Remember finals week? Well, here we are...

Jr_mediumAs my college career pressed forward the "older me" (junior/senior me) thought of all the fun after finals week in college. The parties that laid ahead after a long semester of studing were the best. The "younger me" (like freshman/sophomore me) thought of finals week like this, "Oh shit, finals week! It's make or break time."

Guess which version of me the Nuggets resemble? Yes, it's make or break time for our Nuggets.

When I went off to school my oldest sister Amanda told me her theory on college. Basically, do your best early in your college career so that, if you wanted to, you could put things on cruise control your last two years or so and your grades would be completely fine.

Her theory sounded good enough, but putting it into practice proved difficult for me. As my first two years in school came to a close I found myself scrambling and needed to have a very good finals week in order to keep my grades up. It took me awhile to finally figure out the right formula and actually enjoy my last few years of school and put her theory to work.

Putting yourself in stressful and difficult spots can often be avoided with very minimal effort. It's funny how much effort has to go into something when you fail to take care of the little things. The Nuggets have lost 27 games this season and you can't go back and complain about each and every game, you can't even harp on every loss to sub .500 teams, but you can look at the schedule and shake your head and a few "what ifs."

Just quickly going back through the schedule I made note of just 7 games that, to me, are totally inexcusable. The funny thing ... I didn't even set out to find a certain number of games that I'd say were inexcusable, but the result is funny slash maddening. I quickly flipped those 7 games and had Denver won them, they'd be sitting in first place out West with a record of 55-20 with a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. Somebody pour hot coffee over my head please.

Let's look at those games:

  1. Nov. 20th at Los Angeles Clippers (record so far of 27-48) ... Denver had two full days of rest and still lost to the lowly L.A. squad.
  2. Nov. 29th versus Minnesota Timberwolves (15-60) ... Denver had a day of rest and lost to the terrible Wolves.
  3. Dec. 28th at Sacramento Kings (24-52) ... the Kings were missing rookie phenom Tyreke Evans and Denver was on the second of a back-to-back, but you have to take care of business from time-to-time.
  4. Feb. 19th at Washington Wizards (22-52) ... Denver was coming off a big win in Cleveland, but couldn't carry forward any momentum against a suddenly depleted Wizards team missing their four best players.
  5. March 15th at Houston Rockets (37-37) ... Denver had a day of rest and got into a shootout with the Rockets. A little defense and Denver wins this game.
  6. March 20th vs Milwaukee Bucks (41-33) ... the Bucks swept Denver coming into town on the second of a back-to-back as the Nuggets had a day of rest heading into this home contest where the Nuggets had been excellent all season long.
  7. March 23rd at New York Knicks (26-48) ... Denver had two full days of rest and you know Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith always want to win and play well so close to home.

That's just 7 games out of Denver's 27 losses ... take care of those games and suddenly we are in a completely different world. But that is the way the cookie crumbles.

There are always multiple reasons why the cracks came that made the cookie crumble, and with the Nuggets this season there have been challenges all over the place. A quick list of reasons why the Nuggets are in this spot ... losses to sub .500 teams, injuries to multiple key players with a lack of depth, inconsistent levels of play (especially on the road) and losing head coach George Karl to his battle with cancer.

Andrew tackled the coaching aspect in hisIt's all about closing piece that detailed the difference between head coach George Karl and lead assistant and interim head coach Adrian Dantley. I do believe that coaches make a difference in the NBA, but I do not think I place as much emphasis on coaching in the NBA leading to success as Andrew does. I don't know who is right or wrong (I'm probably wrong), but I always have felt that players at the NBA level either get how to win or they don't and there probably isn't much you can do to change them. I do believe that certain coaches can get the most out of their players and certain systems work better than others, but at the core this game is about knowing how to play the right way and only you can do what needs to be done on the hardwood.

Riding your horses into the ground

My biggest gripe with the Denver Nuggets has been the lack of rest for key players, namely Chauncey Billups. Blame can be placed in multiple areas here ... the front office didn't provide the team with adequate backups in the frontcourt this season. A lot of things come into play here because of salary cap complications and the fact that Denver's owner may or may not have been willing to go deep into the luxuary tax. Denver's coaching staff obviously didn't trust thebig backups too much this season as we haven't seen much outside of an eight-man rotation unless injury dictated otherwise. We have seen Johan Petro and Joey Graham play well when given time and that really makes me scratch my head as to why they were not given more minutes that would have allowed the Nuggets to save the legs of two guys who have been limping around all year (do I even need to mention Bird's and K-Mart's names here?). The most puzzling guy who is being run into the ground though is Billups.

The trusty point guard has played some of the best basketball of his career this season, but lately we've been seeing some of Billups' worst basketball as well. The knock on Billups when he came here last season from Detroit was that he would wear down as the season went on (Jason Marquis anyone?). It made perfect sense to me to get the 32 and now 33 year-old guard some much needed rest and perhaps even a night or two off the past two seasons, but the Nuggets have not made really any effort to heed the warnings coming out of Detroit. You all know why we study history right? Well, it looks like it's not surprisingly repeating itself in Billups' case right now.

 

Billups' Numbers

 Minutes  

 FG%

 3pt%  

Nov.

31.4

38%

37%

Dec.
(missed 5 gms)

31.3

47.1%

41.9%

Jan.
(missed 3 gms)

35.8

47.6%

47.8%

Feb.
(missed 1 gm)

36.3

46.2%

46.7%

March

35.1

38.2%

27.3%

 

Does it seem odd to anyone reading this that Billups' minutes increased over the past three months versus the first two full months of the season? (I left Ocotber out since just two games were played) The thing that is most bizarre to me is that Billups' minutes increased even though Denver knew from the first game in Utah that Ty Lawson was a steal. If you remember, Lawson played 26 minutes against the Jazz in the opener and scored 17 points and dished out 6 assists and never seemed to miss a beat from college to the pros.

Lawson did miss significant time in March (12 games), but he proved he can run the team and even increase leads when he's given sole point guard duty. I say sole point guard duty because Denver's coaching staff fell in love with using Lawson alongside Billups. This lineup directly led to more playing time for Chauncey, not exactly what he needed. Although the lineup of two point guards worked pretty well, it also was a complete waste of Billups' legs considering the Nuggets have two excellent shooting guards in Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith. It's good to tinker with different lineups, but the Nuggets could have probably saved Mr. Big Shot plenty of wear and tear had they just utilized the rookie point guard and trusted Afflalo a bit more.

It appeared that the Pistons realized Billups' wearing down issues his last couple of seasons in Detroit. In the 2006-07 season the Pistons cut Billups' numbers from March to April from 35.7 to 31.3 minutes per game. And in the 2007-08 season they cut Billups' minutes from March to April from 34.3 to 23.4 minutes per game. In fact, in the nine games Billups played in April of 2008 he never played more than 29 minutes and he only played that many once. But last season in Denver while Billups' minutes went down from March to April from 37.6 to 33 they were still too high for my liking and we saw by the Lakers series that Billups was running on fumes. Denver has seven games left in the regular season and just 13 days left in the regular season to find a little rest for their leader. After playing 35.1 minutes per game in March but needing every game in April how can Denver afford to let Billups rest? A very interesting predicament since Smooth is so key to what Denver does on the floor.

What the future holds

We still have the post season to look forward to and I have been pretty gloomy the past couple of weeks. I'm typically a glass half full type of guy and once the playoffs are set I'll most likely get back to my normal self, but I just can't overlook how things are right now. One of my favorite movies A Bronx Tale talks about "wasted talent" and my hope is that this Nuggets team wont look back on what could have been. It's hard to imagine this team without Kenyon Martin being able to compete for the title, and a lot of Denver's title hopes are directly tied to how he's able to come back ... if he's able to come back this season at all. So, right there we look back at last season as perhaps Denver's best shot to capture an NBA title. Teams, as we all know, have retooled and there will be no easy playoff series this year. Every team will have an absolute dog fight on their hands and as each team advances I'd imagine they'll all have to expend a lot of energy to do so. We could be headed for one of the best playoff seasons in a long time as the cream always rises to the top, but what about after this season?

Just some quick bullets to think about after this season is over:

  • Kenyon Martin's expiring contract next year = trade bait. You're crazy if you don't think Denver's front office isn't licking their chops about the possibilities of dealing K-Mart's final contract number of $16.5 million. We all know K-Mart is Denver's heart-and-soul, but the front office has said time and again that they'll look into any deal that makes the team better and if they can shed a guy who can't stay healthy and get better in the process, the businessman in me thinks they'll seriously look into it.
  • Billups' age ... he'll be 34 years-old next season.
  • The looming lockout ... could slam shut the windows of veterans like Billups who only have a small amount of time left in the NBA at high levels if it's a prolonged stoppage.
  • J.R. Smith and Arron Afflalo commanding raises. Both guys are on short time deals and both deserve to get raises when their current deals are up, can Denver afford to keep both guys?
  • Melo's pending free agency ... if the Knicks lose out on LeBron, Wade and Bosh they will go hard for Melo. An extension would put a lot of minds at ease.
  • Nene's retirement ... back in October of 2009 Chris Tomasson brought us the bizarre story where Nene vowed to retire by 2016.

It's crazy to think about the bullets I listed with so much of this season left, but you always have to think about where you are heading and how you are going to get there, especially in today's NBA. Teams do not remain static for long, just think back to a few seasons ago with the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns ... yes Phoenix still has Steve Nash and the same style of play, but a lot of the faces have changed.

 

In order to be able and sit back and put things on cruise control the Nuggets needed to work a little bit harder earlier in the season. They didn't do that and now every game is basically a playoff game. I'm concerned that the Nuggets wont have that extra gear that the playoffs require, but with Lawson finally healthy and K-Mart perhaps returning for the playoffs there is still hope.

I just can't help but to reflect back on my own situation in college in regards to these Nuggets. Had I studied just a little bit harder during the semester and missed a party here and there ... if the Nuggets had taken care of a few weaker teams here and there ... then like our friends (the Cavaliers, Lakers and Magic) perhaps we could be off relaxing now and not sweating finals week in the library because we all know the party after it's all over is well worth it.

Heck, I bet the whole city would come out for that NBA Finals celebration.

 

 

 

ntimmons73@yahoo.com
Twitter: Nate_Timmons

Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Mike Fuentes

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