A lot of my thoughts about this past season have lead to a lot of questions about the upcoming season and beyond. The thing Nuggets fans might have to get used to? The impending or potential free agency of Carmelo Anthony after next season. Just like his draft class counterparts LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh this season, Melo can opt out of his current contract after the 2010-11 season.
Throughout the offseason we'll be focusing on different aspects of the Nuggets team. I certainly have plenty of topics to discuss and what better one to start off with than Denver's franchise player? But first ...
Who to root for now?
Every season after the Nuggets make their exit from the playoffs (if they make the playoffs, thanks Melo!) I'm not as interested in watching NBA games. I still watch, but obviously it's a bit harder with your team not having a role anymore. Andrew showed his hand in his article We are all Jazz fans now, as my partner-in-crime probably could have titled his piece A.B.T.L. aka Anyone But The Lakers. It's no secret that Andrew will root against L.A. under pretty much any circumstance and I used to feel that way about a certain team that plays near the Alamo. Yes, I used to despise everything about the San Antonio Spurs ... my dislike for the Texas-based team was born out of them bouncing the Nuggets out of the playoffs twice in the Melo-era. But something sick has happened, something that if I told a certain friend of mine would surely get me killed (via the curb-stomp) ... I"ve been rooting for the Spurs and I've been cheering for ... gulp ... Manu Flopobili.
It was easy to root for the Spurs to win in Round 1 against Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks ... after all that win could have helped the Nuggets, if they would have advanced, not face a deep Mavs team. But in Round 2 and in Game 1 Monday night in Phoenix I found myself again rooting for the Spurs. As much as I like Steve Nash, as much fun as he is to watch with his unselfishness and sharp shooting, his perfect free throw stroke, his joy for the game I love ... I just don't really root the guy. I respect Nash and love how he plays the game, but I rarely find myself getting behind his teams anymore. It's funny, I don't dislike Nash, but I just don't root for him. I do like Jason Richardson, ever since his days at Michigan State, and wished the Nuggets would have traded for him when he was with Golden State, but I just don't root for his team. I like how Channing Frye has developed a deadly three-point stroke and it's fun to watch a seven-footer make his living on the perimeter (sometimes), but I just can't get behind his team.
I do appreciate the way the Suns and Spurs play the game though. It's been a joy watching these teams because their superstars have bought into the team concept (especially the Suns). Watching teams make the extra pass, play tough nosed defense and leave all their effort on the floor is exactly what you want out of your team in the postseason. So, while I do agree with Andrew's main point of A.B.T.L, I just can't root for the Jazz because of the way they play the game. It's too bad the Lakers and Jazz can't both lose, but hopefully either the Suns or Spurs will be able to best them in the next round.
(I also can't watch the Lakers vs. Jazz series without thinking about how the Nuggets would have played against the Lake Show ...)
The upcoming "Melo" Dollar Question ...
You see what I did there ... Million Dollar Question easily becomes Melo Dollar Question, having to explain that simply reassures you the reader that I in fact am not very bright.
If you want to know how things will go next season if Melo is not extended this summer (and there is no reason why Melo should sign a contract extension now) then visit SB Nation's following blogs: Raptors HQ, Peninsula is Mightier (Heat) or Fear the Sword (Cavs) and see some of the hysteria going on. Losing your franchise player is not something new to Nuggets fans, Dikembe Mutombo is just one example, but it also never gets easier.
I say that Melo has no reason to sign an extension now because the franchise has a lot to prove over the next couple of seasons. What will the front office look like? Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman are both free agents now. Who will the head coach be? George Karl is battling for his life and may have more pressing needs than to yell at a bunch of millionaires on a daily basis. Who will be in uniform in Denver?
The biggest question marks with the roster come in the forms of: Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Nene and Chauncey Billups. The following players will definitely be on the roster in the 2011-12 season (Melo's player option season that he'll probably opt out of)
- Ty Lawson (still under his rookie contract),
- Chris Andersen (his suddenly fat looking contract isn't going anywhere) and
- Arron Afflalo (Denver has a $2.9 million qualifying offer to tender to AAA that should make him a restricted free agent if he's not extended by then and a safe bet to be a Nugget).
The question marks for the Nuggets that might not all be on the 2011-12 team:
- Kenyon Martin. Expect to hear his name in plenty of rumors this offseason and beyond with his $16.5 million expiring contract being a toy the front office will look to share.
- J.R. Smith. Has a $6 million expiring contract that could be packaged to a team in need of scoring and since he'll be playing for a new deal, expect to see a very well behaved Mr. Smith.
- Nene. While he's been very valuable and a major part of Denver's success, his reasonable contract (two years left at $11.3 million and $11.6 million) will look like a Mr. Goodbar (I love those!) to general managers around the league.
- Chauncey Billups. Yes, he led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals and he should finish his career in Denver, but the team can void his contract for the 2011-12 season and save $14.2 million. Voiding the deal is not a bad out for a team looking to rebuild on the fly and you can't retool while lugging around a fat contract for what will be a 35 year-old going on 36 year-old point guard. Certainly Billups could restructure his deal to stay in Denver (think Jason Kidd playing for $8 million this season), but Lawson may be ready to take the reigns by then. Can Billups be an effective bench guy or can Denver use him as a figure head starter and bring Lawson in for major minutes off the bench? All questions that the team must face.
While many readers will certainly suggest the Nuggets look to package K-Mart and Smith together, the combined salary of $22+ million will certainly be hard to move and hard for a team to justify taking in return for a guy making close to that $22 million. Some people would like to see a sign-and-trade deal worked out for Chris Bosh, but just think if Toronto had to sell that deal to their fanbase? "You got us K-Mart and J.R. Smith for our franchise guy? No, I wont be renewing my season tickets."
Now, the Nuggets might be looking to deal K-Mart and Smith above other guys, but don't you think it would make more sense for a GM to try to get soon to be 28 year-old Nene instead of K-Mart? You could certainly sell your fans on Nene and Smith much easier than K-Mart and Smith (unless your fans want the fat K-Mart expiring deal so they have hope of luring Melo with the freed up money in the offseason...haha).
There was some talk around the trade deadline that the Nuggets checked in on Bosh, but I think we can all put those thoughts to bed. Bosh will not be a Denver Nugget. For now I don't want to speculate on what the team will do, but I do think it's fair to say there will be some roster shake ups, even Silent Stan Kroenke has indicated as much.
Nuggets star search continues
When the Nuggets drafted Carmelo Anthony there had to be a thought that pairing the young college scorer with a young Brazilian power forward named Nene would cure the Nuggets scoring needs for years to come. Perhaps some inside the Nuggets organization thought they had two future superstars.
But injuries slowed Nene's career and that has been a driving force with the Nuggets search for another star. Melo certainly has blossomed into an elite NBA player, but every championship team needs more than one guy. The Nuggets swung for the fences early in Melo's career when they signed K-Mart to a max-contract. Once again injuries played a major role in slowing down K-Mart's career and so did taking him away from his dynamic point guard Jason Kidd in New Jersey. Some players are special because they can play in any system and some players are a little more special based on the systems they play in. Martin's offense certainly excels in an uptempo style and he has found success in Denver, but for the money he has not become the superstar Denver had hoped.
The Nuggets again rolled the dice with the trade for Allen Iverson. Searching for a guy to take the scoring load off Melo, Denver gambled and lost with Iverson. While the Nuggets did win a lot of games they came up short of the championship level team they were in search for. Iverson did bring the Nuggets Billups and the closest thing to a championship level team in Denver's history. But Billups' window, while not closed, was certainly not opening as the veteran player is just that ... a veteran. Before Billups was brought to town, Denver made a play for J.R. Smith. We've all see Swish's talent and in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers I thought Smith was starting to make the leap and could become Denver's next superstar. Smith may still become a very good NBA player, but it's looking like his time in Denver may be drawing to a close.
So, what do the Nuggets do? Dwayne Wade has been begging the Miami Heat to bring him help since Shaquille O'Neal left town. If Bosh leaves Toronto, he will certainly be able to say the Raptors never brought him the help he needed. But in Denver the Nuggets are more like the Cavaliers ... while the Nuggets may not have found the right combination, they certainly have been trying different things. Roster shuffling is a certainty in the NBA, but constantly moving key players in-and-out can be tough on your star player. Part of basketball is team chemistry and having new teammates in key roles (like point guard) can be difficult. Having a new point guard is almost like having a new offensive system for a quarterback in football. If you are constantly having to learn your main guy's tendencies, that will effect you.
Since the 2003-04 season, Melo has had the following point guards in Denver: Andre Miller, Earl Boykins, Earl Watson, Steve Blake, Allen Iverson, Chucky Atkins, Anthony Carter, Chauncey Billups and Ty Lawson. That's nine guys that Melo has had to adjust his game towards. In Amare Stoudemire's 8-year career he has had the benefit of playing (mainly) with point guard Steve Nash for 6-years. You can't tell me chemistry doesn't play a role because Nash can make passes to Amare blindfolded, they just know where they are going to be. It's like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison ... the famous Quarterback to Wide Receiver connection. Perhaps the stability of Billups and Lawson will give Melo some relief and some much needed chemistry. It's easy to say that an isolation player like Melo doesn't need great chemistry with his point guard, but I beg to differ.
With that said ... Denver's search for an additional star continues. The Nuggets front office certainly has some trade chips to be able to bring in a guy that would keep Melo around and make the Nuggets better and it'll be interesting to see where their search goes next. But without adequate star power, the Nuggets will continue to struggle in search for not only their first NBA title, but their first NBA Finals appearance.
As another season came-and-went we draw closer to the end of Melo's second contract with the Nuggets. With plenty of questions surrounding the franchise don't be surprised if Melo is the next star player to Tweet, "Should I stay, or should I go."
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