I didn't quite grasp how emotionally and physically exhausted I was having followed the Nuggets so closely since October until I sat down on the couch to watch Saturday night's Magic/Cavaliers game. I was fighting back the eyelids from shutting throughout the first half, eventually caved into my exhaustion and didn't wake up until "Law & Order" or whatever the hell they put on TNT late night was on. I had to watch ESPN's "NBA Fastbreak" just to see the highlights of the Cavs' embarrassing series finale implosion and LeBron James classless exit (see more on that on the new Stiff List to the right). Between now and Thursday, I look forward to seeing some Magic fan somewhere concocting a puppet Dwight Howard that's a better effort than the Carmelo Anthony version I attempted after Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
So what about our Nuggets? Do they have the goods to get back to the WCF and potentially move on to the NBA Finals in 2010? Or are big changes needed just to match or exceed the success we just experienced? Denver Stiffs will address those issues in more detail in the days, weeks and months ahead (damn I hate the offseason). But here's a detailed sneak preview of the top summer topics for debate...
#1) How will the Nuggets play the role of the hunted as opposed to the hunter?
(Photo courtesy of Denver Stiffs reader Jonathan Maness)
This was brought up to me today by my good friend and loyal Denver Stiffs reader Chris from Los Angeles (and yes, he's a Lakers fan but not the annoying one posting in our comments sections, so we'll cut him some slack). Much of the Nuggets success in 2008-09 could be attributed to their something-to-prove/the world-has-counted-us-out mentality. From the coach on down through almost the entire roster, every member of the Nuggets had something to prove this past season as everyone - and I mean everyone, from the national media to their opposition - had the Nuggets penciled in for a playoff absence. This enabled the Nuggets to sneak up on teams and gave them an edge that probably resulted in four or five more wins than even they expected to have.
And yet if you remember how the regular season wrapped up, the Nuggets finished with the exact same record as the Trail Blazers and Spurs, and a mere one game ahead of the fourth-seeded Rockets. One or two bad losses, and we're complaining about the refs favoring the Lakers in Round 2 as opposed to the conference finals.
Entering the 2009-10 season, I think it will be virtually impossible to recapture that "no one believes in us" mentality, but that doesn't mean the Nuggets need to go the way of the Hornets, who went from pleasantly surprising underdogs in 2007-08 to grave disappointments a season later as opposing teams better prepared for them. Instead, the Nuggets need to embrace the role of an elite NBA team and behave like one. This means not beating themselves (i.e. no more Kenyon Martin kicking the side boards or grabbing opposing players' legs and no more J.R. Smith technicals after he makes a shot) while continuing to perpetuate the new definition of "Nuggets Basketball" that became their hallmark for much of this past season: tough defense combined with bruising interior offense.
#2) Will the Nuggets re-sign their own free agents?
(Photo courtesy of Denver Stiffs reader Jonathan Maness)
Yeeeeesh. This is a tough one. While management and the players are saying the right things about keeping this team together, the harsh reality is that the Nuggets are at the NBA's luxury tax threshold of $69 or so million with the guaranteed raised contracts already in place for Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Renaldo Balkman, Steven Hunter (yes, that guy), Antonio McDyess (yes, that guy, too) and Sonny Weems. For those who don't understand what the luxury tax threshold means, for every dollar the Nuggets spend exceeding the threshold to re-sign one of their own free agents such as Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Carter or Linas Kleiza (likely to be a restricted free agent), they must pay an equal dollar to the NBA. So if, say, Birdman is signed to a $4 million contract for next season and the Nuggets keep the rest of the roster in place as-is, it could really cost them $8 million in hard dollars.
You might ask: don't the Nuggets make a lot of money by advancing far into the playoffs? And the answer is: sort of. When Rick Carlisle was working for ESPN, I remember him pointing out that each home game is worth about $1 million to a mid or small market team after the NBA, vendors and whomever else needs to be paid out takes their cut. So in the theory, the Nuggets 2009 playoff run was worth approximately $9 million to the organization. That would be gravy if, as reported by Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke didn't lose money every year since owning the team.
That being said, I remember when GM Danny Ainge had to sell Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck on the Kevin Garnett deal two summers ago on the grounds that if the Celtics got to the NBA Finals, they would make a small profit thanks to an increase in ticket sales, merchandise, sponsorship dollars and so forth. At the end of the day, most NBA owners (i.e. not the Clippers Donald Sterling) want a winning product on the floor that doesn't bleed them dry. Thankfully for Nuggets fans, Kroenke is one of those owners. But exactly how much Kroenke is willing to lose for a chance at that elusive championship ring remains to be seen.
If the Nuggets can avoid a Jim McIlvaine situation when re-signing Birdman and somehow get Dahntay re-signed to a reasonable deal, I'd take my chances on losing Kleiza and A.C., although I like Kleiza as an offensive insurance policy when Melo decides to check out for a quarter or two.
#3) Will the Nuggets renew George Karl's contract?
(Photo courtesy of "Mordecai")
Another tough question. To justify his alleged $3 million per season salary, Karl unquestionably did a better coaching job in 2009-10 than he had for three seasons prior (seasons during which he's admitted to being "confused"). Rather than coach an $83 million dollar, 60-win potential team to an eighth playoff seed and first round sweep as we saw in 2007-08, Karl took a potential playoff cellar dweller and guided them to 54 wins and a Western Conference Finals berth. Putting aside the "it was all about Chauncey" argument for a moment, it's fair to debate whether or not Karl should be extended.
But if Karl can admit to lacking passion, almost admit to "faking it" and being "confused" for a couple of seasons while drawing a $3 million annual salary, than the Nuggets organization can lack passion and be confused as to whether or not he should be extended until the 2009-10 season concludes. I understand and respect that 50-win coaches don't grow on trees (note what happened in Detroit after Flip Saunders got canned), but I think the Nuggets have the upper hand with a possible Karl extension. First off, Karl has burned bridges with several other franchises already and I doubt that the marketplace will be clamoring for his services at a $3 million per season clip. Secondly, Karl has established roots in Denver and his family is here with him, so he's likely willing to take a home town discount. Third, Karl and Kroenke remain allegedly close and I doubt that at 58 years old, Karl wants to work for someone unfamiliar.
I'll stand by my earlier commentary that you can't blame a coach when the team fails and yet give him no credit when the team succeeds. And thus, Karl deserves a lot of credit for the Nuggets success last season. But while his misuse of rotations, lack of set play calling and refusal to work the refs in support of his players might be fine when you win 54 games and get to the conference finals, the routine gets old fast if your team goes the other way. I'd like to see how the Nuggets respond to success by the 2010 All-Star break before giving Karl an extension.
#4) Can the Nuggets add a true center?
(Photo courtesy of "Mordecai")
Maybe this question should be: do the Nuggets need to add a true center? And to that question, the answer is an emphatic yes. Seeing Nene do admirable work at center all season long only to end a great season with a whimper of a performance against the Lakers made this all too clear. Furthermore, the Nuggets struggled against tall, long teams such as the Lakers, the Rockets and the Trail Blazers all season long. Why? Nene may be listed at 6'11", but he's more like 6'9" with a seven footer's wing span. Nene himself has admitted he'd prefer to play power forward beside a true center and it became increasingly evident as the season went on that Nene simply doesn't have - and pardon the word usage here - a banger's mentality. Rather than play back-to-the-basket, pound it inside, Calvin Natt-style offense, Nene seemed to prefer his spin moves around a defender, mid-range jump shots and flip layups to dunking over opposing centers. And frankly, if Nene can develop that jumper consistently (he certainly has a better shot at it than K-Mart ever will), he could be a viable threat in pick-and-roll situations if he wasn't asked to be inside all the time.
But what's needed, what's available and what's possible are all very different things. A lot of this blog's readers have thrown out Shaquille O'Neal's name in the comments section from Saturday morning's column. Baggage and injuries aside, adding Shaq is an interesting idea. But the Nuggets would have to part with K-Mart's contract plus another two players' contracts and add another bad contract (like Jason Richardson's) and use up their $10 million trade exemption and go well over that luxury tax to make that deal possible. If you were the Nuggets, would you risk breaking up a Western Conference Finals team to bring in Shaq at center and lose another $20 million for one shot at an NBA Championship? It's actually worth thinking about, but ask the Suns how that's worked out for them.
Ideally - and this doesn't mean I don't appreciate everything he did for the Nuggets this past season - I'd like to see the Nuggets part with K-Mart and bring in a true center so Nene can move to his natural position of power forward. K-Mart's unnecessary and unwarranted grabbing of Sasha Vujacic's leg just as the Nuggets were making a mini-run combined with several missed corner jump shots against the Lakers in Game 6 seemed to be a microcosm of K-Mart's Nuggets career: tough, sure, but at what cost?
But unfortunately for the Nuggets, there are very few, if any, teams with a center to spare while also desperately needing a power forward presence (although I don't imagine anyone is desperate enough to take on K-Mart's ghastly $32 million dollar contract over the next two seasons...thank you, Kiki Vandeweghe, that's the gift that just keeps on giving!). The short, short list includes the Magic who - depending on what happens in the Finals - have no real power forward other than Tony "El Busto" Battie (meaning they have no power forward) and might be willing to do a sign-and-trade with backup center Marcin Gortat coming to Denver.
Who am I kidding? Hey Nene, have fun playing center again in 2009-10.
#5) How do we address the backup point guard position?
(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Maness)
Poor Anthony Carter. He plays as hard if not harder than anyone on the Nuggets. And yet if J.R. Smith is the "One Man Comeback" than A.C. is the "One Man Turnover." It seems like every great Carter steal - and he's had a lot of those - is matched by an overthrown, over excited pass. And every great Carter layup - and he's had a lot of those, too - is matched by a bricked open jump shot with plenty of time left on the shot clock. But as with a lot of things in life, you get what you pay for. And for his paltry (by NBA standards) $1.2 million contract, A.C. probably helps the Nuggets more than he hurts them.
This doesn't mean the Nuggets couldn't use an upgrade at backup point guard - especially with Chauncey advancing in age - and move A.C. to the secondary backup. But how exactly are the Nuggets going to pay for this? I'm not exactly sure how Kleiza's qualifying offer works, but the Nuggets may need to make a decision between re-signing Kleiza and upgrading the backup point guard slot either through free agency or a Kleiza trade (while moving Balkman to Kleiza's slot as the primary small forward reserve). And no, Mateen Cleaves isn't the answer.
I just did a quick scan of the other 29 NBA team rosters, and couldn't find an affordable/available backup point guard to get jazzed about. Unless the Nuggets pick one up in the second round of the draft (whom Karl would never play anyway), expect to see A.C. backing up Chauncey again in 2009-10.