As the Summer Olympics trudge on, and USA Basketball ... laden with "stars"... competes on the world stage, maybe it's time to ask the question.
What if this Nuggets team is better than we think?
Nuggets Nation is in a weird place right now. Caught between having faith in the team the Nuggets have right now and hoping for something different. I can hear it and read it in the reactions to the Nuggets various moves (or lack of moves) in the off-season. The mood is positive, yet, pessimistic and it's a confusing place to be for an NBA team.
Sure, there's the crowd that says you can only build through the draft and that the Nuggets' investment in "assets" is the wrong way to go. Certainly this group would have the majority of NBA history on their side and with the recent success of the Oklahoma City Thunder it seems like the evidence is clearly stacked in this groups' favor. Particularly with small to mid-market teams building with a combination of insane luck (ie: getting a franchise changing player in the draft like Seattle did with Kevin Durant in 2007 and the San Antonio Spurs did in 1997 with Tim Duncan) and savy drafting (which is made easier by having said franchise player) it seems like that's the way to go.
I'm not going to dispute that. In fact, I'm not going to sit here and valiantly proclaim that the Nuggets are "building" any differently or trudging some trail blazing path that others are not. What I WILL say is that, while the Nuggets did get a fairly nice haul of players in the Carmelo Anthony trade of February 2011, in an interesting way they also got just as lucky as these other teams have in terms of getting team building players. Players (in my view) the Nuggets didn't expect to fit in with George Karl as well as they have.
Exhibit A, obviously, is Danilo Gallinari. George Karl himself has stated he was surprised at Gallo's game. You see, Mike D'Antoni had Gallo stand out on the three-point line and wait to be passed the ball. People really didn't have an idea that Gallo was as good a passer and refined offensively as he was. The 3 1/2 seasons in D'Antoni's system may have set back his development a bit, yet you could see that there was potential for Gallo within the Nuggets and Karl's "system" (whatever that is with Karl) for him to flourish. The injuries haven't helped his development, however you can see ... well ... something. Could any of us have predicted that Gallo would have such a refined all around offensive game ... and if you did then I will be calling you for lottery numbers.
Same thing with Wilson Chandler. Yes, some of us make light of him with the "meh" line, but you forget that he was a great off-the-bench player at the end of the 2010-11 season for the Nuggets. He provided defense and the occasional scoring outburst that I'm sure surprised the Nuggets. He has also shown a good mid-range game (when he uses it) that is more than the three-point shooter and slasher he was with the Knicks. So we are left with a situation where the players the Nuggets received in return (aside from maybe Raymond Felton, but he was a valuable trade asset (Andre Miller and Jordan Hamilton)) were surprisingly effective. Even better, effective in Karl's brand of basketball.
You know, there's something to be said for working as a team. When JaVale McGee came in a trade last season (in exchange for the oft-injured Nene Hilario) it was clear he played better with Andre Miller. So the adjustment was made to have McGee come off the bench and play alongside 'Dre. In the long run McGee will be in the starting lineup, but McGee blended so well with the team that it made his transition that much easier.
I'm not going to bore you with talk of "potential" and "upside". I will leave that to the people who are draft experts. What I will tell you is this team needs a solid normal season to gel. The biggest problem the last year and a half is the team has been constantly in flux (remember, Nene, J.R. Smith, Felton and Kenyon Martin are all gone from the 2010-11 team, plus McGee and Wilson Chandler were late arrivals) and the February when the Nuggets suffered all those injuries. This team really needs a whole season to see where the chips lay.
It's important to keep in mind that the Nuggets work as a unit may override their lack of "star". They have already proven they can win regular season games without that "one" player. Maybe with the further improvement of Ty Lawson and an injury-free season from Gallo we will see what this team is really made of with a complete roster. It was recently affirmed that Kenneth Faried (who still has tons of room to develop) will work with Hakeem Olajuwon this August along with McGee. Hopefully that kind of experience works for both players. These are things that will only help. Also, I'm in intrigued by Evan Fournier. He somehow forced his way to the Nuggets' roster this season and looked pretty good in Summer League. What will he be able to do with more seasoning?
What if? What if this team is better than we think? What if all those dreams for big time trades are superfluous because what we have is THAT good. I'm willing to bet that it will be. You don't have to give them a chance, just watch this play out. The Nuggets are loaded with depth, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out this season.