The Nuggets season was over when George Karl started missing games in mid-March to begin his courageous battle with throat and neck cancer. It just took us over a month and half to realize it.
Mark Warkentien's agent said that the 2009-10 Nuggets season should carry an asterisk beside it due to Karl's absence. I think it's safe to assume that the Nuggets would have finished with an extra regular season win or two under Karl and likely would have won at least one playoff series. Even longtime Karl critic Bill Simmons ranked Karl fourth in his "2010 NBA Playoffs Human Power Rankings" while acknowledging that coaching matters more than we fans often believe.
As the game clock wound down to zero last night at EnergySolutions Arena, I couldn't help but feel sad for all involved with the Denver Nuggets. I felt sad first and foremost for Karl, who has been around long enough to know that championship opportunities are few and far between and must be taken advantage of when they arise (Karl often gloated about how much he "liked my team" this season...he knew this squad was on to something special). I felt sad for Chauncey Billups whose remarkable streak of seven consecutive conference final appearances comes to an abrupt end, even though he did all that he could to win Games 5 and 6 of this series. I felt sad for interim coach Adrian Dantley, a super nice guy thrust into an impossible situation and never got the respect from the referees or, shamefully, his own players that he probably deserved. I felt sad for Joey Graham and Johan Petro - two minimum wage guys (by NBA standards) - who have been jerked around the lineup all season but nevertheless play every minute with the best of effort regardless of their limited skill sets. I felt sad for the Nuggets organization, team and Pepsi Center employees who were probably counting on a few extra playoff games which translates into a few extra paychecks and perhaps even a bonus during what remains a crappy economy.
And, of course, I felt sad for the fans whose offseason is coming much sooner than any of us expected and will have to endure another June where the Nuggets aren't competing for an NBA championship. This has now happened for 33 straight years since the Nuggets joined the NBA. That's one year less than I've been alive for.
But today, my sadness abates and we must look to the future. A future loaded with difficult questions that don't have straightforward answers. And as if we didn't have enough questions to begin with prior to the Nuggets losing 4-2 to the disciplined, structured Utah Jazz, this series opened up more questions.
Before getting to those questions, I want to make a few comments about Game 6 and the series at large. As Nate aptly pointed out in his Game 6 recap, the referees yet again ruined a night of playoff basketball by becoming obsessive with their whistles. Just when I thought Game 2's 67 fouls called was the worst abomination of officiating since the 2002 Lakers/Kings Western Conference Finals Game 6, the zebras (in gray) outdid themselves with 70 foul calls last night. The referees need a re-education on what a foul is and what a foul isn't. Just because someone falls down (via a flop in the case of the Jazz) doesn't mean the whistle needs to be blown - on either side of the ball. Nothing will eradicate flopping faster than no-calls. If a defender wants to flop, fine. Let him flop and when the offensive player drives around him for an easy layup while he's on the ground, the flopping will eventually cease.
They say soccer is "the beautiful game", but I'll take a hard-fought 110-105 NBA game over a 2-1 soccer snooze fest any day of the week. But this isn't do-able if the whistles keep coming fast and furious as we saw in this series. The motto among refs entering 2010-11 should be: let them @#$% play!!
That said, I'm enamored with what head coach Jerry Sloan and Utah just accomplished and it's proof that a strong coach with a good system can overcome a lot in this league. I know it's been stated over and over, but the Jazz fielded a roster with 10 players who were either undrafted or were second round picks. That's just remarkable. I saw a comment from a Denver Stiffs reader saying they'd be rooting for the Lakers to defeat the "flopping" Jazz in the next series. Not me. The Jazz will get my full support against the Lakers. (On a side note, I believe we're heading for a rematch of the 2007 NBA Finals - San Antonio vs. Cleveland, but I'll save that story for another day.)
I also want to piggyback on Nate's comments and thanks the great great readers of this site for their unbelievable passion, enthusiasm and participation in Denver Stiffs. When we have to start posting quarter-by-quarter threads, you know this community has really taken off. Frankly, I can't even keep up sometimes with all that's being written and opined upon here! I'm sorry that we didn't get a chance to do more Denver Stiffs-related events during the season and I've seen some offseason suggestions for a basketball tournament and other ideas that should be explored. Nate and I will be talking throughout the offseason for how to continually improve this site and I encourage all of you (not that you need the encouragement) to send us your feedback and suggestions, as well. The Nuggets season may have fallen short of where we hoped it would end up, but Denver Stiffs certainly had it's best season ever.
As far as how the Nuggets performed last night and my thoughts and comments in this series in general, I'll tackle much of that in the questions put forth below. Similar to the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets find themselves in a purgatory-type situation: they're better than two-thirds of the NBA, but not good enough to compete for an NBA championship. To do so and do so quickly, some tough questions will need to be answered...
10 Questions for the Offseason...
1. Will Carmelo Anthony ever embrace what it means to be a true superstar?
I hate to re-open the "is Carmelo Anthony a true superstar?" debate again after all the crap I took on the subject this week, but now that Melo has played poorly in yet another playoff elimination game the topic must be debated again. The Melo defenders will say that he made up for his dreadful six-for-22 shooting night in Game 6 by grabbing 12 rebounds, dishing out five assists and grabbing two steals. The Melo critics - and I'll include myself here when it comes to these crucial games - on the other hand, see an alarming pattern. In playoff elimination games since 2005, Carmelo Anthony is now a combined 52-for-141 from the field, or 36.9%, while averaging 9.7 foul shot attempts per game (meaning he's getting to the line about five times a game) and, most telling, the Nuggets are 1-6 in those games.
As stated in my "When 39 and 11 isn't enough..." column from Monday, until Melo embraces these do-or-die moments and rises to the occasion when called upon to do so, the Nuggets will be relegated to a successful regular season outfit with no viable chance of competing for a title. Already halfway through his NBA career, Melo seems most likely to join the ranks of Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, George Gervin and Terry Cummings. Superb, high-scoring, lethal, entertaining and Hall-of-Fame caliber players all, but none - with the exception of Dantley on the 1987-88 Pistons (who lost and then won a ring the following season sans Dantley) - ever competed for an NBA Championship. Unlike Melo, however, 'Nique and King have legendary playoff elimination game performances on their resumes. Will we ever get one from Melo?
2. Mark Warkentien? Rex Chapman? Both?
The Nuggets dual-GM team of Mark Warkentien (the NBA's reigning executive of the year) and Rex Chapman are both free agents at summer's end. Warkentien is prickly and condescending with the media, but he's a shrewd wheeler-dealer and a wonk whose knowledge of talent, statistical analysis and the inner-workings of the league is invaluable. Chapman is almost the opposite of Wark. He's gregarious and fun-loving with the media, and having played fairly recently, has a good idea and instincts for basketball players themselves. But with both being free agents and both being due for a pay raise given the Nuggets success on their watch, should owner Stan Kroenke keep both or just one? And if just one, which one?
3. Are there any takers for J.R. Smith?
Note that the question isn't "Should we trade J.R. Smith?" After playing inconsistently and poorly throughout the Utah series, J.R. reportedly sniped at his coaches in Game 6 and got benched for most of the fourth quarter. Then, in a move of sheer classlessness, left the court early and didn't shake any of the opposing Jazz players or coaches' hands as is customary in NBA tradition. In other words, he pulled a LeBron James and J.R. is no LeBron James. I recently called J.R. "the poor man's John Starks but without the defense" and I'm standing by that statement.
I'm done with J.R. and the Nuggets should be, too. Just because Wark fleeced the Bulls to acquire J.R. doesn't mean J.R. should stay. And just because J.R. threw down the greatest dunk in Nuggets history doesn't mean he should stay. In late January, I wrote a piece titled "J.R.'s nine lives may be up..." when rumors were swirling that Karl wanted J.R. suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Having talked to a number of people more familiar with the Nuggets than me, I can confidently say that J.R. still screws around at shootarounds and routinely slacks off at practices. It's time for the J.R. Smith experience to come to an end and given his one-year, $6 million cap number, he's probably pretty trade-able.
4. Do we trade K-Mart or restructure his contract?
Earlier this season I wrote an "In praise of K-Mart..." column commending the oft-injured power forward for getting himself back into shape, filling in admirably for the injured Melo and at least attempting to live up to a contract that's impossible to live up to (thank you for that, Kiki Vandeweghe). But for the second consecutive post-season, a bone-headed K-Mart decision may have cost the Nuggets a playoff series. K-Mart's unnecessary yet warranted technical foul midway through the fourth quarter of Game 6 may have cost the Nuggets the series. As poorly as Melo was playing offensively, he was finally getting hot in the fourth - canning three out of four jumpers that didn't even graze the rim. It was a thing of beauty and the Nuggets were down just three points.
Then K-Mart pulls a K-Mart, fouls and then shoves Deron Williams, gets whistled for the technical and eats up about six minutes in real elapsed time. Just enough time for the Jazz to build a five-point lead, Melo to go cold (he missed his next jumper and, criminally, never scored again) and the Nuggets never recovered. This incident was akin to when the Nuggets were making a run against the Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals last year, pulled within 12 in the third quarter and K-Mart decided to unnecessarily grab Sasha Vujacic's leg right in front of the referee...a play that cost the Nuggets all their momentum in that game.
And, just like his pal J.R., K-Mart walked off the court with about twenty seconds left at Salt Lake City last night. Classless.
Owed a staggering $16.5 million next season, K-Mart might be good trade bait or the Nuggets can restructure his contract for the future. While I commend the effort K-Mart gave us this season and in last year's post-season, he's too cantankerous - even at this stage of his career - to be counted on in big games. It's time for K-Mart to go. In the coming weeks, we'll explore trade possibilities, but with his shaky knees, trading K-Mart will be harder than we think.
5. Does Chauncey have another great season in him?
Absolutely. There was a lot of nay-saying going on about Mr. Big Shot around here during the last two months of the season, and much of it was justifiable considering he couldn't shoot straight. But Billups proved that even against the NBA's best point guard, he can still be effective. If not for Chauncey, the Nuggets don't win Game 5 and don't have a fighting chance in Game 6 against the Jazz. Moreover, Chauncey doesn't drink alcohol, keeps himself in great condition and - statistically - is coming off one of best scoring seasons ever.
To get a successful 2010-11 out of Billups, the Nuggets need to reduce his minutes from 34 per game to about 30 and save him for the playoffs. Luckily, the astute acquisition of Ty Lawson should give the Nuggets confidence at the point guard spot when Billups rests and perhaps there's another backup point guard that can be acquired in the offseason to shore up the position further. I look forward to another solid season out of Chauncey in 2010-11 with Lawson taking on more responsibility.
6. Will George Karl be back next season?
I obviously can't answer this question 100% and the results of Coach Karl's treatment are still pending, but getting to know George as I've had the privilege of doing this season, I believe he's coming back for another shot at a ring. Karl is a tough, smart SOB and he's a fighter. His entire career has been built on overcoming adversity and doubt (in others, not himself) and there's no reason to believe he won't be back in training camp this fall.
Moreover, while it shouldn't have had to happen this way, Karl gained a new level of respect and admiration for what happened to the Nuggets in his absence. You have to believe that Chauncey, Melo and whomever else is here next season will welcome Karl back with open arms. A returning Karl, and a rejuvenated Nuggets squad with Karl, already makes 2010-11 exciting. It can't get here soon enough. Get well soon, Coach!
7. What big man is available?
If we learned anything watching the Nuggets fall to Utah, the Nuggets need more size and better rebounding upfront. Earlier in the season, Karl said he wished he had another "half body" on this roster. I think we need a full body now.
We here at Denver Stiffs have been begging for Nene to move to power forward for two seasons now, but even that may not cut it. Nene, K-Mart and Chris Andersen were manhandled all series long by Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap. It wasn't even close. I look forward to hearing Denver Stiffs reader suggestions for possible big man acquisitions and of course Nate and I will do our own research to propose viable deals over the summer. Bottom line is the Nuggets need to get bigger and better upfront. And no, Brian Butch doesn't count.
8. Do the Nuggets need to change their coaching hierarchy?
It was easy to make Adrian Dantley the scapegoat for the Nuggets myriad of problems down the stretch of the regular season and into the postseason. But it's fair to say that no assistant-level coach could get these players attention like Karl can, and I doubt the Nuggets are going to hire a former head coach - at a cost of like $500k-plus - to join the other 30 assistant coaches the Nuggets already have.
I'm all about giving young assistant coaches a chance in this business and applaud Karl and the Nuggets for doing so with the likes of John Welch, Chad Iske, Jamahl Mosley and Larry Mangino. Perhaps Welch should be promoted to top assistant next season, but I fear a Dantley demotion could cause other ancillary problems in that locker room. This is a tough call after everything AD just went through on behalf of the organization. He may have done a poor job filling in for Karl, but he gave an earnest effort in doing so.
9. Will Stan Kroenke's ownership of the Rams affect his ownership of the Nuggets?
This is a question for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but I hope given that it's 2010 the NFL can get over it's stupid rule about owning teams in other sports that play in other markets. Longtime readers here know my thoughts on Kroenke and they haven't changed much. I give Kroenke a ton of credit for stabilizing this organization upon arrival and spearheading what's been a great run considering where the Nuggets were before he arrived. I also don't blame Kroenke for being unwilling to lose (allegedly) the $20-$30 million annually that's needed to keep the Nuggets competitive under the current salary system in the NBA.
That said, the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement better get here fast because I fear Kroenke's sudden frugality (again, by NBA standards...let's keep this all in perspective) doesn't give management enough juice to pull the trigger on the major trades necessary to get this franchise to promised land while Chauncey remains upright. The current system may be unfair to small market owners like Kroenke, but here's hoping he's willing to open his wallet just a little wider for one more championship run before the NBA locks itself out in 2011.
10. Will the fans be back?
Inescapable during last night's Altitude broadcast of Game 6 were the number of ads run to get fans to buy season tickets for 2010-11 and I suspect attendance will be down next season unless the Nuggets make a major splash in the offseason on a new acquisition. I don't need to tell you how much I spend on Nuggets tickets but I can assure you that the prices are absurd...and I only buy half a season. Unfortunately, until that new bargaining agreement kicks in and player salaries come down, NBA games will remain unaffordable for the average - and I'd argue true - fan. And last I checked, the economy remains in tatters in spite of what Wall Street thinks. But that's just on the money side.
On the basketball side, I fear that fans are going to tire of watching a team that's imploded in the post-season six times in seven years. This puts more impetus on management to give the fans something exciting to come back for next season, and I look forward to figuring out - and finding out - what that's going to be. I just hope that the fans realize that we're still in the hunt - for one more season at least - and no one should be giving up on this team or this organization.
Before writing today's column, I briefly looked back at my 2009-10 season preview. I had the Nuggets finishing fourth in the Western Conference behind the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers, but predicted they'd win at least one playoff series. I guess I was sort of right as it seems likely that the Lakers and Spurs are destined to duke it out in the conference finals and the Nuggets did indeed finish fourth. But I hate being right sometimes.
Many thanks again to my fellow Stiffs for making this a great community that continues to grow. I'd also be remiss if I didn't thank Nate for making this partnership seamless and easy from day one. We'll have lots to discuss in the days to come, but for now, one more time... GO NUGGETS!!