Could a certain oft-injured power forward be the most important signing the Nuggets make this off-season?
The Nuggets can't afford to lose their "defensive quarterback" on this young team.
“I ain’t asking for nothing more than that,” Martin said. “But I understand the situation. If it’s not going to be here, I’m going to play basketball somewhere. I would love it to be in Denver. I would love to end my career here. But if not, we’ll see. I’m not going to get down about it. I’m upset, but I’m not going to get down about it. Not at all. I’ve got too many positive things going on in my life right now for me to worry about that.”
Priority number one for the Denver Nuggets, should he remain healthy for the rest of the year, is to sign Kenyon Martin to a mid-level contract. In fact, I'd say that is a priority over even Arron Afflalo or J.R. Smith. Losing K-Mart means more than losing an oft-injured power forward with a previously bloated contract. I means losing the heart and soul of this team. This is K-Mart's team.
There is not a single player on this Nuggets roster who embodies leadership the way K-Mart does. There's not a single player on this Nuggets roster whose commitment to defense exceeds his (this includes AAA). There's not a single player on this Nuggets roster (as currently constructed) who has the capability to mentor these young players the way Kenyon can. George Karl has said on more than one occasion that K-Mart is the "quarterback" of the Nuggets defense, and this has been even more true since the Carmelo Anthony trade.
For example, against the Detroit Pistons, Kenyon (along with Chris Andersen) did yeoman's work on the defensive end in the second half. Specifically K-Mart, forcing two shot-clock violations in quick succession with his defense on Tayshaun Prince (plus a very nifty play, knocking the ball away from Prince with his lightning quick hands). Can you replace this? Against the Boston Celtics, the first game with the new players, with the offense struggling to shoot against a suffocating Celtics defense, Kenyon led an equally suffocating Nuggets defense to victory. Even chipping in 18 points and 10 rebounds while guiding the Nuggets to a pull-away victory. Since the trade K-Mart's assist numbers have steadily increased ... but that's just gravy as far as I'm concerned. His directing of the Nuggets defense is what this team needs. Kenyon is the glue that holds these Nuggets' together.
There are those who have jaded opinions about K-Mart. Specifically relating to his bloated contract (7 years, close to $90 million). While I agree that he never lived up to his contract, we must remember that since the 2008-09 season Martin has proven that he has been the borderline MVP of this team (including Chauncey Billups). When he's not in the lineup you can definitely tell a difference. You can make the argument that Kenyon's injury last season was a enormous factor in the Nuggets decline at the end of the year (along with George Karl being out with throat and neck cancer) and his injured play definitely contributed to their flame out against the Utah Jazz in the playoffs. This year, after knee surgery, Kenyon has come back and contributed well, and since the trade he's averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds. With the Nuggets limiting his use, K-Mart hasn't been exposed to the overuse that he was worried about going in to the season.
While re-signing K-Mart is a risk because of his knee issues, it must also be said that not re-signing him is just as great a risk. With no one on the roster who can duplicate what Kenyon brings (just yet) why cast him aside when you could (potentially) re-sign him at the mid-level? Who will take his leadership role? Nene? Al Harrington? J.R. Smith? Ty Lawson? All four guys don't have the leadership temperament (at least not at the moment). Is it AAA? While I appreciate greatly what he brings, Afflalo seems to be the perfect role-player but not a true "leader". It would be penny wise and pound foolish to kick K-Mart to the curb. While acknowledging there's risks to re-signing we must also understand that punishing him for Kiki Vandeweghe's mistake is short-sighted. While Kenyon's injuries have been serious his value as "defensive quarterback" keeps this team from falling apart, even now.
So how will this be accomplished with NBA labor strife upcoming? I honestly don't have the answer. The Nuggets don't seem to be in a big hurry to address Kenyon's future with the team, any more than they are to address Nene's future or Afflalo's future. The Nuggets could always gamble on "young" and just ship Martin out and replace him with a very young player. Yet, I firmly believe that is one of the issues the Oklahoma City Thunder had until they traded for and re-signed Kenrick Perkins. They had virtually no veteran presence in the locker room, no leadership outside of an extremely young Kevin Durant. If you are going to be a contending team, you need a veteran leader. (Kevin Garnett for the Celtics. Tim Duncan with the Spurs. Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd with the Mavericks) Why throw away veteran leadership when you already HAVE it?
If the Denver Nuggets are to remain a factor, they must make a good faith attempt to sign Kenyon Martin to a mid-level contract. If Kenyon rejects the contract then the Nuggets will be left with no choice ... however, you won't know what Kenyon will say until you make the offer, right?
Time to shop for K-Mart.