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Know thy enemy: Denver Nuggets

October 23, 2009 |  5:47 pm
Last Season: 54-28, 1st Northwest Division, 2nd Western Conference

Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Joey Graham. Drafted Ty Lawson.
Key losses: Linus Kleiza. Dahntay Jones.

The teams that dominated this offseason's headlines most were question the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Portland Trailblazers.  The commonality between those squads?  Each added a big name to their roster, further cementing their status as NBA elites.  In the meantime, the Denver Nuggets, just one season removed from a Western Conference Finals trip, seem to have been removed from basketball's collective consciousness as a legit contender.  Conversely, they didn't add anybody of true note.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I also don't think it's accurate.

Personally, I think the Nugs are getting slept on too much.  Sure, Denver merely kept their team intact while others got richer, but let's not forget, "status quo" was pretty kind to Rocky Mountain wallets.  They also enter this season bearing the fruit of collective maturity (as opposed to learning to mature), which should help build on last season's mental breakthrough.  I never thought in a million years I'd say this, but I'm guessing gone the days of emotional meltdowns, locker room sniping, and laying down to adversity are gone, which is unfortunate for the rest of the league.

To take a closer look at the Nuggets, I enlisted the help of Nate Timmons of the great Denver Stiffs blog, who was kind enough to lend some quality insight.  Here's what he had to say. 

    Yoda "The Chauncey Billups Effect" was about as instant as imaginable last season, adding accountability and professionalism to a culture with roughly zilch previously.  The team seemed to learn a lot about what winning is really "about."  With that knowledge under their belt, how much further do you think they can grow forward mentally as a unit?  Do you consider the emotional meltdowns of the past truly in the past?

       “The Chauncey Billups Effect” … I like it! Billups deserves a lot of credit for becoming the vocal leader this team had been searching for since Carmelo Anthony’s arrival in the NBA. There were veterans who were looked upon to fill that role (i.e. Andre Miller andMarcus Camby), but the vocal personality Billups brought with him along with his resume really got the attention of the younger guys on the team.

        But even before Billups returned to Denver for his second stint with the team, there were signs that things were already changing for the better in a professional sense. Head coach George Karl brought a “we tried it your way (offense), now let’s try it my way (defense)” approach to training camp, Kenyon Martinstepped up and told his teammates and Karl that he was refocused and ready to be a leader, Nene was in the gym early and often, and Melo was helping Team USA capture the Gold Medal in Beijing, China. Even resident “knucklehead” J.R. Smithwas training with Team USA and attending Nuggets assistant coach Tim Grgurich’s point guard camp in Las Vegas. So, Billups came to a team that was eager to learn what he was ready to teach.

        As far as the Nuggets mental growth… this team learned a lot under Billups and learned a lot about themselves last season with their deep playoff run. Taking into consideration the age of Denver’s young core of Carmelo Anthony, 25, J.R. Smith, 24, Nene, 27, Arron Afflalo, 24, and Ty Lawson, 21 … these guys are still just kids, so their potential for growth is immeasurable.

        2) On the flip side, Chauncey ain't getting any younger and lost some steam as the postseason continued (especially against the Lakers).  He's obviously still good, but perhaps a decline is in the works.  Do you see him still being able to provide what the Nuggets need at a high level, particularly with nobody ideal to siphon his minutes?

        It always amuses me to talk about a guy being on the decline at 33 years-old from a “real world” perspective… Makes me worried to get that old! Yes, Billups did seem to tire as the Lakers series wore on and Denver needed him on the floor to remain competitive. A lot of the focus in Denver this offseason, especially on our blog, has been about Billups’ backup. Sometimes it seems that the fans have forgotten that Billups is even on the team with all the talk centering around Anthony Carter, 34, and Lawson.

        There is no secret why the Nuggets traded up into the first round to select Lawson (18th overall).  This team needed a young and energetic point guard to groom for the future and to hopefully play some now. A.C. recently told the Denver Post that Karl promised him his minutes (22.9 mpg last season) would not be cut by the arrival of Lawson, but if that is the case there may be a riot at the Pepsi Center at some point this season. Lawson has looked impressive in limited preseason duty thus far and the fans feel the only thing standing between him and the backup point guard position is Karl’s false sense of A.C. as his security blanket.

        But back to Billups.  He averaged 35.3 minutes per game with the Nuggets during the regular season and 38.8 mpg in the playoffs. It’d be ideal to see his workload lightened during the season because come playoff time, he’s going to have to shoulder the load at point guard once again. No doubt in my mind, Billups must be on the floor as he still gives Denver its most potent lineup.

        From the maturity of Billups to the immaturity of J.R. Smith.  To say the least, it's been a brutal summer for Smith, between the "Blood lingo" Twitter-Gate and a month in jail.  I know Billups is trying to mentor stay the kid and Smith has said on a few occasions that the offseason (especially jail) was a real eye opener.  Thus, gone are the days of showboating after every trey and blowing off his coach, with a new focus on playmaking and defense.  A) Do you believe him?  B) How much will this team be elevated if Smith stays true to his word?

        Whenever I hear J.R.’s name I also hear Charles Barkley’s voice in my head saying, “That guy’s a knucklehead.”

        J.R. Smith celebrates'J.R. Smith is my favorite player to watch on the Nuggets. The kid can do everything on the basketball court. The Lakers saw a bit of it last season.  He has limitless range from the outside, he can get to the rack whenever he feels like it, his court vision can rival some of the top point guards in the league, and when he feels like it he can play some defense as well. The catch … “when he feels like it.”

        There is no question that J.R. has the physical tools, but as you point out above his mental makeup seems questionable at best. The NBA has chewed up and spit out countless talent through the years that didn’t have what it took mentally to survive in the league. Billups has been working with Smith to try to give him the same insight that he once received from Terrell Brandon and Sam Mitchellof the Minnesota Timberwolves.  Do I believe J.R. has changed? I hope so. To loosely quote the movie "A Bronx Tale": there is nothing worse than wasted talent. Smith has the talent to take this Nuggets team on his back and to become one of the best shooting guards in the NBA, but for now he’ll be serving a seven-game suspension to start the season and he’ll spend the rest of the year (whether he knows it or not) trying to prove his critics wrong with his play on the floor and behavior off of it.

        Last season was arguably Melo's best season, especially on the defensive end.  Do you see him building on this growth and if so, in what aspects?  Scoring?  Defense?  Leadership?  Maturity?

        Carmelo Anthony shootsMelo took some criticism last season because his scoring averaged dipped a bit, but I didn’t mind it at all. Melo didn’t shoot the ball particularly well and it showed in his 44% field goal percentage (his lowest since the 2004-05 season). He battled an elbow injury that limited him to just 66 games and I think he’ll become a more efficient scorer again this year now that he’s healthy and rested. Melo’s been shooting the ball as well as he ever has this preseason and he’s a more dynamic scorer now that he’s added a consistent three-point shot to his arsenal. I even think Melo may get close to averaging double-digit rebounds this year.

        But I’m not worried about his scoring … guy is going to fill it up on a nightly basis. I want to see Melo take ownership over this team. Melo took great strides in becoming more of a leader last season and I think he’s going to really take the reigns this season. The Nuggets identity was that of Billups as the leader and Melo as the star. I think this is the season that Melo assumes as much of the leadership position as Billups. It doesn’t seem to be in Melo’s personality to be an overbearing or very vocal leader and I don’t think he has to be, but I definitely think the team will take a big leap forward if he shows his teammates that he’s all business once he steps onto the floor.

        I really liked the essential swap of Arron Afflalo and Joey Graham for Dahntay Jones.  Unlike Jones, both can score a little and AA can defend pretty well (and without being dirty), which I think will help the second unit D a lot.  Between those two and Lawson, a lot of Denver's movement flew under the radar, but could their depth increased?  Even taking into account Linas Kleiza's defection (if you find it important).

        As the offseason was wearing on, I was pretty nervous about Denver’s depth. I felt that the team’s biggest asset last season was the energy and scoring punch off the bench. With Linas Kleiza bolting for money with Olympiakos and Karl flirting with the idea of placing Smith in the starting lineup that nervousness turned briefly to panic.

        After reading up on Arron Afflalo’s work ethic (in the gym very early daily) and seeing him live I think Denver may have uncovered yet another hidden talent. I wonder how much Billups had to do with getting his old Detroit teammate traded to the team? Afflalo is a much more complete basketball player than Dahntay Jones and Nuggets fans will quickly fall in love with this guy’s game. And Denver’s opposition will quickly tire of his defensive energy.

        Graham is another big body that Denver is going to be able unleash on opponents along with Renaldo Balkman, Chris Andersen, and hopefully Ty Lawson. None of these guys are really dynamic or proven scorers, but they are hard workers that will be surrounded with plenty of scoring options (Melo, Nene, Billups, Smith, and even K-Mart). I feel pretty comfortable with Denver’s depth, the roster rounds out with veteran big man Malik Allen, the raw and athletic Johan Petro, and of course Carter. I think the bench will again provide great energy and it’s more than likely that J.R. Smith will continue to come off the bench, at least for a while, to add some firepower to the second unit.

6)  Unlike the Lakers (Artest), San Antonio (Jefferson), Portland (Miller), Dallas (Marion), the Nuggets big offseason move was essentially keeping the team intact (resigning Birdman) and adding smaller pieces.  Do you think that's enough to keep up with the Western Conference Joneses, so to speak?   Even for a team admittedly good to begin with? 

        The reason I’m not too concerned with the Nuggets lack of big-name moves is because the core is intact and the role players are intact. A lot of fans wanted Denver to enter the “arms race,” but there really wasn’t anyone to add that made a whole lot of sense. Fans wanted to see a big man come in to spell Nene and K-Mart, but Denver wasn’t going to convince a veteran like Rasheed Wallace or a young guy like Channing Frye to come in and compete to be Denver’s third or fourth big man.  The minutes were just not there. And recently, there has been some talk among the fans about a guy like Stephen Jackson coming to town. But again, if Jackson became a Nugget it’d be at the expense of J.R. Smith’s minutes.  That’s not something I want to see. Smith needs more minutes this season, not less.

Teams like Dallas reloaded with the 31 year-old version of Shawn Marion, not the 2005-06 version that was scoring 21 points and grabbing 11.9 rebounds with Steve Nash. I’ll take Denver’s core over some desperation moves made by other teams.

7) Has the preseason included any practice with the in bounds pass?  (Sorry, just having a little fun)

I see, you guys ask me to come here and give a little Nuggets preview so you can casually slip in a nice barb or two.  I recently got a puppy, perhaps you guys want to come give him a kick as well? Ha ha…

(AK's Note: Props to Nate for being a good sport.  I don't really know him outside of reading his work, so despite my natural smart ass inclinations, I was a little nervous even going there.  Solid dude for being cool about it.)

8) Final thoughts on the team and your prediction for the season.

News from the team is that the Nuggets are wrapping up a great training camp. It’s not every day that Karl Denver celebrates praises his team, but he’s been unusually happy about the way his team has been handling themselves in practice.  K-Mart and Melo came to camp in phenomenal shape and Martin has said he feels like his old high-flying self … something he hasn’t said since he’s been in a Denver uniform. 

A big question this team has to answer is if they are still as hungry as they were last year, when they had a proverbial chip on their shoulder. The media wrote off Denver after the Marcus Camby trade last season and they seemed to come out of nowhere to make the Western Conference Finals with Billups. Teams will be gunning for the Nuggets now … the team will have to get used to being the marked man instead of a team trying to prove they belong. It’ll be interesting to see how they react. The Nuggets got a small taste of success last year and I don’t see them being complacent because of it. 

Since it’s the season … remember back to when you went trick-or-treating or when you take your kids trick-or-treating … was/has there ever been a time when you or your kids want to go home after hitting the first house that’s giving away the mother-load of candy? Not a chance. You want to press on and fill up your bag. I see the Nuggets pressing on as well and I’d love to see a rematch of the Nuggets and Lakers in the WCFs … although I’d like to see a different result.

As I said, lot o' good stuff.  I still think Denver is a step behind the Lakers as the league's top kahuna, but objects in the rear view mirror, as the old saying goes, may be closer than they appear.  They won't catch the Lakers, but they're capable of making it an interesting race, especially for the rest of the league.

Prediction: 56-26.  Tied for first in the Northwest.  Third in the Western Conference.


Photo: J.R. Smith celebrating.  Credit: Terry Pierson / The Press-Enterprise
Photo: Carmelo Anthony shoots.  Credit: David Zalubowski, AP
Photo: Various Nuggets.  Credit: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images