In praise of Kenyon Martin...

72206_suns_nuggets_basketball_medium_mediumWhile the Nuggets have lost six of nine games, Kenyon Martin didn't get the memo about playing lackadaisical defense and careless, cowardly offense. 

As the idiot who suggested the Nuggets consider trading Kenyon Martin for Shaquille O'Neal several weeks ago and as a longtime critic of K-Mart's acquisition in the first place, let me be the first to say: thank god K-Mart is on Nuggets right now.  Without him, we'd be on a nine game losing streak.

Watching his teammates fold like deck chairs during the absences of Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony, K-Mart has manned up to the tune of 13.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg (including almost three offensive boards per game), 1.8 spg and 53% field goal shooting.  

But the numbers don't tell the whole story.  K-Mart has made timely steals and blocks, offensive put backs (we witnessed another last night), has been taking the ball hard to the rack and has been giving us a repeat of the defensive effort we were all enamored with during the playoffs last season.  Frankly, I can't remember a time when K-Mart played this well for this long in a Nuggets uniform.

Prior to the beginning of last season, K-Mart's tenure in Denver had been nothing short of an expensive failure.  But as chronicled here and elsewhere, K-Mart owned up to his past transgressions directly with his head coach and teammates before the 2008-09 season kicked off, and has led by example ever since.  Rather than take his guaranteed money and sulk away into the NBA netherworld a la Darius Miles, Steve Francis and other high profile lottery picks who showed flashes of great talent only to ultimately disappoint, K-Mart - like his coach and many of his Nugget teammates - had a career renaissance last season.  Throughout the 2008-09 campaign, K-Mart's defensive improvement and unselfish play were critical to the Nuggets ultimate success.  And for those of us fortunate enough to watch him play up close and in-person, K-Mart has made watching defense as exciting as watching offense.

In the past, I had been told by several Denver media guys who cover the Nuggets that K-Mart can be one of the more "cerebral" players on the team.  At first, I didn't believe it (after all, K-Mart is still prone to foolish technical fouls, should never shoot a long range jump shot and is still somewhat of a Stiff around the rim on those offensive put backs).  But seeing him play more and more, I totally get it.  K-Mart has basically morphed into the Nuggets version of Rasheed Wallace (sans the god awful three-point shooting and poor conditioning): he's the smartest defensive player on the floor, interacts with the fans in a fun way, plays with enough emotion for the entire team combined, talks trash to his opponents in a joking manner and his teammates clearly love him.  And unlike Sheed, K-Mart gets along with and respects his coach.  When I asked George Karl about his relationship with K-Mart after all they've been through, Karl beamed with pride and said "I really like Kenyon."

All that said, K-Mart still has a ghastly, absurdly high contract for a player of his caliber and it cripples the Nuggets future cap space flexibility.  K-Mart is due to make $16.5 million next season, a player option, but if the wheels come off this Nuggets season and/or an opportunity arises to shed that contract, the Nuggets have to consider it (hence my silly Shaq trade idea, although Cleveland is actually playing great with Shaq now).  Or, maybe we'll get lucky and K-Mart will agree to either a) not exercise his player option (NO chance) or b) restructure his contract to stay in Denver longer but take less money next season (somewhat of a chance).

The Nuggets have been in disarray lately due to some legitimate and some not-so-legitimate reasons.  We shouldn't diminish the impact of Billups' injury, but the Nuggets did get a home game against Dallas with a healthy Melo during this stretch of games, got to play the Kings with their best player (Tyreke Evans) unavailable and last I checked the woeful 76ers and Warriors - who the Nuggets were lucky to have gotten a split given how they played - are exactly the types of teams you want to play if your best players happen to be out.  The other losses are more understandable...

...at New Orleans: with Chris Paul, no longer a slouch plus the Nuggets had no Chauncey Billups. (K-Mart pulls down 13 rebounds.)

...at Memphis: I called this "a bad loss" but the Grizzlies have become one of the NBA's hotter teams and again, no Billups for Denver. (K-Mart goes for 12 points but grabs just five rebounds.)

...at Portland: on Christmas night and only had Billups for a half.  Although it should be noted that Portland has no centers and Brandon Roy was banged up.  (K-Mart has twelve points, 14 rebounds, two steals and played stingy, tough defense throughout.)

And of course, the Nuggets pulled off a shocking, admirable victory at Utah that we shouldn't forget about.  (Thanks to another great K-Mart performance: 12 points, 12 rebounds and three steals while having to deal with Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap.)  

So in looking back at a few rough weeks of Nuggets basketball sans Billups for most games and sans Melo for four outings, I'd argue that they Nuggets should have beaten Sacramento and Philadelphia, but they probably should have lost at Utah.  I'm also putting Dallas in the "toss up" column: they're an elite team and we were undermanned.  In other words, from my vantage point that Nuggets are about 1.5 games off their pace (unless you thought those New Orleans, Memphis and Portland games should have been sure-fire W's...I certainly don't in hindsight).  

And if it wasn't for K-Mart's recent play, we'd be a lot further off our pace than that.

Photo courtesy of AP Photos: David Zalubowski

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