Reading between the lines at Nuggets Media Day ...

Troy Babbitt-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

We all know what George Karl, Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke said during Denver Nuggets Media Day ... but what did they mean?

On Monday morning a well rested and relaxed George Karl took to the microphone in the Pepsi Center media lounge. Just before fielding questions from the assembled media, he looked over at myself and my colleague Nate Timmons and said with a smile: "Jesus. Denver Stiffs is here?"

Everyone in the room collectively laughed and media day was off and running.

From the team owner down to the head coach to the media members present to the unveiling of new alternate uniforms, there's a good vibe surrounding our Denver Nuggets right now. Long gone are the days of Carmelo Anthony's ball stopping (and subsequent trade demands), Kenyon Martin's on-court thuggery, Allen Iverson's petulance, J.R. Smith's erratic behavior (on and off the court) and Nene's maybe-I'll-play-maybe-I-won't routine.

If anything - and as team owner Josh Kroenke eluded to by saying "after the [Melo] trade ... we needed to freshen up the look" when unveiling the new uniforms after Karl's press session - the new uniforms symbolize that the "Thuggets" Era is dead and won't be returning. And in its wake is a collection of youthful, wanna-be-here talent. The culture of professional basketball in Denver has indeed changed.

For the few press conferences I've attended here, Coach Karl has seemed exasperated for one reason or another. Not today. Today the coach had a twinkle in his eye as he responded to the media's questions, and he served up some insight on the training camp and season to come. Here is a sampling of those answers along with some editorial comments ...

On defense ...

George Karl: "...how we control the other team [is key]. Can we have moments of defensive momentum rather than offensive momentum? Can we have moments where we intimidate with our defensive presence? And then in the fourth quarter, I think you win most games with stops ... I just think that defensively, you win so many close games because of how intimidating you can be defensively. With [Andre] Iguodala we have a stopper. So one, two, three and four we have a guy we can put on LeBron [James], [Kevin] Durant, [Tony] Parker, Deron Williams, whomever ... in training camp, I'd say our first eight practices are going to be 70% defense. We're going to worry about offense in the second half [of camp]."

My Take: Karl emphasized defense throughout the press conference and there's no reason to believe this won't be the case. Karl knows he has the hammer of playing time on his side now (he even said as much during the presser), so if ever there was a time to preach defense, it's now.

On three-pointers (an area of weakness on the 2011-12 Nuggets) ...

Karl: "Probably my biggest concern. I think 40% of our three-pointers are down in Orlando right now. I think we have the guys who can do it. It's still going to be a high priority of the offense. We love the rim. And with a second shot we want a free throw. And with a third shot we want the three-ball ... we need some guys to jump up their percentages ... I think we're going to see Jordan Hamilton have an opportunity to play because of his ability to make shots ... statistically, if we just shoot the three and shoot free throws better, we'll be number one in scoring ... and most players as their careers go on, they get better with a percentage or a half percentage at the free throw line and with the three."

My Take: The Nuggets stunk from three-point range last season. They finished eighth from the bottom in the NBA - connecting on just 33.2% of their long range attempts - and yet they finished among the top half of NBA teams in attempted three-pointers per game. They can only go up from here, but Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Ty Lawson in particular need to demonstrate more consistency from behind the arc.

On Ty Lawson ...

Karl: "So much of leadership is your daily attitude, daily energy and daily approach. I'm not a big believer that leadership comes from your mouth ... in general, I think Ty understands what he has to do this year. I think he's ready. I felt like after Game 1 of the Lakers series, he was one of the top two or three guys on the court for most games. And that's the type of consistency we need him to bring to every game. Ty's got to understand that it's an 82 game season and who you beat isn't as important as how many games you win. I think Ty gets caught up in the spotlight game and doesn't get caught up in every game."

My Take: Same old tune regarding Lawson. But when you read Masai Ujiri's comments below on Lawson you'll see that both the general manager and head coach are big believers in Lawson, but are far from being sold on their starting point guard as of yet.

On the closeness of the team ...

Karl: "I want to brag a little bit. I think our coaching and our coaches ... it's known throughout the league that if you want a good work out you'll come up here and get a good work out. We start every day at 9am with weights, 10 o'clock with fundamentals, 11 o'clock with drills and 12 o'clock with scrimmages. We've had five or six NBA players walk into the gym and they're welcome to take part in everything we do. I think we're getting an image that this is the place to hang ... I think Masai's done a great job with the culture and changing of the attitude of the players committed to being here."

My Take: Read: The Melo Era is dead, dead, dead. I was privileged enough to attend a Nuggets shootaround / practice three weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to see so many current Nuggets in the gym. It's as if the Nuggets have had a month start to training camp. And again, the hammer of playing time comes into play here as those who eagerly participate will get onto Karl's good side while those who don't will see their minutes diminished.

On the starting lineup ...

Karl: "It's a tossup. I don't want to say Faried has that four position. If Wilson Chandler has a better camp, it's going to be Wilson Chandler. And it doesn't really matter. It's going to be a 9 or 10-man rotation. And what's most intriguing is how we're going to finish. And that's what I don't know right now. How we start is easy ... I can mess around with that. But how we finish is to be determined. And that's where people probably get angry ... it's a lot easier if you're going to play 30 minutes to come off the bench because you get 20 minutes against the other team's bench ... and no one wants to understand that."

My Take: Karl was often criticized last season for his end of game lineups, notably leaning on aging veterans like Andre Miller and Al Harrington for long stretches during fourth quarters. I thought Karl was somewhat vindicated for his suspect lineup choices during the Lakers playoff series, when Karl's faith in Miller paid off in Game 5. But at some point, Karl will need to find a lineup he can count on to close out games and let's hope that a full month of training camp gets him there.

On opening the season with 14 of 20 games on the road ...

Karl: "I think my team can handle it. We've got to have a special training camp to get ready for that. In general, I think jumping into a season ready is important. Especially with a young team ... I'm not happy with the schedule. But if we get to January 1 and we're four or five games over .500, we'll be in a good place."

My Take: Here Karl is setting the expectations somewhat low. I suspect most Denver Stiffs readers will be disappointed if the Nuggets are just four or five games over .500 entering the New Year. But last year, the Nuggets started 14-6 when most of us were expecting them to hover around .500.

On the addition of Andre Iguodala ...

Karl: "I love him. I can't deny that I've been an Iguodala fan for a long time. I think he fits how we want to play. He's a rock and he's a consistently solid, committed player at both ends of the floor. I think he'll be freer here and more successful here. He's just a no-nonsense type of player. A great athlete. He gives us another piece."

My Take: After the Lakers embarrassingly swept the Nuggets in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, rumors abounded that Karl wanted to trade Melo for Iguodala. Whether that was really true or not, Karl is at least affirming here that he's been an Iguodala admirer for years.

On expectations entering the 2012-13 season ...

Karl: "My favorite thing ... summer talk. I'm disappointed that you like us so much in the summer. There's a lot of summer talk in the media and a lot of summer talk upstairs in that gym. We've gotta get the summer out of our game. The shot selection, the crazy shots. I love Oklahoma City. I was rooting for them to win the championship. I can't deny that I just despise the Lakers. There's a bigger word for that that I can't use here. I've been beaten by them too many times. I didn't expect them to be bad, but when they got Steve Nash I can't deny that I was really upset."

My Take: I spoke with Karl one-on-one later about the Lakers, and he reiterated just how good a pickup he believes Nash is for the Lakers. Karl said that Nash "just makes things too easy" for the Lakers. Unfortunately, I totally agree.

On the definition of success this season (I asked this) ...

Karl: "Today, I want to win the division. And that's a tough one with Oklahoma City being right in front of us. The thing I love about our team is that they're not afraid of the big boys. The thing I'm scared about our team is that they don't take the little boys seriously enough. And then, we've gotta find a way to win in the playoffs."

My Take: I was happy to hear Karl give substantive answers to this question. Winning the Northwest Division AND a playoff series are lofty but not completely unrealistic goals for this Nuggets team.

After Karl left the podium, Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke came out and unveiled the new alternate uniforms (which I think are awesome, by the way) and then took to the microphone alongside vice president Masai Ujiri. Kroenke and Ujiri would take similar questions to those fielded by Karl, plus others ...

On the summer ...

Masai Ujiri: "They took the summer plan seriously. They worked really hard on their games and it's encouraging to see. Especially if Denver is going to be the city you live in ... they all came back early here and were here going at it. It was fun have 12-13 guys here doing work. It's encouraging for us not only as an organization but as a city. There are 5 or 6 guys who stayed here all summer. For us to make the jump we want to make in the next few years, that [staying in Denver] has to be part of the plan ... Josh has done a great job for us providing an environment where it's worthwhile to stay here."

My Take: As I noted above, I observed a Nuggets scrimmage a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to see so many players already in town, getting into shape, working with the Nuggets coaches, and so forth. I've followed this franchise my entire life and have never seen pre-training camp dedication like this before.

On Masai Ujiri potentially being poached by the 76ers ...

Ujiri: "It wasn't a tough decision for me. I'm here as long as this guy [Kroenke] doesn't kick me out. I've made a commitment to this team. I've made a commitment to the Kroenkes and the organization. I love our team. I love our city. I love everything about Nuggets basketball."

Josh Kroenke: "You hire good people for a reason and other people are going to take notice of that. We never gave permission to Philly to talk to Masai, but they were just doing their due diligence. This resulted in Masai and I having a conversation about where our futures are going. It was a very good conversation and that will remain between me and Masai. But we're both excited about where this team is headed and we're both committed to this team right now and that was just a minor blip on the radar."

My Take: How's this for a political answer? I don't blame the 76ers for wanting to talk to Ujiri but I also don't blame the Kroenkes for being miffed if indeed the 76ers reached out to Ujiri. That said, as I wrote on Sunday Ujiri has earned an extension and it would be great to see that extension taken care of soon. Which brings us to Nate's question during the press conference ...

On Ujiri being extended in Denver (asked by Nate!) ...

Kroenke: "I can't tell you a yes or no on that. Masai and I are comfortable with the conversation we had and I'll leave it at that."

My Take: I think Nuggets fans would be a lot more comfortable if Ujiri's contract situation was sorted out sooner than later. The longer the Nuggets wait, the more vultures (like the 76ers) will come out of the woodwork trying to poach Ujiri.

On rookie Evan Fournier being in camp versus being stashed overseas ...

Ujiri: "My experience with European players is that, skill-wise, they're good. From an early stage they learn the techniques of basketball. Where they struggle here is with the strength, conditioning and athletic ability of NBA players. We felt if we sent Fournier back to Europe, we'd be putting ourselves a year behind ... we felt he needs to adapt to the speed of the game. Whether he and Quincy Miller spend time in the D-League, we need to make sure both of them get stronger. We feel skill-wise, they fit the way we play. They will grow into it."

My Take: Ujiri was being polite and politically correct. Had Fournier played in Europe this year, he'd have picked up some bad habits on the court and bad conditioning regimens off of it. This rookie from France exudes confidence and he could become a fan favorite if given some playing time in real NBA games this season.

On the Nuggets' depth ...

Ujiri: "A lot of people say we have a lot of players. I don't know if we have a lot of players. We haven't done anything yet. We haven't gone anywhere. If we had a lot of players, we'd have won the NBA Championship. We have a challenge. We're trying to compete and we're trying to win. And we're going to keep building until we get to that point where we compete.

My Take: Ujiri comes across as an affable, easy going guy (and in many ways, he is). But underneath he's a shrewd competitor and that came out with his comments here. Ujiri wants to win and isn't afraid to make moves in order to get more W's on the board. Just ask Nene and Arron Afflalo about job security in Denver.

On George Karl ...

Ujiri: "He's been in the gym all summer. He's worn me out. But he's the best. It's great to see George in the condition he's in after all he's gone through. I know I put him through hell the past few years. It's so challenging for him as a coach and he has to deal with the games on the forefront. We feel we have the best coach and we're glad to see him very happy."

My Take: Without the Melodrama hanging over the team, no substantive personnel moves on the horizon and a full training camp about to begin (with no injuries ... yet), it's on Karl and the coaching staff to exceed beyond the success they've established here to date. This is a tall order considering that Karl delivered a 50-win season during the Melodrama and a 7-game playoff series against the Lakers after the stressful lockout season. The only way you top that is by winning the division and/or a playoff series this season.

On JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried working out with Hakeem Olajuwon ...

Ujiri: "They enjoyed it ... he's [Olajuwon] very selective with who he works with and I'm glad I have a relationship with him and I know a lot of guys try to get in. Very valuable for those two guys."

My Take: Olajuwon - a Nigerian native like Ujiri - was arguably one of the top four or five centers to ever play the game. We as Nuggets fans are lucky that he and Ujiri have a good relationship that dates back to when Ujiri played for the Nigerian basketball team. As we all know, Olajuwon raved about McGee's potential in particular, going as far as to say: "That guy should dominate the league." Now it's time for McGee to put what was learned to work on the NBA court.

On Ty Lawson ...

Ujiri: "He's got a lot of work to do. He does have the talent and the ability like he showed last year. I think Ty is up for it. He's had a great summer. He's worked out a lot. And I think it's getting into his mind now that the time has come. It's a big year for him and we're going to ask more from him.

My Take: Given that Lawson is yet to sign a contract extension (which must be done by October 31st), Ujiri seems to be putting Lawson's representation on notice that they expect big things to come from the point guard if he's going to get a big paycheck, too.

On their benchmark for success (I asked this one, too) ...

Kroenke: "For me, I look at it from an organizational standpoint. As long as we're making strides going forward. You always want to be cautiously optimistic going into a new season because you believe in the players you've put together. I believe in our players, our staff, our management ... I believe in everybody. We're definitely moving in the right direction. Masai has slightly different goals than I do. But we have a young roster that showed great flashes last year. And think with no distractions and non-shortened season, we have the opportunity to make great strides this season.

Ujiri: "I want to win. That's the bottom line."

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