anthony and the last a chest bump from Iverson and a smile from his junior. All three drew raucous cheers from the crowd. The script went as planned with hugs and high fives next to the bench bringing in the credits, the two joking together believing this to be the start of something great. The home fans were enthralled, superstars putting in their aid work to relevancy-starved Nugget nation.

Despite accruing the majority of their stats before their partnership together, Iverson and Anthony were both selected to play in the All-Star game, but this time it was Iverson’s turn to sit out, in this instance because of injury. Anthony, then, became the first Nugget represented at the event since Antonio McDyess in 2001, but sadly Denver fans missed out on seeing the league’s flagship event running with two Nugget uniforms.

In the two seasons they were together, Denver finished sixth and eighth in what was a very strong Western Conference. In the first go-around, Iverson’s late arrival meant getting into the playoffs was an absolute priority but also the bare minimum. At 45-37, Denver couldn’t have imagined a tougher series than the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, who were the eventual champions. Achieving a top-four seed was paramount in the stacked west and Denver were unable to, despite a solid team. Shortly after AI’s addition they brought in point guard Steve Blake to replace Miller and had aforementioned rim protectors Camby and Martin ahead of a young Nene Hilario. Off the bench was a younger J.R. Smith, Leinas Klieza and Eduardo Najera, all threats from beyond the arc.

Denver took the opening game in San Antonio behind 31 from Iverson, teasing all who follow the game what could be. However, the Nuggets were brushed aside in five games, making clear among other things that the eighth-best offence in the league missed their game manager Andre Miller, the starting point guard shipped in the Iverson trade.

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Watch how Golden State and San Antonio share the basketball today, with multiple stars being integrated into a motion offence, and it seems this Nuggets team were lacking a team to replicate. Aligning stars isn’t always a recipe for success, as we saw with the Lakers in 2004. Denver’s tale, however, was yet to end.

Despite the Spurs disappointment, the team and its fans were turning to a new chapter and a full season with everyone healthy and on board. Stephen A. Smith, who can be forgiven for scripting the majority of what he says, predicted Denver to win the western conference. In actual fact, Denver won 50 games for the first time since the 1987-88 season, bizarrely only netting them the eighth seed. In last season’s NBA, 50 wins in the west would have landed you the fifth spot, good enough for third in the east. The Lakers, who lost in the Finals that year to the Celtics, made it five straight first round defeats for the Nuggets with a sweep, despite it being one of the most highly anticipated first round matchups as the Iverson and Anthony duo went up against Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Denver couldn’t avoid the best teams but also, sadly, couldn’t become one themselves, never coming close to a championship. Together, Iverson and Anthony went to the playoffs both seasons but recorded just one playoff victory. Three games into the 2008-09 season, Iverson was traded to Detroit for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess - the same Nugget All-Star from yesteryear - the former a serious upgrade that saw Denver reach the conference finals later that season before again falling to Los Angeles. Billups knew how to win a title having done it in 2004 with Detroit, but it didn’t create the buzz that the Iverson deal had.

Iverson’s addition gave the Nuggets a relevancy not seen since Alex English came on board in 1980, his stand-out showing a 51-point, 8-assist game against the Lakers, the first Nugget to score 50 in twelve years. AI’s was a display of crafty shot-making, bouncy drives to the basket, poise, thread-the-needle passes and an energy which made the fans in Denver say ‘we might not win when it counts, but paying to watch this is worth it’.

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Denver was Iverson’s second team in the NBA and we were reminded how much of a national and global icon he is, someone who lent Nugget fans hope and a lust for the Philly AI, which appeared in glimpses. Iverson was vital in transforming the NBA from a game to a way of life and it was Denver where we saw the tough, vibrant and all-talented point guard for the final time; Detroit, Memphis and a 25-game pit stop back in Philly was what followed before his retirement.

As for Anthony, evidence suggests he cannot win big with a fellow star by his side. This project had its limits as the offence stagnated, not smart or quick enough to defeat a team over seven games. He has since played with Amar’e Stoudemire, Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis in New York and although hard to believe, he’s called Madison Square Garden home for nearly seven seasons. Over that time Anthony has established himself as one of the greatest scorers of all time, but is yet to sniff the Larry O’Brien trophy and has thus built a rather wishy-washy legacy. Great scorer, yes. Great player? That’s up for debate. The closest he got to a title was with Billups, and in the present day, Jeff Hornacek’s Knicks seems to consist of more feuding between Anthony and President Phil Jackson than wins.

Two superstars made the Denver Nuggets relevant yet the rollercoaster seemed to reach its peak at the beginning of the playoffs before tailing off. Perhaps the banner should have read ‘Carmelo Anthony + Allen Iverson = A partnership to die for on paper’. We shouldn’t forget that on the court we were given many a moment of greatness and joy, too.

The current young crop of Nuggets is getting into gear, finally taking shape around their dynamic big Nikola Jokic. Supported by young starlets Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton, they are in touching distance of a playoff spot and if learning one thing from Iverson and Anthony, it would be wise to both entertain and win.

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