Denver Nuggets Season Preview

by October 06, 2008

The Denver Nuggets kick-off our Northwest Division previews. You can read past previews here.

by Cub Buenning

“(Nuggets owner) Stan (Kroenke) was highly complimentary of our coaching. Amazed at times. He thought last year was a great year. Disappointing in losing in the playoffs, no question. But from the standpoint of what we were dealt and what we delivered, it was a big-time year.”

To most basketball observers (including many of you who frequent our fair site) this quote from Denver Nuggets’ Head Coach George Karl might seem a bit ludicrous. At close glance, however, Karl, in his fourth full season in the Mile High City might not be that far off. A team that has won progressively more games in each of Karl’s seasons finished with 50 wins (the franchise’s most in twenty years) and made the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

“If the evaluation is success in the playoffs, we haven’t done that. And I can live with that. I agree 100 percent. I hate losing in the playoffs. I hate being on this losing streak.”

For a guy that has a 171-115 record since coming to Denver (that’s 60 percent and a 49-win average) Karl has managed just three wins in the team’s 19 postseason tilts. For the fifth straight year, the Nuggets were home after just two weeks of postseason basketball, due in large part to the team’s well-documented aversion to participation on the defensive end of the court.

“We’ve been a team that’s had enough talent to win a championship, but there are probably 12 of them in the League a year. It’s the chemistry and the talent that wins championships. And we haven’t done a very good job of figuring out the right chemistry.”

This has been one of the most talked about issues surrounding this team. No real leaders in the locker room, two megawatt superstars that both enjoy dominating the ball and a combustible mix of employees from the top of the organization to the bottom have plagued this team. This quote has to pertain to the front office, as well. There is no chemistry between the management conglomerate and the players and coaches.

“My disappointment and depression was in about a five-day period. We lose Eddie Najera and Marcus Camby and get nothing. I’m paranoid and scared.”

Karl was not alone in his fears that losing two of your team’s character guys would hardly help a team that has failed to connect the championship dots. The decisions, however, had nothing to do with the product on the court, rather the bank statements at the end of the month.

“We had a tough year from that standpoint and financially, I think he (Owner Kroenke) wants to change that. He’s been very honest on how he wanted to build in the summer, being financially limited.”

Which brings us to one of the most discussed and scrutinized deals in league history. Giving up Marcus Camby to the LA Clippers for the right to swap second round picks appeared idiotic and misguided to the general public. But there is much more to the story. There had to be.

The team will reap the benefits of this move for the long-term while their short-term on-court product may suffer. Ten million dollars will be off the books this season, moving the Nuggets as close as they have been in years to the NBA’s Salary Cap (earmarked at around $71 million for the upcoming season). In addition, the nature of the “trade” gives the Nuggets a $10 million exception to be used either this season or early in next year’s offseason, when Allen Iverson’s $21 million might also come off the books. Basically, they can make a trade and acquire $10 million worth of contracts (which is why it wouldn’t make sense for them to use the exception now—putting them right back over the cap) and only give up a future draft pick in the process.

(For example, this summer, Minnesota used a similar exception, giving up just a conditional second-round pick to Philly for the rights to Rodney Carney and Calvin Booth and protected first-rounder.)

“But you recover. The (Renaldo) Balkman trade…we give (New York) basically nothing (two players with nonguaranteed contracts who were later waived). We get another guy, Chris Andersen, a pretty good basketball player, for nothing (the minimum salary as a free agent).”

With Camby’s departure, the team reinforced their frontcourt with the aforementioned hustle/defensive-minded guys while also adding Dahntay Jones and Sonny Weems, two backcourt guys who also share a propensity for defense. Balkman should step in right away and give Karl some quality minutes off the bench and Birdman was always a fan-favorite during his years here in Denver. Yes, Camby and Najera have departed, but maybe there is a larger paradigm shift on the horizon.

“We have to change our mind-set to at least moving into the top half of the defensive-minded teams in basketball become more aggressive (on the) perimeter with rotations and double teams and zone actions.”

This is the crux of the matter when it pertains to the Nuggets. Can they make the necessary adjustments in their total play to present at least an adequate defensive output? The team’s defensive weaknesses are comprehensive; they are bad pretty much across the board. In addition to a potential change in their half-court strategy, Denver’s transition defense can be aided by a more patient, selective attack on the offensive end. In the past, the Nuggets were in such a rush to get off a shot, that the “quality” of said shot was often compromised, leading to long rebounds and bad positioning on the court. Opponents turned those sloppy possessions into easy points and coach has vowed to not let ANYONE on the team get away with it this year.

“I have no desire to be liked. Melo has always had skills to be a very good defender. He’s had very good defensive games. I remember a couple of times how he’s played LeBron (James). How’s he’s actually played Kobe (Bryant) at times. It’s when the ordinary player, who he’s matched up on, he forgets about.”

Defense is about attitude and heart. When your star player dogs it during games, those things trickle down to even the back-ups. Carmelo Anthony needs to prove himself, maybe now more than ever. His Olympics weren’t great, but he played with a youthful exuberance and was the most vocal supporter of the team, even when he was on the bench.

Anthony’s tenants this year should be to play hard, dive on the ground, get loose balls, and most importantly, REBOUND! This team needs Melo more than ever to become a monster on the glass. Ten rebounds a night is surely not out of the question, and with Camby gone, there will be plenty of defensive boards to be had. Don’t expect Nene to pick up the majority of the slack, as the Brazilian has never been confused for a rebounding machine.

“I love people saying that, ‘They’re awful. They’re going to be bad. I don’t see us as bad. My belief is we have enough talent to be ultrasuccessful. I like the idea that people are condescending and degrading our possibilities. This is the first year that most people don’t think we’re going to be any good. Some people are saying we’re totally demised. And I don’t see that on our team…I like the idea of people thinking we’re not that good…I like being the underdog and (prognosticators saying), ‘We’re floundering,’ because I don’t think that’s the case.”

The “us against the world” mantra is sure to be a selling point for the coach this season. The Nuggets have been continually bashed for years, but this is the first year that many are thinking this team won’t even make the postseason. With a starting group of Nene, Kenyon Martin, Anthony, Iverson, and Chucky Atkins (Anthony Carter for the first few games) the team does not actually look too different from last year. It is depth, however, which might propose the largest challenge. Karl has got to love having two great options like J.R. Smith (who will play more than the two-headed Chucky/Carter combo) and Linas Kleiza to come of the bench. Remember, that these two young studs were the central bumbling blocks that kept the team from making any big moves (I.e. Ron Artest) at the trading deadline last year. While many of these younger guys now have gray on their beards, the average age of Smith, Kleiza, Carmelo, and Nene is still just 24 years.

“This team has more George Karl personality to it than any team I’ve coached in Denver. It has more sons of…It has more, ‘I’ll hit you when you’re playing well.’ It has more guys who want to be mean and angry rather than cool and pretty, and I think that is going to help us.”

The coach has also vowed to put the hammer down. In the past, Karl was openly afraid to criticize play after a win and we all know that teams can secure wins while playing a style of ball that is less than perfect. Young players, like the ones that litter the Nuggets’ roster, need constant teaching. They need to know when they got away with being lazy on defense, they need to know when their lapses in focus caused a teammate to get victimized, and they need to know when they are hurting the team. After a win, that type of tough-love can be a challenge for a coach (and one that Karl has obviously failed at) but it is necessary, nonetheless. Celebrate a win, be happy, but that next day should always be about getting better, learning from one’s mistakes, and moving on to the next opponent. I think the Nuggets of the past five years have solely worked on the “next opponent” platform, opting to just be complacent with any kind of W.

“If the edict is changing the face or changing the coach, we can live with that. We all know that that happens. There are very few lifetime coaches in the NBA.”

What is to happen this season, for the lovable/semi-despised NugPups? Will they decide to move Iverson before the trading deadline to ensure some form of return before he becomes an unrestricted free-agent next summer? If playoff success is not in the cards, will the coach be moved? Can they continue their progress under Karl and win more than the 50 games they did a year ago? All these questions are valid and paramount as to whether the team achieves ultimate success.

I think this could be a “throw away” year as the front office waits to get back under the cap and prepares to be a major player in the 2009 summer free-agent bonanza. The Northwest Division is continually improving with Portland as everybody’s team du jour, to go along with the steadiness of the Utah Jazz. That being said, the Denver Nuggets should still be considered a favorite to compete for the division. The Blazers still seem a couple years away, and 50 wins should be within the Nugs’ grasp.

Hell, Melo thinks they got 60 in ‘em.