DENVER - George Karl suggests that if the Denver Nuggets had "played poker" with the 76ers in December 2006, they might never have had to part with Andre Miller.

The Nuggets' coach also knows that if they hadn't made that trade, they never would have been in a position to reacquire Chauncey Billups.

Of all the major player movement around the NBA before and during the season, Billups is the player who has stepped most seamlessly into a new situation. The Golden State Warriors might not be thrilled with free agent Corey Maggette; the Los Angeles Clippers might not be all that pleased with Baron Davis; the Detroit Pistons have yet to see the explosive Allen Iverson. The Sixers still think they made the correct decision in signing Elton Brand, even though the results so far don't necessarily back up that premise.

But the Nuggets are ecstatic with Billups, who came back for a second stint with his hometown team in a deal Nov. 3 that sent Iverson to the Detroit Pistons. And why not? After last night's 105-101 win over the Sixers in the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets are 18-8 with Billups as their point guard. They are 19-11 overall, matching the second-best 30-game start in franchise history.

They were, however, without star forward Carmelo Anthony, who missed his third straight game with tendinitis and bone spurs in his right elbow. Anthony is among the players who have profited the most from Billups' arrival.

The Nuggets traded Miller, the expiring contract of Joe Smith and two first-round draft choices to acquire Iverson from the Sixers, believing Iverson and Anthony could generate victories with a high-octane offense. But when ownership decreed that it was critical to bring the payroll below the league's luxury tax trigger point, they jumped at the chance to give up Iverson's $21 million expiring contract.

"I'll be honest, you didn't like the edict," Karl said, "but I thought it was the first time our organization kind of knew what the purpose was, and that's what we were going to live with, and it's kind of kept us together. With Chauncey . . . we go back to better balance, better shot selection, better commitment to defense."

Karl said another point of the move was to have that quarterbacking mentality on the court for more minutes.

"It's not that A.I. didn't give us good minutes, or that Anthony Carter hasn't had maybe the 2 best years of his career, we just had too many moments where the offense was, whatever you want to label it, disorganized, chaotic, the shot selection a little wild and crazy," Karl said. "I believe in wild and crazy, but it pushed the line a lot."

Having offered up a thorough explanation, Karl knows his 2-year search for a point guard began after trading Miller, who had provided everything Karl wanted since joining the Nuggets as a free agent in 2003-04. Karl, to this day, says he reluctantly agreed to the deal with the Sixers.

"I thought if we played poker with Philadelphia, we could have kept him and put someone else in it," Karl said. "They say no, but I think all they wanted was our two first-round picks. I felt if we had played poker, we could have had A.I. and Andre, which reminded me a little of Eric Snow and A.I. [with the Sixers]. I thought that would have been really cool."

Later, Karl said, Andre, in a very unique way, has gotten better. Last year might have been his best year. I always thought he was a top-10 guard. Most people probably would have put him at the lower end [of that], but I thought last year he might have moved closer to top five. The way he handled running them at the end of last year was incredible."

Miller, who initially seemed disconsolate about leaving the Nuggets, grew to enjoy his new teammates and their style of play.

"[With Chauncey], you can't get any better as far as a solid point guard, with the experience he has," Miller said. "I give George a lot of credit. I enjoyed playing for him, but it's a business. I'm past that and they're having a good year so far."

Miller's current team is 12-17, but Miller said, "We'll get there. We've had some opportunities slip, but we'll keep fighting, and I think we'll get better."

Billups, a high-school star in Denver and at the University of Colorado, is home. And it appears to be the perfect place for him.

"The spirit of the trade [for him] was real," Karl said. "The city had a feel to it. The fans had a feel to it. This was the trade, subtly and subconsciously, that everybody wanted." *