Call me crazy, but I LOVE this year’s edition of the Denver Nuggets.
This decade of NBA basketball will probably be remembered as an era where league superstars in their respective athletic primes high jacked the league and constructed several “super teams,” all not coincidentally located on the coasts or in warm weather destinations.
While the player-GM model clearly is en vogue, count me as a skeptic as to its effectiveness. No disrespect to the business acumen of such megastars as Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul, but I’m a proud supporter of vintage NBA basketball and the rational construction of a great team. I love Moneyball, and in my estimation the concepts born out of this sports management revolution still have a place in the modern NBA. Therefore I present my case for the 2011 – 2012 Nuggets.
There is only one Larry O’Brien trophy to conclude an NBA season. I do not think that the Nuggets will bring it home this year, but I can envision a scenario of perennial title contention for these Nuggets. The team is young, well-coached, well-balanced, and well-managed. To borrow from the lexicon of Coach Hubie Brown, the upside potential of this group is high. If George Karl can build team chemistry and team defense I don’t think that the Mavericks, Clippers, or trendy consensus Western Conference favorite Thunder will be longing for the opportunity to go 7 games with this Nuggets team.
Youth Is Served
The Nuggets starting five will likely be point guard Ty Lawson (24 years old), shooting guard Aron Afflalo (26), small forward Danilo Galinari (23), power forward Nene (29), and center Timofey Mozgov (25). The starting five has demonstrated a combination of potential and talent that suggests improvement can be expected from each.
This team clearly lacks an established superstar, and is not likely to acquire any outside of the draft. For a variety of reasons, Denver has never been an alluring destination for the megamillionaire, brand-building NBA superstar free agent. And from this perspective, that is okay. By not relying upon a “LeBron-type” player, the team faces both disadvantages and advantages. No doubt, a go-to superstar has proven to be a critical element of a successful team in the Association, but overreliance on one superstar can also have a crippling impact on a young, emerging team. For further reference, please see the pre-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, the post-Shaq Los Angeles Lakers, the Carmelo Anthony Nuggets, and the Ewing Knicks. Quality teams can generally stop one quality player in key situations (if my word isn’t enough, just check on Carmelo Anthony’s “clutch” performances throughout his time in Denver). In fact, perhaps the best example is our very own Denver Nuggets, who just three seasons ago found themselves on the precipice of the franchise’s first NBA championship appearance. Melo played well in those playoffs, but he was not a one-man band. The acquisition of Chauncey Billups, the healthy Kenyon Martin, the sober and healthy Bird Man, and the periodically unconscious JR Smith each contributed mightily to that run. In 2009, crunch time was most certainly not Melo Time.
Coming off the bench, the Nuggets offer depth seen by few other NBA teams. In a cramped 66-game schedule, this can only help. Every team will play at least one back-to-back-to-back set in the regular season, and will also see a plethora of back-to-back road games. Team depth will matter in the 2011-2012 regular season, and as seasoned veterans like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki reach the playoffs, the miles will start to show.
The Nuggets key bench players include savvy veteran point guard Andre Miller, sharp-shooter Rudy Fernandez, versatile Corey Brewer (loved that trade), rookies Jordan Hamilton and Kenneth Faried, and an apparently healthy Bird Man. Karl may be able to run two different starting fives during the treacherous depths of this season’s schedule. He might need it. The only handicap here will likely be finding enough minutes for everyone, as Harrington or Kousta Koufas remain in baby blue. The best case scenario at this point may be to find a team with bountiful cap space to unload 1 – 3 of these players to save rotational headaches for Karl and hopefully yield another future 1st rounder.
This year’s Nuggets will offer a pick-your-poison structure that a team with one-to-three superstars may struggle to contain. Think 1997 – 1998 Indiana Pacers, 2003 – 2004 Detroit Pistons, or 2010 – 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Can the 2011 – 2012 Nuggets offer such excitement? National pundits seem to universally agree that the answer is no. My response is a definitive yes.
Team Basketball In Denver
Nuggets head coach George Karl has enjoyed approximately 2 ½ coaching renaissances in his time in Denver. In his first year as head coach (taking over midseason in 2004 – 2005), Karl took an underachieving group of prima donnas on a 32 – 8 run to end the regular season. In 2008 – 2009, Karl led the Nuggets to the second seed in the Western Conference after the in-season trade for Chauncey Billups. The Trade unloaded a clear problem in Allen Iverson and brought back hometown hero Billups for the best run in franchise history. The fact that George was able to construct such a triumphant season without the benefit of integrating Billups in training camp speaks volumes about both coach and point guard. Finally, last year after the brilliant trade of Carmelo Anthony, Karl led the team to a fantastic finish and coached the team to a tantalizing (albeit) disappointing first round series with (Everybody’s Favorite) Thunder.
If coaches still matter in the NBA, then George is your best case study. He led the Sonics of Kemp and Payton to the 1996 NBA finals, where they gave Jordan’s 72-win Bulls team everything it could handle. Imagine coaching the temperamental Gary Payton, and the drug-addicted, fornicator extraordinaire Shawn Kemp to the cusp of beating arguably the greatest NBA team of the last 25 years. Frankly, I’m surprised George is still alive.
After his time with the Sonics, George led a resurgent 2001 Milwaukee Bucks franchise to within one game of the NBA finals on the backs of Ray Allen and perennial head cases Sam Cassel and Glenn Robinson.
The simple fact is that George can COACH. This bodes well for a young team of seemingly team-first players willing to play for their coach. George has suffered infamous feuds with star players in the past, but it’s hard for me to imagine Ty Lawson going Latrell Spreewell on his coach after a tough practice (if those still exist in the NBA). The Nuggets will enter most regular season games and several Western Conference playoff series with a strong coaching advantage. That will matter.
The Front Office
As first year team president (Josh Kroenke) and first year GM (Masai Ujiri) seized control of the Nuggets basketball operations in 2010, they sat in the room with one of professional sport’s biggest elephants. Carmelo Anthony demanded a trade in training camp and subsequently indicated that his trade demand included basically one destination. Out of this virtual nuclear stand-off, not only did the Nuggets rid themselves of the franchise’s Melo Problem, but they brought in one potential dynamic scorer in Galinari, two young 7-footers that aren’t stiffs (Mozgov and Koufas), key rotational players for last year’s run (Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler), a future 1st-rounder, and a boatload of cap space. That cap space has allowed the Nuggets to re-sign both Nene and Afflalo and still leaves them the opportunity to seek a mid-season trade to put this team over the top. In my estimation, this heist was one of the undersold stories in the NBA last season. Melo was ONLY going to sign an extension with one franchise, and the Nuggets basically held the Knicks hostage for every valuable young, inexpensive piece they had. NBA teams in redevelopment need EXACTLY three assets: cap space, young inexpensive players, and draft picks. That trade earned an “A” in all three categories and set a foundation for the new look Nuggets of 2011 – 2012. I trust this front office team and expect personnel moves in the next several years to be similarly responsible in the development of a franchise who, in spite of inherent obstacles of the modern NBA, will have perennial staying power in the Western Conference.
Addition By Subtraction
JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler are free agents currently playing in China, meaning they won’t be causing problems, complaining about playing time, criticizing the organization, or missing critical shots in big moments. While I will miss K-Mart’s philosophical musings on the quality of the Nuggets tattoos (K-Mart once opined: “We may not lead the league in stats, but we will lead the league in tats”), I won’t miss much else. I think that about covers it.
The Young Nucleus
Ty Lawson, Aron Afflalo, and Danilo Galinari form a tantalizing group of hard-working, team-first players that will form the nucleus of this team into the future. Lawson’s quickness and court vision and Galinari’s range, athleticism, and size offer the Nuggets security in the knowledge that this team will be hard to defend both on the break and in the half court. No player in the last five years seems to have made more of his skill set than Afflalo, a notoriously hard worker who exemplifies the ideals of a young athlete looking to make something of himself. Afflalo embodies the values of his coach and will continue to develop not only as a perimeter defensive stopper but an outstanding outside shooter.
The Nene Question
Is Nene one of the game’s best low-post scoring and defensive options, or an overpaid big man with potential athleticism that will never develop into discernable basketball excellence? Depends on the day. But by re-signing a career Nugget with perplexing athleticism, basketball talent, and disappearing skills, the team at least ensures that their front court will not be physically overmatched on either end. Given the option of five years of Nene or a free agent alternative (Tyson Chandler or Marc Gasol), I’m happy to settle on Nene, if for no other reason than the fact that neither Chandler nor Gasol seemed to have their bags packed for Denver. Finding elite front court players occurs as frequently as bipartisan agreement on The Hill. Good Nene (high field goal percentage, competent defender, strong shot blocker) offers the Nuggets a chance to compete with the best. Bad Nene (unfulfilled athletic potential, poor rebounding by every metric, and too many crunch time David Copperfield moments to count) will handicap this team in its future growth. Nene may be the single most important player in the Western Conference this year. We know what we’re going to get from the Nucleus, as Nene makes us wonder.
I liked the Nuggets draft in June, and I love Kenneth Faried. Call him a poor man’s Dennis Rodman if you will, but I foresee at least the possibility that we have a millionaire’s Rodman on our hands. A 6’8” power forward with insatiable desire and skill for rebounding (13.0 RBG as a junior, 14.5 RBG as a senior), Faried will make a difference in the Nuggets front court THIS YEAR. Jordan Hamilton is a skilled wing with diverse scoring skills that he honed in two years at Texas. Good NBA teams draft well and find opportunities for their young players to develop. For those keeping track at home, Hamilton and Faried represent the second and third quality draft picks made by the Nuggets since drafting Melo in 2003. More credit to the front office on these picks.
For the aforementioned reasons, I like the Nuggets to finish the regular season as a top-four team in the Western Conference. This will deliver at least one playoff series with home court advantage in a city that can produce an electric atmosphere for big home playoff games. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Nuggets rattle off one of their 15 – 3 runs in this 66-game season. In that scenario, it wouldn’t shock me if they earned the conference’s first or second seed, offering the potential of multiple series with home-court advantage. This team will win games from January through April. I hope to be able to say the same in the May and June.