30 Teams, 30 Days
Denver Nuggets Season Preview.
The Denver Nuggets kick-off our Northwest Division previews. You can read past previews here.
by Cub Buenning
The city of Denver, CO is home to a group of sports fan who are accustomed to winning. Their “favorite sons,” the Broncos of the NFL have appeared in five Super Bowls, won two titles and since those back-to-back championships a decade ago, they have continued to be one of the league’s best teams year-in and year-out. The local hockey squad, the Colorado Avalanche, has brought home two Stanley Cups and several long playoff runs in their brief 13-year existence in the Mountain Time Zone. Heck, even the “dog-butt” Rockies have a recent World Series appearance and this year look dialed in to capture the NL Wild Card and play baseball into October.
But where does that leave the Mile High basketball fan?
Having called Denver home since 1967, the Rockets/Nuggets franchise have given their faithful little more than a visually-exciting brand of basketball.
NBA Titles? Nope. They’ve never even been to the Finals.
What about the nine years in the ABA? (There must be at least one with names like Dan Issel and David Thompson.) Negative. Just one Finals appearance during the ABA’s penultimate season.
So, to even the most novice of historians, last year’s Western Conference appearance was not only important, but, well… historical.
A season that was given little hope was completely turned on its head with the early season swap of (basically) Allen Iverson for Denver-native, Chauncey Billups. The youthful and undisciplined core of the team was suddenly under the tutelage of a true leader. Carmelo Anthony was instantly freed to just be a basketball player and not worry about getting his touches (they’d surely come), JR Smith finally had some directive instruction from a peer that he obviously admired, and the frontcourt of Nene, Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin enjoyed the prompt round ball service to go with their timely bout of collective good health.
That combination cashed in on a franchise-best 54 wins, a Northwest Division title, but most importantly a No. 2-seed in the playoffs and (for once) a home-court advantage for the first two rounds.
With the bulk of the team already under contract for the next couple of years, the Denver Nuggets looked to remain one of the more static teams in the League. And they did. Yes, some offseason changes were made, but Head Coach George Karl, Executive of the Year, Mark Warkentein and his legion of assistants are banking on enhancing, rather than altering an already formative roster.
Who is gone?
Dahntay Jones — Despite all of the intangible/grit-related attributes that Dahntay (aka Flozell Adams) brought the Nuggets last year, Indiana wanted to pay the 7th-year guard WAY too much money than would should have been the Duke grad’s going rate. Letting him go was prudent; current economic state or not.
Linas Kleiza — Someone who was considered “untouchable” just a year earlier, LK often found himself, on the outside looking in. Remember, that the Nuggets refused to part with him in a possible spring ’08 trade with Sacramento for Ron Artest (who was ultimately moved to Houston). Kleiza’s minutes became sporadic this past season and despite some awesome playoff moments (he almost single-handedly beat the Lakers in Game Two of the WCF) he just seemed like that kid that was always looking over his shoulder at the bench. If he missed his first couple shots, he was sure (and usually did) to get pulled. The Nuggets do still own the domestic rights to Klezia, but for the next couple of years, LK is going to become a rich man; playing professionally in Greece for Olympiakos. Great for him, as that kind of money probably translated to twice or thrice more than he would have made this year in the NBA. (After years of making peanuts, by NBA standards, Kleiza’s qualifying offer from the Nuggets for this year alone was for $2.7 million while his European deal nabs him over $6 million per.)
If the Lithuanian-native decides to return to his adopted home-country, the Nuggets will still have the first say in the terms of his play. Imagine the 6-8, 245-pounder coming back in two years with some added confidence and over $10 million in his pocket.
Who is new?
Arron Afflalo — Just days after the Pacers opened the vault for Jones, the Nuggets replaced him with a similarly athletic, defensive-oriented, decent perimeter shooter, by the name of Arron Afflalo, for much less money. A shrewd business move and one indicative of the way things are finally being done around the Pepsi Center. Afflalo will be asked to fill a similar role played by Jones, possibly starting games, but probably not finishing them.
Ty Lawson — The Nuggets gave up next year’s first-round selection (not likely to be a good one and quite likely not necessary for a team of Denver’s quality) for the rights to the 18th pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. The Carolina point guard was instrumental in the Heels’ run to the 2009 NCAA title. Having a chance to be groomed over the next few years by Billups, seems ideal. No early pressure; gets in with a winning team; can contribute at times through his rookie year and should be ready to be a full-time starter within a few years.
Who Is Still Around?
Carmelo Anthony has had another (positive) quiet summer and looks primed to make another leap in his development as a superstar. More should be expected of him, as Karl will invariably give Chauncey some time off during the season (a la Pop with TP and Timmy). In a similar vain, JR is finally in a position where he should be expected to earn the starting off-guard spot. But Smith has proven to be a lethal late-game scorer and almost always finished the games, so whether he starts or not seems, relatively insignificant, personal egos aside. Karl has also been very public about how much he values bringing in that kind of offensive punch of the bench.
In the frontcourt, things are a bit more tenuous. Last year, the trio of Nene, Bird and Kenyon appeared in 214 of the 246 possible, giving the team a rare stability. That kind of fortune is pretty unlikely again, so finding additional help still remains a need. Kudos to the front office, for not being out-priced in keeping the Birdman nested in his year-round home of Denver. “Inked” for an additional 5 years, at a little more than $5 million per, Anderson is much more important to the team’s success than he normally gets credited for. He brings energy to games, and as I always like to say, “He doesn’t too anything wrong.” He may not light up the stat sheet or impress with a vast array of offensive moves, but on a team filled with scorers, his rebounds, blocks (dude was second in the League last year with 2.5 per despite getting only 20 minutes a night) and crowd-enticing moments come at key junctures of games and often let the Nuggets maintain leads that were built up by the first unit.
Seven-footer Johan Petro was brought back and veteran Malik Allen fill out the front-court roster. Like I mentioned, I would like to see more moves happen in this category, but if these guys can play a little defense and add a little grit than they may be serviceable in the event one of the big three go down.
Other bench players that might be asked to add during “lean” times are forward Ronaldo Balkman (who proved valuable at times last year) and the venerable one, Anthony Carter. When the Nuggets picked up Lawson in the draft, it seemed the proverbial writing was on Carter’s wall, but the coaching staff loves what AC does for a team and his worth might come through later in the season, not to mention his added mentorial worth to Lawson.
So, does this team get back to the Western Conference Finals?
Can they actually threaten the mighty Lakers, who were far more aggressive in the offseason?
In this (un)biased person’s opinion, the answer is ‘yes’ to both inquiries. Denver was one of the few teams (contract/age/core makeup-wise) that didn’t need to make a whole lot of offseason shifting.
The division should be theirs’ for the taking and a healthy Nugget roster should be able to stack up against all comers, even those titans in the West that “powered up” in the summer. 50-55 wins is not out of the question and the franchise first-trip to the NBA Finals “Promiseland” might finally just have the Denver hoop-diehards as content as everyone else in town.