A lot to answer for in Denver

Heisler is a Times staff writer.

Thanks for coming, A.I.

Everyone had the same question two seasons ago when the Denver Nuggets got Allen Iverson:


Aside from getting a superstar who’d been marked down drastically, there was the question of what Iverson could do for the Nuggets that they weren’t already doing.


It’s official: nothing.

The team that had won 44 games with Carmelo Anthony the season before won 45 and 50 in two seasons with A.I. and ‘Melo and was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in all three.

Officially, Iverson became a former Nugget on Monday, traded to Detroit for Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb.

Now the question is what Billups, the prize in this package, can do for the Nuggets that they weren’t already doing.

In other words:


Despite Iverson’s stellar play and the former outlaw icon’s leadership -- really -- his greatest impact was on Denver’s payroll, obliging theretofore-thrifty owner Stan Kroenke to pay $13.5 million in luxury tax last spring.

The Nuggets have been deconstructing since, looking as if they might give you a player if you asked first.

Actually, the Nuggets held out until the Clippers gave them the right to switch second-round draft picks for Marcus Camby.

With Iverson’s contract running out and no extension offer coming, his departure next summer was a certainty. Coincidentally or not, the players just voted Anthony and Kenyon Martin co-captains, demoting Iverson, who had been a tri-captain.

Letting Iverson walk would, at least, have slashed the Nuggets’ payroll so they could start over.

Instead, for whatever reason -- because Detroit President Joe Dumars called? -- the Nuggets changed direction again.

At 32, Billups can still play -- in the half-court -- but he comes with a contract through 2012, worth $50 million.

(Samb is a 7-foot project who has played 31 minutes in his NBA career. McDyess was in the deal to make the money match and may retire.)

Billups is one of the league’s most respected figures and he’s from Denver, so bringing him home may be good PR for a team that, as Martin recently noted, leads the NBA in one thing: tattoos.

Unfortunately or not, depending on whether Coach George Karl cares if he stays, they won’t be able to do their favorite trick, making opponents run up and down in the mile-high air.

Iverson will be a wild card in Detroit. Unlike the Nuggets, the Pistons aren’t a fringe contender; they’ve made the last six Eastern finals, even if they lost in the last three.

Dumars has been trying to rebuild on the fly, bringing in young players such as Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson, but they just went all-in, cutting to the heart of their nucleus.

A major transition lies ahead, but at least there’s a payoff, one way or the other.

The Pistons were always missing a star who could get his own shot. Now they have Iverson, coming off a season in which he posted career highs in shooting (45.8%) and three-point accuracy (34.5%) while playing 82 games and leading the NBA in minutes (41.8).

After the season, they’ll try to re-sign him at something (a lot) lower than his current salary. If he leaves, they’ll be $20 million under the cap.

The Pistons, who were once so stodgy (every day of the last six seasons), may even go pedal-to-the-metal with a three-guard lineup to open a spot for Stuckey, who was compared to no less than Dwyane Wade as a rookie.

There’s talk that Iverson, the 160-pounder with the energy level of a hummingbird and the mind of a tiger, is finally slowing down. Clippers broadcaster Michael Smith raised the question during Friday’s telecast.

Iverson finished that one with 25 points, suggesting he has something left.

In any event, the Pistons will be faster. The Nuggets will be slower, with Karl under the gun and, whether it’s Anthony’s idea to get him out of there or theirs, Carmelo on deck.

So much for the Nugget Experiment. It was fun while it lasted, if you didn’t have to coach it.