Part 1-Blow it Up
Three words, that’s what sums it up. Blow it up. I’ve been a Nuggets fan since the eighties, a sports fan all my life. I’d like to think that somewhere among the thousands of hours of sports that have passed before my eyes I’ve become fairly good at telling if at team has what it takes to truly be a championship contender, not necessarily a champion, but a bona fide contender. The Denver Nuggets, as presently constructed, are not contenders. Here’s why:
1. They are too small and offensively inept at the 4 and 5- Denver’s largest serviceable big man is Nene, they’re tallest is Johan Petro. Nene is listed at 6’11" 250 lbs, he’s probably more about 6’9". Johan is a true 7 footer, but he is raw and still needs a lot of work. Petro most certainly has the chance of becoming the 4th or even 3rd big on the roster, but he will never be a dominant inside force. Johan will enter his 5th season as a pro in the NBA, name me one dominant center who was as raw as Petro after 4 years in the league, you can’t. Some will say that Petro is obviously not going to be a star, but he doesn’t need to be, fair enough. Nene is a different story. Nene is the best offensive option Denver has in the low post. Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and Petro are all offensive liabilities. If you’re going to have 4 bigs and three of them can’t be counted on to produce on the offensive end, then you need the fourth one to be dominant (See Tim Duncan and the rest of the scrubs the Spurs surrounded him with post-David Robinson
2) They have no discipline and no leadership- The Chauncey trade worked for a year, but quite honestly Chauncey was given way too much credit for last year. Look at the circumstances, Chauncey (traded) Birdman (last shot at being a pro) Nene (first season returning from cancer) and Melo (5 straight first round exits) all had huge reasons to be motivated. After they achieved new highs they became complacent, they lost their edge on defense. There is a culture of "I do what I want" in Denver. Almost every single player this year, with the exception of Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, is guilty of playing undisciplined basketball. Whether it was Chauncey and JR jacking up ridiculous threes, Melo refusing to move the ball or take it to the rack, K-mart still thinking he can shoot a jumper or Nene’s love of the finger roll, Denver does not play disciplined basketball and besides K-mart and Afflalo, they don’t play defense. The blame for this lies with the veterans and the coaches. George Karl has said before he believes that a little crazy is needed to play winning basketball. I agree, but the freedoms some players have on the court is severely hurting the team. The veterans (Chauncey, Melo, K-mart..also our captains) don’t take accountability in their own games, let alone make others accountable.
3) Everyone wants to be the star- Very few players on Denver (AC, Lawson, Afflalo and Petro) accept their jobs as role players with grace and go out every night and just try to help the team win. The other role players (Nene, JR Smith, K-mart and Birdman) all try to be the hero at different times, some players certainly seem to play more for the individual then for the team. While I would not accuse any of these players of being locker room problems (I’ll let someone else argue the ramifications of the infamous "popcorn prank"), they are problems on the court because instead of making the extra pass, or playing tight D they choose to make careless and unnecessary plays which result in turnovers and easy buckets for the opposition. Often I feel this is result of these players trying to do too much. JR for example, great talent, but he unnecessarily takes poor shots and the frequency of poor shots always goes up when the Nuggets are in a tough spot. Sometimes his strategy works, but more often than not his decisions lead to poor possessions.
4) The Nuggets have players who look like they could be great, but will never be- Two prime examples. Nene and JR Smith. Lets dissect JR first. JR Smith came straight out of high school and has spent 6 years in the league. Some of you think he’s going to be great, that he’s going to be a superstar, that he will recognize his limitless potential, he just needs a little longer to develop because he never went to college. Well fine, look at the stars of the high school path. Lebron James I’m throwing out because he is clearly an anomaly to the high school players need to develop longer theory. Tracy McGrady- In his sixth year in the league McGrady had his best season ever as a pro and won the scoring title at 32.1 ppg. He was the alpha dog of the Orlando Magic. McGrady damn near led the Magic to become only the second ever 8 seed to beat a 1 seed, at the time. Quite honestly this was Mcgrady’s prime. Kobe Bryant- In his sixth year Kobe Bryant averaged 28.1 ppg as the number two man for the Lakers. He won an NBA championship and was a vital part of a team that ended up going 16-1 in the playoffs. Kevin Garnett- In his sixth year KG averaged a double-double at 22 ppg and just over 11 rpg and as the de facto leader of his team, led the Timberwolves to the playoffs. JR Smith will never be a great player, he’s a good role player at best, he falls in the categories of the likes of high school draftees such as Al Harrington, Tyson Chandler, CJ Miles and Martell Webster. Consider that Josh Smith and Monta Ellis were drafted after JR and have already surpassed him in ability, and I never even mentioned guys like Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard or Jermaine O’neal, but rest assured, by their 6th year in the league they were already much better then JR has been in his.
Nene has spent 7 years in the league and as the 7th overall pick in the league in 2002 Denver drafted him to be the dominant inside force. If you go back and look at any offensive post scorer, if they were going to develop into a great scorer they did it well before year 7. You have to look no further then the same draft that Nene was taken seventh to find prime examples of this: at number 9 Phoenix took Stoudemire, and at 34 Cleveland took Carlos Boozer. Both have become dominant post options and have been for some time, Nene will never reach that level.
So what do the Nuggets do now? I don’t know about some of you, but I for one am not satisfied with just making the playoffs every year, the point is to win a championship. Players like Melo don’t grow on trees and the Nuggets need to surround him with gritty, tough minded role players who accept their roles on the team. Thus I propose a two year plan:
1) Denver has the following players up for free agency-Malik Allen, Anthony Carter, Joey Graham, Johan Petro, Kenyon Martin (early termination option). Assuming K-mart does not take his option (which he won’t) that leaves four free agents to be re-signed. That of course would be assuming the nuggets would resign all four, which of course they won’t (Malik Allen). Most likely Denver will be over the cap (ok make that most definitely) which leaves Denver to the Mid-level exception and minimum contracts Neither Joey Graham or Johan Petro pulled a Dahntay Jones this year and blossomed to a ridiculous contract. If they can be had for the minimum then re-sign them, same goes for AC, look I know some of you hate him but pg’s who are willing to sit the bench and only come in when needed and bring that talent level while making a minimum contract are hard to find. Linas Kleiza is also technically a restricted free agent. I assume, but am not sure, that all we have to do is make a qualifying offer in order to retain Kleiza’s rights.
2) This offseason the Nuggets will have little flexibility, but they do have a mid-level exception which can be used to sign a guy for something around 5 million dollars (5.85 million dollars to be exact). You’re not going to get a great or even good center for that kind of money. That will have to come later in this two year plan. What Denver should do is attempt to sign a quality role players. It’s not out of the realm to get a quality guy (or even two) for 5.85 million. Guys like Channing Frye, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes were all signed last year for 3 million or less. What Denver should find is a a combo forward (we still have yet to replace Kleiza and the three-man-big rotation killed us come end of season). A lot of you will clamor for a fourth big as well, but I argue that Johan Petro has proven he can fulfill that role for us. Fortunately this year’s free agency period is deep and plenty of 2-3 million guys are out there. Some names to think about
Combo Forwards- Travis Outlaw, Craig Smith, Al Harrington, Matt Barnes (he’s due to make more than his current 1.6 million and I figure he does not exercise his player option) Roger Mason, Amir Johnson, James Singleton, Hakim Warrick and there’s more than that.
My Pick- Amir Johnson. Amir has a pricey contract right now (just under 4 million) but I’d be willing to bet he ends up taking a pay cut this offseason. At 22 he oozes potential. He’s a tough rebounder and inside scorer who also can play D. If you give him K-mart type minutes, he’ll put up K-mart type numbers. He’s also very athletic.
3) Find a D-leaguer to earn a spot via summer league. My pick, Coby Karl. Coby should have got a spot on last season’s team. He’s had a couple run arounds in the big leagues now and I think he can contribute some scoring off the bench which will be needed.
4) As it stand with this plan the Nuggets roster is such- Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Ty Lawson, JR Smith, Amir Johnson, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro, Coby Karl, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Joey Graham. 14 players, that’s one more then all of last season (unless you count Coby Karl and Brian Butch which I don’t.) So we have a roster, not exactly a blown up roster yet either and not a championship roster. Before the season starts Melo needs to be extended, get it out of the way so there is no "will he or won’t he" terminate his contract (which he’ll have the option to do) at the end of the season.
5) Trade Nene and/or JR Smith. I’m done with waiting on either of them. Ideal Situation-Trade them both in a sign and trade deal for Chris Bosh (Add Balkman to that deal). As I said, they are what they are and we need to move them before the rest of the league realizes that. It’s real hard to try and find a trade that works at this moment because of the fact that free agency hasn’t been sorted out yet, but the idea (if we couldn’t get Bosh) would be to get three players in return for trading the two which are either solid role players or expiring contracts, one of the solid players would have to be a PF or C (I’m thinking Maressee Speights).
6) Don’t trade K-mart, keep him and his expiring contract. Quality bigs like Greg Oden, Al Horford and Joahkim Noah will be on the market (Horford and Noah are restricted) that year, K-marts contract should be enough cash to get one of those guys. Honestly if the Nuggets could get Horford or Noah I would be thrilled. Plus the Nuggets would still have a chance to resign K-mart at a mid level exception type of price. Imagine the Nugs getting Bosh in a sign and trade and signing Horford the next year. Really they are only short a scorer off the bench, but surprise surprise Kleiza could be retained because his contract with Olympiakos will be up. Nuggets could resign Kleiza and Afflalo(whose contract will expire in the 2011 offseason) for the Mid-level exception.
Consider this lineup (which admittedly would have to be a perfect scenario to go right, but is not impossible)
Pg- Chauncey Billups- 12.5 million
SG- Arron Afflalo- 3 million
SF- Carmelo Anthony-18 million
PF- Chris Bosh- 18 million
C- Al Horford- 10 million
Bench: Ty Lawson (3 million), Coby Karl (1 Million), Amir Johnson (3 Million), Chris Andersen (4 Million), Johan Petro (3 million), Linas Kleiza (2 Million) and Joey Graham (1 Million).Nuggets Payroll would be right around 78 million, their payroll for the 2009-2010 season was 81.6 million. The main thing that sticks out is the lack of an offensive wing but Kleiza will hopefully be more consistent after his stint in Europe. Admittedly it’s a stretch. Like I say this is a perfect scenario but you can’t tell me that isn’t a championship roster. Surely some of you will call me a moron but is the current roster able to win a championship? Please put your ideas in the comments section, after all playing GM is so much fun.