Like an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries", by the end of reading this, you won't know any more concrete fact than when you started. We'll have to wait for the season to get underway for that (just six more days!!!).
However, I think the Nuggets have improved over the last season. Lets break down their key losses and additions from this off season.
Dahntay Jones - His defense, intensity, and courage will be missed. He is also among the most prolific finishers at the rim in the league. I think his great attitude and contagious enthusiasm and cheerleader spirit will be most sorely missed, but hopefully will be picked up by other players by example.
Linas Kleiza - Aside from sporadic games of being clutch and/or exhibiting
a will and effort to outwork the opponent the ability to outrun the other team and cherry-pick on fast breaks(about 1 in 10 games), he is a fairly average filler player with above average talent on offense and below average defense and basketball IQ. That sounds like all too many free agents, D-league players, and the majority of NBA players - his role won't be hard to fill. His scoring will be missed, but his shot selection and lapses on defense won't.
Age (Another Year Older) - We will see how the aging bodies of Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin, Anthony Carter, and most importantly, Chauncey Billups holld up over the course of the season. Andersen and Martin seem to be in great shape, and I'm not going to even mention Carter... Billups is the only one I am worried about - I think he may suffer with consistency on some plays, but I expect his savvy, leadership, and decision making to allow him to be nearly as productive in slightly reduced minutes from last season.
Promises - Okay, I lied, I am going to talk about Anthony Carter. George Karl gave him his version of a promise ring in the bromance that we will see continuing at least for another season, to the chagrin of many a Nuggets fan. According to this excerpt from an article by Chris Dempsey at the Denver Post, our favorite postseason in bounds passer will likely remain a fixture in the Nuggets lineup.
"I'm sure you guys are going to have fun criticizing me on that one," Karl said. "I still love (Anthony Carter). I think A.C. is a big part of why we've been successful here. But the kid's good. The kid's had a very good summer, and he's had a very good September in our gym."
According to Carter, Karl told him this summer his minutes would not be reduced this season, even with the presence of Lawson, who is regarded as the heir apparent at point guard. Carter, who signed a one-year contract with the team in August, averaged 22.9 minutes per game last season.
Don't get me wrong, I am actually a big Anthony Carter supporter. I love his energy, effort, leadership, and hard work. However, him playing above 12-18 minutes a game will be an impediment to the Nuggets success this season.
Okay, now on to this years positives!
Malik Allen - A capable rebounder and mid-range shooter who knows the game and doesn't hold the ball. Despite having very little ability in the low post, he has a toughness to him and can set good picks. I expect him to fit in well in George Karl's system and become a good role player in limited minutes.
Arron Afflalo - It seems like we're all high on this guy and no one needs much convincing. Another hard worker who is a good defender and more willing to crash the boards from what I've heard - which we will need from our guards this season. He should see time at the 2 and 3 spots, and is capable of hitting the three, mid-range J, or taking the ball to the rim. Expect him to improve in virtually every category this season, especially scoring and rebounding.
Joey Graham - If he does indeed start, as most signs are pointing to, he will fill a similar (but distinctly different) role to what Dhantay Jones had last year at the starting shooting guard, but likely in less minutes. I also see him having a harder time staying in front of quicker shooting guards, but he should fit in well since he is an intelligent player and George Karl insists on switching so often on screens.Think about it: if a pick is set on Graham's man by a forward or center, he has the strength to bang them in the paint and keep them away from the rim. He played PF and C in college, so that will be familiar territory.
Ty Lawson - We have all seen what he can do given the chance, and know his accomplishments and pedigree. I have always been a fan of adding players who won the National Championship in college. He will be a good compliment to Billups and Carter in the time that he gets, as he is lightning quick and far more athletic. I don't expect his size to be a problem, as he will adjust to the shot blocking ability of the NBA and is strong enough to not be pushed around by larger guards.
Improvement - Melo, Nene, and J.R., and to a lesser extent Balkman and Petro, have been given another off season to develop. I expect the biggest jump from J.R. - I see him scoring in the 17-21 ppg range and improving his defense, and rebounding while also dishing out 1-2.5 more assists per game.
More Minutes for Balkman - While now less certain with the emergence of Graham, Balkman should see more regular minutes sliding between the 3 and 4 position. Good things tend to happen when he is on the floor, and with another training camp under his belt, Karl will hopefully trust him a little more.
I think that while it may not be in the form of picking up a star player a la the Spurs with Jefferson, Lakers with Artest, or to a lesser extent the Mavs and Blazers(with Marion and Andre Miller respectively), the Nuggets made improvements and have put themselves in position to make another prudent roster move at some point during the season if needed.
I fully expect Afflalo and Allen to combine to pick up the slack of Kleiza's scoring. Afflalo has demonstrated an improved scoring prowess during preseason, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if he came close to averaging double digits this season if given the minutes.
Joey Graham may not be the lockdown defender that Jones was, but I see him doing a more than capable job while still matching Dhantay's physicality. With J.R.'s constantly improving defense and Lawson's ability to stay in front of quicker guards if needed, I think we could be looking at an overall improved defense from last year.
I think that with the development of J.R., Melo, and the like, we can look at the roster and say there are quite a few good defenders and that there isn't really a bad defender on the team - with perhaps Malik Allen coming the closest.
While I don't expect the Nuggets to win the west, or get higher than the 3-4 seed, they should demonstrate a marked improvement over last years team. If so, they will need it come the playoffs as they are almost guaranteed a date with either the Lakers or Spurs by the 2nd round.