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By ARNIE STAPLETON
DENVER (AP) - Carmelo Anthony simply won't recognize these Denver Nuggets - even though he had just about everything to do with the makeup of their roster.
The New York Knicks visit the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night in Anthony's first trip back to Denver since forcing his way out of town more than two years ago in a blockbuster trade that reshaped both franchises.
The only familiar face he'll see is point guard Ty Lawson. None of the other Nuggets were here when he was wearing powder blue and gold.
Anthony was feeling nostalgic after the Knicks practiced at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday afternoon.
"I grew up here, I mean, sort of to say. This is where I started my career," he said. "I was 18, 19 years old when I came here. This city grew with me, I grew with the city. We had a lot of good times here in Denver, as a team, as a community. And then it came to a point where we had to split ways. ... It was a mutual agreement, both parties agreed upon that. ... No hard feelings. It was a business decision at that point."
The trade is turning out to be a win-win for both teams.
Denver landed a bevy of young players, trade exemptions and draft picks they've used to retool their roster, and the Knicks got a bona fide superstar to build a team around.
The resurgent Knicks (38-23) are leading the Atlantic Division. The Nuggets (43-22) are in the hunt for home-court advantage in the playoffs, and they're out to prove coach George Karl's proclamation that an NBA franchise doesn't need a superstar to be great.
Karl has repeated that line so often this season that it's become his mantra, although he acknowledges there's a caveat: If the Nuggets keep on rolling, Lawson and/or forward Danilo Gallinari will be considered stars before long.
Gallinari came over in the `Melo deal along with fellow starter Kosta Koufos, key reserve Wilson Chandler and emergency center Timofey Mozgov. The Nuggets also got Raymond Felton, whom they flipped for point guard Andre Miller and two draft picks, one of which landed them Jordan Hamilton.
They used trade exemptions from the deal to acquire Corey Brewer from Dallas and JaVale McGee from Washington. A first-round draft pick acquired in the blockbuster trade was used to get starter Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia last summer, and Denver used a second-round pick from the deal to draft Quincy Miller.
That's 10 Nuggets connected to Anthony's departure from Denver.
The Nuggets were first-round playoff fodder in each of the last two seasons following Anthony's exit, but they only advanced out of the first round once in Anthony's time in Denver. They're trying to catch Memphis for the fourth seed or even the Clippers for the third seed, which could go a long way in helping them go deeper in this year's playoffs.
After all, they're 28-3 at home.
"Even when the trade happened, the guys, they got back and to finish off the season the way they did that year and then to rebuild the way they did and get the team that George was really looking forward to having, a young team, fast-paced team, up-tempo team, I think this is one of the better teams that he's coached," Anthony said.
The Knicks are ahead of Brooklyn and Boston atop the Atlantic Division and are second in the Eastern Conference behind defending champion Miami.
Anthony isn't 100 percent for his return to the Rocky Mountains, however. A nagging right knee injury sidelined him for three games before he returned Monday night and collected 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Knicks' 92-63 blowout loss at Golden State.
Returning to familiar surroundings might keep his mind off his knee.
"I was definitely looking forward to coming back," Anthony said. "It's been two years since I've been back, so I'm definitely looking forward to the basketball game tomorrow."
Even though it's been so long since his departure, fans are sure to let `Melo have it. After all, Anthony was jeered at home in the months leading up to his trade in February 2011.
To be sure, some will show him some love for all the memories of last-second shots and 30-point nights over his eight seasons in Denver that included a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
"I hope it is a celebration but then when the game gets started I hope they are supportive of us and crazy wild for us," Karl said. "The Knicks are one of the teams that travel well in the NBA and has a lot of fans. Our fans have done a good job of drowning out the Laker fans and drowning out the Chicago Bull fans."
Lawson figures it will be a playoff atmosphere when the game tips off.
"This game is going to be crazy," Lawson said. "It will be exciting. Probably the most exciting game of the year. There is going to be so much energy in the gym and they will have the fire to beat us."
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
Updated March 13, 2013