Hidden in the Rocky Mountains is a group of fast-breaking, slam-dunking, 3-point-shooting, and shot-blocking mavens whose winning streak would be the talk of the league if not for another one currently sopping up all of the NBA public’s attention.
With a 101-95 victory over Sacramento on Saturday, the Denver Nuggets have won a franchise-best 15 straight games. They have soared up the Western Conference standings without a legitimate All-Star, with a coach who has beaten cancer and continues to seek his first NBA championship, and with a roster that was considered second-rate after Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks in February 2011.
That Anthony trade changed the direction of the franchise. With him, the Nuggets were competitive but not elite. Now they are a team of role players and shooters, defenders and spark plugs. General manager Masai Ujiri stockpiled talent and draft picks and decided on a youth movement — guided by George Karl — which is working to precision.
Danilo Gallinari, who came over from the Knicks in the trade, is one of the Nuggets’ leading scorers, but instead of wowing the five boroughs with his talents, he is developing into a superstar in near-anonymity.
“That’s the strength of our team,” said Gallinari, “because every night, you don’t know who’s going to be the guy that’s hot, the guy who is going to score a lot of points for us or is going to do the right play at the right time.
“And I think that’s the great part of this team and I think that’s going to be our secret until the end of the season and the playoffs, too.”
The Nuggets have nine players averaging at least 8.3 points, led by speedy point guard Ty Lawson (16.9), who is slowly turning into one of the league’s top ball-handlers and creators. Gallinari is averaging 16.2 points and 5.2 rebounds.
“We’re a young group of people, and that’s a great thing,” said Gallinari, referring to a roster with one player (Andre Miller) over 30. “We’ve got players who have playoff experience already, so we are young but we know what it takes to get to the playoffs and what it takes to be a winning team in this league, and that’s the most fun part of this season.”
Karl serves as an inspiration on several levels. He has dealt with his share of health issues over the past several years but continued to persevere and chase a long-sought NBA crown. While the Nuggets entered the season as a dark horse, he has molded them into a relentless team that attacks in waves.
“I think it’s great because you know you are being coached by one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA,” Gallinari said. “Every day at practice, there is something great because you can learn something from him and he loves this team and he loves basketball and you can see the fire inside of him because he wants to win.”
The sixth overall pick in 2008, Gallinari was somewhat unknown when the Knicks drafted him out of Italy, and the skeptical New York fans were uncertain whether their new acquisition was capable of surviving in the NBA. Following an injury-plagued rookie season, the 6-foot-10-inch forward became a starter, averaging 15.1 points in his second year.
The Knicks fans adored his style because he was fearless and played with an edge, which is why Ujiri asked for Gallinari when Anthony demanded a trade to the Knicks, who sought star power.
“I didn’t know a lot about the city,” Gallinari said about Denver. “I come from a very small town in Italy [Sant’Angelo Lodigiano] and I used to play in Milan, so it’s like going from Milan to my little small town. From New York to Denver is the same thing.
“It’s a very different city, a very small city, but it’s great. The franchise is great for me, so even though it’s a slower pace — it’s not 24 hours like New York — but I love to be here.”
Because of the strength of the Western Conference, the Nuggets are still fighting for home-court advantage in the first round. After Friday’s action, one game separated the third and fifth seeds, and the Nuggets potentially could open with a brutal playoff matchup against the Clippers or Grizzlies.
“We think we can beat anybody, and we want to do it in the playoffs,” said Gallinari. “It’s been two years in a row that we lose in the first round, so we are tired of that.
“We want to get through the first round and see what happens then, and we just want to finish out the regular season strong, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Injured Rivers made strides
Austin Rivers was a popular man last Tuesday in New Orleans. He was buzzing around New Orleans Arena, talking with Celtics players, some of whom have watched him mature from a gangly teenager into an NBA rookie. He talked with Celtics staff, and he conducted an interview with the team’s television network.
He did all of this with a large blue cast covering his right hand. The Hornet guard’s season is over after he broke the hand during a March 6 loss to the Lakers.
It has been a trying rookie campaign, but it had taken a positive turn.
After struggling to score in December and barely playing in early January, the son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers jump-started his season in New Orleans’s Jan. 16 win over the Celtics. He averaged 6.2 points in a 24-game span, making the most of more consistent minutes.
New Orleans coach Monty Williams said it took considerable time to determine how to motivate and encourage Rivers.
“I don’t know if there was a moment where I saw him get it, but three or four weeks ago, he was responding to coaching a lot better, he was responding to making mistakes a lot better — he wasn’t dwelling on his past mistakes,” Williams said.
“He’s always competed. But the game started to slow down a little bit for him. Any time you see the ball fall, it gives you confidence, but he never stopped competing and working, and that allowed me to continue to push and push.”
Williams has known Austin Rivers since he was a toddler, while Monty and Doc were playing for the Spurs.
“You know how bad a kid wants it, you don’t think about how you are going to coach him because you both want the same thing,” Williams said. “I just had to figure out a way he could hear it from me.
“Earlier in the year, I was a bit off base. I was doing it the wrong way with him. I kind of realized I had to give him some confidence I wasn’t giving him, so while I was pushing him, I also had to pat him a little bit more and he responded to that.
“Around Christmas time, it started to change a little bit and I started to think about the things that would help me as a player. You want to hear somebody congratulate you every once in a while and I wasn’t doing that with him as much as I thought I was.
“He always competed, but he started playing a lot better. It’s a shame that he got hurt the way he did because he started playing some really good ball.
“For him to end that way says a lot about how much he worked, because he heard all the whispers. It’s unfortunate but he heard it.
“We’re looking for a big summer from him. We want him to come into summer league and tear it up and come into next season with confidence.”
Doc is pleased with his son’s progress.
“He’s down, obviously, about not being able to play, but he’s up because I thought he really started to play well and figure it out,” Doc said. “You could just see it. It was so visual. Early on, all the rookies were going so fast.
“That’s Monty’s job. I didn’t tell him much because I’m not his coach, I’m his dad. But you could just see it. Right before All-Star break, you could see it, guys like [Wizards rookie] Bradley Beal, all at the same time, the game was slowing down.”
Doc refuses to give his son unsolicited advice or act as his coach.
“When he wants to ask something about basketball, he will,” Rivers said. “I’ve always had the belief that parents should be parents and let the coaches do the coaching, and I mean that, from AAU to everything.
“When he wants to talk about basketball, he’ll call me. If he’s playing poorly or struggling, I call and ask him, ‘How are you doing?’ and usually he’ll say, ‘Fine.’ That’s our job as parents.”
After his interviews, Austin walked down the hallway and saw his father talking with the media, smiled, and kept moving to the Hornets locker room. His spirits were high.
“Honestly, you could hear it in his voice, you could tell he was fine,” Doc said. “When he was coming out of it, you could tell, the way he was talking. During the All-Star break, I told him, ‘Welcome to the NBA, you finally made it.’ ”
McRoberts seeks stability
While former Duke center Shavlik Randolph finally got some contract security last week by signing with the Celtics for the remainder of the season, another Dukie, Josh McRoberts, is trying to take advantage of his increased playing time in Charlotte.
The Bobcats again are headed nowhere, and McRoberts, acquired in February from the Magic for Hakim Warrick, is playing a career-high 24.8 minutes per game in Charlotte.
The Bobcats are his fifth team in six seasons, though he spent three years with the Pacers before being signed by the Lakers prior to last season. He was shipped to the Magic in the Dwight Howard deal and was just a spare part in that team’s youth movement, resulting in his move to the Bobcats.
In the final weeks of the two-year deal he signed with the Lakers, McRoberts is trying to improve his free agent marketability this summer.
“When you go to a new team, half of it is fitting in and trying to figure things out,” he said. “I’ve been here for three weeks and it’s not easy. Coach [Mike Dunlap] has been great but it’s tough to move to a new place, trying to get your bearings.”
Since leaving the Pacers, McRoberts has played for three teams, and the past two have been lottery-bound. McRoberts, 26, is a capable player who can boost a bench with his perimeter prowess, but he may be misplaced in a youth movement in Charlotte.
“I was lucky enough to be in Indiana for three seasons, so I was pretty comfortable there,” he said. “I was a free agent with LA and then I was part of a pretty big trade, and that could happen with anybody.
“I wasn’t really going to get a chance in Orlando and I was just kind of thrown in money-wise, so I am trying to get on my feet here in Charlotte and they are giving me a great opportunity.”
While most of the Bobcats are generally playing out the string — except when they face the Celtics — McRoberts is trying to optimize his chances to secure a guaranteed contract this summer.
“I think here it’s been great so far for me in terms of getting an opportunity at my position,” he said. “You don’t want to ever get used to bouncing around. Everybody wants to find a role on a team and be comfortable. Everybody wants to get on a contender and try to make a run.
“This is my sixth year and it’s something where I have seen a lot of situations and I want to get to a place where I can get an opportunity to help a team and hopefully win some games.”
Jordan is still a drawing card
Upper Deck will be the latest company to benefit from the infinite popularity of Michael Jordan , issuing a card set that features him during his North Carolina days. Upper Deck will release just 250 sets of 23 cards of Jordan in college, four Jordan autograph cards, one replica 1982 championship ring, and two other premium cards. The set could be valued as high as $5,000. Jordan’s 1984 Star rookie card with the Bulls is valued as high as $5,000 in mint condition. Star released NBA team sets on a limited run when Topps, the main basketball card company, stopped producing cards for a decade, making the Jordan card even more valuable.
New man in office
The NBA has named former player and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe vice president of basketball operations — or, in layman’s terms, the right-hand man for discipline czar Stu Jackson. Vandeweghe was general manager for the Nuggets, drafting CarmeloAnthony, and the Nets, helping to clear salary-cap space for their resurgence before being fired. Vandeweghe is a solid basketball mind and a good hire by the league.
Celtics guard Jason Terry is putting his mansion in Mercer Island, Wash., up for sale for $2.5 million. Terry paid $2.36 million for the sprawling property in 2004. Terry said he plans to make his home in Dallas when he retires . . . The Rockets will have to formulate a plan for mercurial forward Royce White, who left his NBADL team in Rio Grande Valley after one month. White, who has an anxiety disorder, didn’t seem to make many waves during his stint and even rode 34 hours on the bus back and forth from Texas to Santa Cruz. It’s uncertain whether the talented former Iowa State forward will participate in NBA Summer League as he did last year . . . A relatively young veteran free agent who will be available is Orlando’s Al Harrington, who is expected to play sparingly the rest of the season as the Magic go with younger players. Harrington, 33, was out most of the season after knee surgery but could help a contender next season with his 3-point prowess . . . One coach who may be out the door this summer is Lawrence Frank if the Pistons’ new owners decide to make major changes. The club is running in quicksand, playing a combination of prospects and players who won’t be there at the end of their contracts. It’s not making for a successful mix, and it could also mean the end of Joe Dumars’s tenure as president of basketball operations.