I’m not going to outright say that Denver is going to take a step back, I’m just leery of hyping up last year's success. While they’ll be good, contender is a bit of a stretch for my vocabulary. I honestly think they’re not going to be any better, and more likely than not, slightly worse than last year.
For as dominant of a finish as this team had to the regular season, it only improved by four games over the previous season. So I get that Chauncey Billups brought with him stability and consistency at the point guard position, but adding a healthy Nene and the energy and shot-blocking/altering ability of Chris Andersen off the bench was just as big for the team. All this “most lopsided trade in the history of the sport” is so far overblown, it’s become tiresome. AI wasn’t the anti-Christ and Billups wasn’t the Savior.
Look, I’m not trying to diminish the impact that Billups had on the overall culture of the squad, his leadership and ability to effectively run an offense are clearly better than Allen Iverson’s, who is a natural-born shooting guard.
But to give all the credit to Billups is like giving all the credit to Kobe Bryant or to Lebron James or Dwight Howard—it’s just so, unbasketball-like. A variety of different things, including the Billups acquisition, allowed the Nugs to make their run.
For starters, Nene had a terrific season two years ago, before injury put him down. At 26, he has clearly been a player on the rise, so his career 08-09 season had more to do with his maturing and remaining healthy than Billups’ influence. Mr. Big Shot really didn’t have all that much influence on Birdman’s game, outside of the occasional lob and all the missed shots that made for offensive rebounding opportunities.
True, culture change can be a huge difference. Billups initiating the offense, actually looking for Nene as a first option or swinging the ball over to Smith for the three, those little things help make a basketball team flow. But, looking back, not sure the culture changed all that much. I mean, J.R. Smith was and continues to be a knucklehead. Kenyon Martin continued to lose his cool, pick up Ts, etc., and ultimately, the Nugs choked and slunk away when the pressure was on just like they had when AI was on board.
Furthermore, when one really sits down and evaluates the Nuggets playoff run, they’ll see that they faced a severely crippled Hornets team and a Mavs squad playing over its head with arguably its second best player (Josh Howard) gamely playing on one leg. Even still, in game three, if Dirk Nowitzki or Howard or Jason Terry hit a couple of free throws, or Melo doesn’t hit that three, the series could have been easily 2-1 instead of 3-0, and then, who knows how it would have ended up?
Just like the Lakers didn’t dominate the Magic who were equal in talent (if only Jameer had been healthy…), the Nugs didn’t dominate the Mavs, a significantly worse team (last year) in terms of talent and health. To me, that speaks a lot more about how Denver measures up then the pyrite shine of a western conference finals showing and a two seed in the injury-depleted west.
With that long-winded intro, we get into this year’s squad. As with all teams, health will play a major factor in the success or failure of the 2009-10 Nuggets. While some teams, like the Mavs, Lakers and Blazers can ably withstand injuries, the Nuggets do not have that luxury. In addition, many of the players that are being counted on to remain healthy have a history of injury and/or suspension. Case in point, Smith will already miss seven games to start the season because of suspension and had some questionable Twitter posts this summer that caught the ire of the public.
As for injuries, in the four prior to last season, Nene had missed nearly two complete seasons and in the other two averaged less than 60 games. Kenyon Martin, who has survived micro-fracture knee surgery on both knees has averaged about 68 games per year, excluding the year he played in only two contests. Backing up Nene and Martin is Chris Andersen, who was kicked out of the league for testing positive for a “drug of abuse” which defined by the NBA includes cocaine, PCP, meth and acid. All of these drugs take money to support and the Birdman just signed a new five-year deal worth nearly $26 million. While all indications point towards him remaining clean, it only takes one slip-up to be right back nose deep in drug addiction.
The only other bigs on the roster are Johan Petro and Malik Allen and if Petro is the first big off your bench, you aren’t a contender, at least not this season.
As for the backcourt, Billups is one year older, and he seemed to tire in the playoffs. The drafting of Ty Lawson and the retaining of Anthony Carter is just what the doctor ordered. Lawson tore up summer league. Take that for what it’s worth, but he does have a track record as a winner with UNC. He also has the perfect point guard to learn from in Billups and to a certain extent Anthony Carter, both who have maintained a workmanlike attitude and use veteran smarts to level the playing field in their favor. Lawson excels when he has weapons around him, and, well, the Nugs supply is not as abundant as last year. In fact, with Smith most likely moving into the starting lineup, Lawson might have to emulate his Summer League run where he averaged 17 points a game.
When Smith returns from suspension and gets inserted into the starting shooting guard spot, projected starter Arron Afflalo will be the two for the second team. While he was a good get and can emulate a lot of the things that Jones brought to the table at a younger and cheaper price, he can't do what Smith does. What could happen, and might be good (if Smith remains content with a sixth man role) is if Afflalo can win that starter's gig during Smith's suspension. We'll see how Afflalo plays and what George Karl wants to do.
Speaking of the bench, or lack there of, one thing to watch out for is who backs up Carmelo Anthony. Linas Kleiza’s burn was spotty in the playoffs, but during the regular season, dude played in all 82 and averaged 22 minutes a game. The only other small-forward type left on the team is Renaldo Balkman, and while his hustle and athleticism will work well in transition, unless he suddenly learned how to shoot outside of five feet at even a decent clip this summer, Kleiza’s overall game and outside shooting are going to be sorely missed.
If the team ends up signing Desmond Mason, who still has some of that dunk-contest winning leaping ability, his lack of any semblance of an outside shot (that goes in) will not be the answer either. In fact, the team would be better off just playing the 25-year-old Balkman for all the little things he contributes that Mason doesn’t.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Melo will be primed and ready to bounce back from a down year. He absolutely murdered in the playoffs, averaging 27, 6 and 4 while shooting 45 percent (would have been even better but he faltered against the Lakers) and if that is any indication of where he’ll be next season, the Nugs could push the 55-win plateau. Of course, when he does average 27 a game, Billups supporters will point to it and say how much Chauncey has helped Melo mature and completely neglect to acknowledge that Melo averaged 29 points playing with Iverson. But, whatever.
If Nene stays on the court for 75 plus games and Martin plays 70 and Birdman and Smith don’t get suspended (anymore), and Melo rises back up to a top ten NBA player, the Nuggets will have a championship caliber starting five. But their almost inevitable fall from last year's heights will be because of the salary cap and Stan Kroenke's reluctance to pay it. A weakened, inexperienced bench pushes the Nugs back to the middle of the pack.
Of course, if the bench somehow develops, like Petro suddenly blossoms, Lawson makes a run for rookie of the year and Afflalo comes up huge, a championship could be in sight.
But in reality, I just don’t think this team has the depth to make a legit run because the bench has been significantly downgraded while a lot of other Western powers have upgraded. Plus, that’s a lot of “ifs” to be counting on. And iffy ifs at that.
Any extended injury to Nene, Melo, Billups, Martin, and/or Smith, and the Nuggets will struggle to win 45 games in the uber-competitive Western Conference.