Fair or not, the consequences of the Nuggets brass making the necessary moves over the summer to keep their Western Conference Finals team in-tact without breaking the bank means that to top last season's stellar performance - i.e. reach the NBA Finals - an upgrade in play must come from within.
And news to Nuggets fans: that upgrade isn't coming from Kenyon Martin, who will never live up to his max contract. Nor will it come from Chauncey Billups, who will age gracefully but age nonetheless. Nor from Chris Andersen, who we just hope will replicate his remarkable 2008-09 season even after receiving a comfortable contract. Nor will Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter and Johan Petro - whose collective effort is always sincerely appreciated - magically turn into anything better than the solid role players that they are.
I do foresee Nene playing better, but not turning into the 20/10 player he could be if he was stationed permanently at his natural position of power forward. And J.R. Smith should continue to improve even after serving a seven-game suspension, but he'll still be coming off the bench, will have minutes eaten into by Arron Afflalo and won't be appearing in Dallas in mid-February at the All-Star Game (maybe just the dunk contest).
But to be the Western Conference's best? That's up to Carmelo Anthony.
Simply put, when Melo is at his best the Nuggets might be the best. In Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, Melo racked up 39 and 34 points, respectively, and shot a combined 22 free throw attempts. Moreover, Melo played the closest thing to "lock down defense" that we've ever seen from him and in Game 2 in particular had several crucial offensive rebounds. Had Nuggets head coach George Karl not foolishly decided to insert Anthony Carter on Game 1's final inbounds play and/or gotten the ball to Melo more in the final minutes of both Game 1 and 2 (near the end of both games, Melo inexcusably didn't have a field goal attempt), the Nuggets leave Los Angeles up 2-0.
But the next four games told a different story regarding Melo's performance. From Games 3 through 6, Melo shot an atrocious 32% and looked visibly sluggish. He got to the free throw line quite a bit, but his defensive effort lapsed and he had only two (two?!) offensive rebounds in those remaining four games. It was as if Melo had exerted all his effort through Game 2 and had nothing left in the tank. This poor performance allowed the Lakers to steal Game 3, lay down and rest up in Game 4, and then wallop the Nuggets in Games 5 and 6 to take the series 4-2.
Momentarily forgetting Melo's performance in those last four games, the Nuggets star player had a sensational playoff run. Prior to Game 3 of the WCF, Carmelo Anthony unloaded on his opponents for 28.6 ppg, shot well over 50% from the field and routinely got to the free throw line. Coincidentally, the Nuggets were 9-3 in those games. And the numbers don't tell the whole story. Melo didn't exactly pull a George Gervin (i.e. scoring most of his points through quarters one and three), but rather made big shots at the end of the shot clock, at the end of quarters and at the end of games. Just ask former Maverick Antoine "I fouled him, no I didn't, yes I did!" Wright.
Whether he likes it or not, Melo showed us just how good he - and therefore, the Nuggets - can be. Frankly, had the Lakers not acquired Ron Artest, the Spurs not acquired Richard Jefferson and the NBA not screwed the Nuggets with the worst schedule in recent memory, Melo could replicate last season's performance and the Nuggets would be one of the favorites to appear in the NBA Finals. But that's not reality. And thus, if the Nuggets are to reach the Finals for the first time in their NBA franchise history, replication from Melo isn't going to cut it. We've been teased, and now we want the real thing for an entire season.
We need the WCF Games 1 and 2 version of Melo for 82 games plus the playoffs. There will still be those 4-of-15 shooting nights here and there and inexcusable efforts where Melo only gets to the free throw line a handful of times. But over the course of the season, we need Melo filling it up much more so than he did last season. Consider these numbers from 2008-09...
...when Carmelo Anthony shot over 50% from the field, the Nuggets were 22-5.
...when Melo attempted at least nine free throws, the Nuggets were 20-7.
...when Melo grabbed at least nine rebounds, the Nuggets were 22-5.
These numbers aren't accidental and they paint a very clear picture: when Melo is smart and aggressive, the Nuggets win almost 75% of their games. This doesn't mean that if Melo racked up 29 ppg, nine rpg, shot 50% from the field and took at least nine free throws per game the Nuggets would win over 60 games. But I bet if Melo was able to put up these types of numbers, the Nuggets could repeat or exceed last season's 54-win total, repeat as Northwest Division Champions and be in position to exact revenge on the Lakers in the conference finals. From there, Melo would have to step up even more and put on a performance a la Paul Pierce from the 2008 playoffs to lead the Nuggets to the promised land.
In spite of the formidable opposition out West and the brutal schedule, Melo has the experience, the talent and enough quality players around him to take the Nuggets all the way. And if what we've seen from Melo in the preseason thus far is any indication, he's going to have a huge season. Perhaps his best ever. But anything short of that, and Denver Stiffs' prediction of a fourth-seed finish for the Nuggets comes true.
It's your turn, Melo.