DENVER — The mood was Melo-choly at the Pepsi Center.
Only, the anguish Tuesday had as much — if not more — to do with Chauncey Billups’ departure as it did Carmelo Anthony’s.
Anthony was one of the best players in Denver Nuggets history, but Billups was possibly its most popular. So, coach George Karl, team president Josh Kroenke and general manager Masai Ujiri all echoed a community’s sadness in seeing its hometown hero, who wanted to stay put, leave for the Big Apple along with the superstar who wanted out.
In a three-team swap that was finalized Tuesday, the Nuggets dealt their top two players along with three backups to the New York Knicks for a package of four young players, three draft picks and cash in a megadeal that reshapes both franchises.
The Nuggets didn’t want to part with Billups but they said they couldn’t move Melo without including the former NBA finals MVP and All-Star who remains one of the league’s top point guards at 34. He grew up in Denver, attended the University of Colorado and had hoped to finish his career with the Nuggets.
“I want to offer a personal apology to the Billups family,” Kroenke said at the start of a news conference Tuesday night after the trade was finalized. “They mean the world to me personally and I know Chauncey means everything to Denver.
“When I say Denver, I mean Denver basketball at every level. He is Denver basketball. He was a high school star here, he was a college star here, he was a professional star here. It was an incredibly tough decision to include him in this trade,” Kroenke said.
While the Nuggets’ new front office team of Kroenke and Ujiri drew high marks nationally for prying away so much from the Knicks, Ujiri all but flogged himself over the deal.
“We feel we got killed in the trade because we lost a couple of pretty good players,” Ujiri said. “Obviously, Carmelo Anthony, I feel sad for the city of Denver. I feel bad this was done on my watch. To lose a guy like that. And also Chauncey. But I think we had to do it. We had to do this trade. We had to move on and give this city hope.”
Ujiri also apologized to Billups and his family for having to throw him into the deal.
“This trade took this long because of Chauncey. We tried every way not to include him in this trade,” Ujiri said. “It’s one of the most difficult things, you try to maneuver and there are things beyond your control. What a great professional, what a great person, what a great family. He will always be welcome in Denver. He knows that.”
Coach George Karl said he was relieved the Anthony trade saga was finally over but, like several of his players, he, too, lamented the loss of Billups, who led the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals two years ago after he was acquired from the Detroit Pistons.
“I can’t deny that when the trade went down last night, I was kind of more sad than happy,” Karl said after his team’s short-handed shootaround Tuesday. “I think most of that sadness was because of Chauncey — and A.C. a little bit, too.”
The blockbuster three-team trade also sent Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams and Renaldo Balkman to New York for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov. The Nuggets also got center Kosta Koufos from Minnesota.
The Nuggets could have lost Anthony to free agency without any compensation after the season like the Cleveland Cavaliers did when LeBron James bolted for Miami last summer.
So, that kind of haul led Karl to exclaim that the new front office team “hit a home run the first time up.”
“I think they did a great job,” Karl said. “And the kitchen got hot. The kitchen got hot and they did a great job of keeping their composure and direction. I think they get philosophically what they want and we get philosophically what we want as a coaching staff. So, it’s a win-win. And I think it’s a win-win for the Knicks, too. So, I think Donnie Walsh and Mark Warkentien in a strange way, we all I think worked the dynamics of a very difficult situation into a win-win.”
Except for losing Billups, that is.
Ty Lawson said he had mixed emotions about his new role as the starting point guard because he was losing his mentor who helped groom him for this moment.
“It was more than about basketball,” Lawson said. “We hung out. So, I’m going to miss him.”
The Nuggets aren’t rebuilding with this trade, but are rather reinventing themselves, Karl said.
With the newcomers not expected to take their physicals until Wednesday, however, the Nuggets had just nine players available for their crucial game against Memphis on Tuesday night, only seven of whom participated in the shootaround, with assistant coaches chipping in to make it 5-on-5.
Although the trade leaves the Nuggets with a leadership void, Karl insisted Denver will make the playoffs this season and predicted they might even do something they did just once in seven trips to the playoffs with Anthony: advance out of the first round.
The Nuggets in seventh place in the Western Conference and although they have a tough stretch of games against Memphis, Boston, Portland and Atlanta to close out the month, Kenyon Martin said the playoffs are still well within Denver’s grasp.
“Why not? Still got good guys who can play basketball,” Martin said. “Of course you’re losing two great players, but I think we’re in a good place now. … We’ll be all right. It’s not like they shipped everybody.”
With Billups gone, Lawson, a second-year speedster, and Felton, who was averaging 17.1 points and nine assists in an All-Star worthy season for New York, will split time at the point.
Like Karl, both Felton and Lawson went to North Carolina. Felton led the Tar Heels to the 2005 NCAA championship and Lawson guided them to the 2009 title.
“George was here this weekend and we talked about it,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I do believe he can play both of those guys at the same time, having the ability to really push, having the ability to cover people. It’s something I’m looking forward to. It makes me want to see Denver play even more.”
Lawson is moving up the ladder sooner than expected.
“I think I’m ready,” he said. “(Billups) did a good job, taught me things I need to know, situations and just overall being a bigger brother to me on the basketball court, so I’m ready for it.”
By getting younger and losing Anthony’s high scoring clip but more deliberate pace, the Nuggets plan to push the tempo more and create scoring chances for everybody else.
Karl just wishes that still included Billups.
“I mean, Melo gets what he wants,” Karl said, adding that Williams and Balkman probably get more minutes in New York, too.
It’s not as though Karl was trying to disrespect Anthony, even though the All-Star forward’s desire to leave Denver hung over the team for eight months.
“I have tremendous respect for what he did here, what he gave us, what he gave me,” Karl said. “I can’t deny his personality and his skill level is a conflictive personality to a coach. And you know I thought we survived this year … I think we survived it in a positive way. Now, was it an A-plus? Probably not. But I look at the six years that I had with Melo as a blessing for a coach. We won a lot of games, and we won a lot of those games because of Melo.”
And plenty of others because of Billups.
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed.