Are we in a good place?...

66415_nuggets_camp_basketball_medium_mediumWith training camp commencing this weekend and the 2009-10 NBA season opener just around the corner, I find myself conflicted on the state of our Nuggets.

On the one hand, I remain grateful for the exceptionally exciting season we had in 2008-09 (note my "Have a long memory..." column written after the Lakers clobbered the Nuggets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals).  On the other hand, as a realist I don't see these Nuggets as presently constructed dethroning the Lakers, nor do I see Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke - whose roster already exceeds the NBA's luxury tax threshold by $4 or $5 million - anteing up to spend even more money to steal a big man from a cash-strapped opposing franchise.  

So all this got me thinking: is this the place we want to be as a franchise?  Good enough to play deep into the postseason, but perhaps not good enough to get farther than that?

Forget for a second where you think the Nuggets currently rank in the NBA hierarchy (ESPN.com's Mark Stein has us sixth overall, which I agree with) and allow me to rank where you, as a fan, want your franchise "to be" entering a new season - in order of best to worst scenario.  With best being a championship-caliber team with young-ish players (like the Lakers) and worst being a low lottery team -  picks 6-13 - with old veterans (like the Suns).  

Note that when I say "young-ish" players I'm referring to teams that have a three-to-four year run in them based on the core of their team - i.e. their best four or five players.  I think most people would agree with me that Kobe Bryant (31 years old), Pau Gasol (29), Lamar Odom (29), Ron Artest (29) and Andrew Bynum (only 21, egads!) have a three-to-four year run in them.  And when I say "old veterans", I'm referring to the core three or four players being old and/or having years of wear and year and, and a result, have only one or two good seasons in them before they're starting from scratch.  The Celtics fit this bill with Kevin Garnett (33), Ray Allen (34), Rasheed Wallace (35) and Paul Pierce (31) all north of 30 years old.  Conversely, the Cavaliers - with LeBron James (24), Shaquille O'Neal (37), Mo Williams (26), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (34) and Anthony Parker (34) - are a mixed bag.

Here are my generic rankings for where you as a fan want your team "to be" with specific examples in parentheses.

1. Championship-caliber team with young-ish players (Lakers, Magic)
2. Championship-caliber team with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Cavaliers, Spurs)
3. Championship-caliber team with old veterans (Celtics)
4. Conference finals-caliber team with young-ish players (no current examples)
5. Conference finals-caliber team with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Nuggets, Mavericks)
6. Playoff contender with young-ish players (Trail Blazers, Hawks)
7. Playoff contender with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Jazz, Wizards and Rockets - if healthy)
8. Playoff participant with young-ish players (Pistons, Bulls, Clippers, Heat)
9. Playoff participant with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Hornets, 76ers)
10. High lottery pick (1-5) with young-ish players and cap flexibility (Thunder, Timberwolves)
11. Playoff participant with old veterans (no current examples)
12. High lottery pick (1-5) with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Knicks, Bucks, Kings)
13. Low lottery pick (6-13) with young-ish players (Pacers, Nets)
14. Low lottery pick (6-13) with mix of young-ish players and old veterans (Suns, Raptors, Bobcats, Warriors, Grizzlies)

In keeping with that "long memory" mentality, I suppose the answer would be yes - the Nuggets are in a good place.  As a Nuggets fan, it's pretty to rare to say your team is a legitimate conference finals contender, now three seasons in a row (one squandered, one delivered and one to be determined)!  But that being said, this business isn't about appearing in conference finals but rather, winning NBA Championships.  And thus, that's where the conflict as a fan comes into play.  After all, it can be tough rooting for a team whose only pathway to the NBA Finals might be a major injury to one of the Lakers or Spurs' core players.

Rooting for a Kobe Bryant or a Tony Parker injury aside, and presuming - for now - that the Nuggets let their $9 million or so trade exception expire in early November without making a substantive deal, I still foresee one way that the Nuggets could vault into the NBA Finals in 2010.  I'll be getting into this more as the regular season tipoff approaches, but it essentially boils down to this...

Carmelo Anthony must perform in the regular season as he performed in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

This might be a pipe dream, but it's the best shot the Nuggets have to move up into the top spot on that ranking list above and secure their first ever Larry O'Brien trophy.  I'm talking a 29 to 30 ppg, 7-8 rpg, 3-4 apg, 50% shooting season from Melo.  It would be his best ever.  I'm talking 9-10 free throw attempts each night, where he's routinely punishing the opposing team's defenders with his size and quickness inside.  I'm talking the disruptive, "I'll-guard-the-opposing-team's-best-player" defense we saw in Games 1 and 2, and not the lethargic, lazy, El Matador defense we saw in Games 3 through 6. 

Already, the local media is serving up their annual pre-season puff pieces on how hard Melo worked all summer, what great shape he's supposedly in and how the Nuggets are focused on a championship.  This type of pre-season talk makes me nervous and skeptical...probably because I wholeheartedly bought into the "60 wins" Kool-Aid so easily in 2007.   Frankly, I liked last year's overwhelmingly negative press assuming the Nuggets wouldn't even make the playoffs much better!  In regards to Melo's conditioning and off-season regimen, while I have no reason to doubt this reporting I just won't take it seriously as I've heard this every September since Melo's second season in Denver. 

I'm not quite ready to write an official "This one's on Melo" column until we see how he looks in pre-season games (I'm aiming to be at two games to see how he looks up close).  But how could it be any other way? Anything short of Melo embracing the true meaning of superstar basketball - on both ends of the floor - and the Nuggets probably don't make a repeat appearance in the conference finals and certainly don't get a sniff of the NBA Finals.  That's what it's going to take this year because the big man fairy we were all hoping for this summer never showed up.

So if you ask me, or yourself, again: are we in a good place as a franchise?  My answer for now is: pretty good, but ask Melo because it's up to him.

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