The Nuggets are off to one of their best starts in NBA franchise history. But you wouldn't know it by watching their last two games...
All of the NBA's elite teams would be in serious trouble if their top players/alpha dogs went down due to injury. If the Lakers lost Kobe Bryant, they'd be finished. The Spurs sans Tim Duncan? Season over. The Cavaliers minus LeBron? Roll out the white flags. The Mavericks Dirk-less? Ditto.
But while I'd include our Nuggets among the NBA's elite, one thing seems to separate us from the rest of the pack: without one of our top four or five players in the game, the Nuggets stink. Ever since the Nuggets finished a respectable 5-2 out of the gate sans J.R. Smith (arguably the Nuggets fourth or fifth-best player), they can't win a game when one of their top-five guys goes down. Especially one of their two defensive stalwarts, Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups. And today's matinee loss at Memphis (even though the Nuggets had a full day of rest prior) was further proof of this.
In three games without K-Mart and now two games without Billups, the Nuggets are 0-5. Comparatively, the Lakers were 8-3 when their second-best player, Pau Gasol, opened the season in a suit and loafers. The Spurs managed to go 2-2 without the services of star guard Tony Parker. While Rashard Lewis served a drug suspension, the Magic finished 7-3. Since Greg Oden went down with a season-ending injury, the Blazers have hung in at 3-4. And minus Josh Howard, the Mavericks are 13-6 on the season. Even the Jazz managed to play .500 basketball in the two games Deron Williams, their best player, missed.
And yet the Nuggets can't seem to reel off victories unless all five star players - Carmelo Anthony, Billups, J.R., K-Mart and Nene - are on the floor. If the Nuggets couldn't beat the hapless Pistons, Bobcats and (admittedly improved) Grizzlies while missing one of their top-five guys, I cringe to think what happens when the Nuggets face a real NBA team without one of their best players on the floor.
Let's call the Nuggets inability to put a game together without both Billups and K-Mart in the game "Problem #1." And we'll call their woeful rebounding and porous interior defense "Problem #2." The Grizzlies put in 27 second-chance points and grabbed 18 more rebounds than the Nuggets today. Last time I checked, that's not Chauncey's department in the first place.
The two problems point to one glaring need: the Nuggets need an extra big man. Marc Gasol may not be walking through the door in a Nuggets uniform anytime soon, but any competent big will do at this point. Perhaps we should convert my summer wish list for a big man into a Christmas wish list...
Stiffs of the Game
-J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Kenyon Martin: J.R. built off his great game at New Orleans by shooting 12 shots and making just two of them. He also had three careless turnovers and no assists. Meanwhile, Lawson rewarded Nuggets head coach George Karl for anointing him as starting point guard by dishing out just two assists and missing all three of his shot attempts. And K-Mart was assigned to guard Zach Randolph who...
Non-Stiff of the Game
-Zach Randolph: ...lit up K-Mart and the Nuggets for 32 points and a stunningly high 24 rebounds (nine offensive). Z-Bo was so dominant over K-Mart that K-Mart's +/- at game's end was -20. Ewww. Last time I checked, Randolph is out of shape and can't jump. So how the @#$% did he grab 24 rebounds? (In fairness to K-Mart, a current NBA assistant coach once told me that no one is smarter at using his body to score and grab caroms than Randolph.)
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Nikki Boertman