The Denver Nuggets are playing defense. Carmelo Anthony? Playing defense. J.R. Smith? Playing defense. Allen Iverson? Well, he was playing defense before he was shipped out.
If you think about it, this is a pretty big development. Not because players like Melo and J.R. are finally making the physical and mental commitment to play defense, but because this team that seemed so mentally fragile in the past has had several chances to fold. Nevertheless, they are playing a style of basketball that most fans thought was never going to happen with players like Melo and J.R. on the roster.
This team was demolished in the playoffs last year by the Lakers. They had never looked so overmatched in the postseason since Carmelo came to Denver. To make matters worse, they were supposed to be contenders. That is a mental blow that can be difficult to come back from. How can you get excited for the next season knowing that the Lakers, or some other equally insurmountable obstacle, will be waiting down the road? Instead of giving in to doubt and despite all the chances to roll over that were to come, the Nuggets have decided to play their best and see where it takes them.
If you are hammered in the playoffs you would like to think that management would bring in a piece or two to help out you over the top. That is not exactly what happened this summer. In fact, management made two moves designed with the future in mind at the expense of the present.
They traded their 2008 first round pick for a future first round pick. Honestly that was not a very big deal to the players and they made a draft night deal to bring in a rookie anyway, but it did show that instead of bringing in the best player they could find they were willing to wait. However, that was nothing compared to what happened next. The Nuggets sent Marcus Camby packing for a trade exception and the chance to swap second round picks with the Clippers. If Stan Kronke’s position was a little vague after the trade of the draft pick, there was no ambiguity to be found in the message sent by the Camby trade. Slashing payroll was going to be held as a priority over winning basketball games. The team could have decided to mail the season in. Lord knows the fans certainly freaked out about it.
At that point, Denver was the laughing stalk of the league. They gave away Marcus Camby, a perennial defensive player of the year candidate for nothing. The national media quickly piled on. There was no way the Nuggets would be able to compete. They have no shot at making the playoffs. They will give up 125 points a game. The saving grace of that trade was that it was made in July. I believe if that trade goes down in October maybe the Nuggets do not have time to get over it and focus on reaching their potential as a team. However, they had more than two months before training camp opened to not only get over it, but to grow from it. All that doubt has fueled them to grow instead of make excuses.
When they reported to camp they were met with a new defense first philosophy to get used to. To make things worse, that philosophy was being pushed by a coach that many believed they had lost faith in during the previous season. The players could have mutinied and told him to stick it, that they were going to keep playing their way with the mindset that exerting effort on defense only results in having less energy for offense. Instead, they rose to the challenge, worked hard and are applying what they worked on in the regular season.
The latest chance for this team to excuse themselves from doing what has been asked of them came last week when Allen Iverson was sent packing for Chauncey Billlups. The Nuggets made a deal where they were trading away a more talented player than they were receiving and AI was tremendously popular with his teammates. Once again the primary motivation for this trade was money. Even so the Nuggets are out there playing their tails off on the defensive end.
Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to glorify these guys, they are simply doing their job. The point is there are athletes in every sport who look for a reason to take the easy way out. They may not walk away, but they find an excuse to simply collect their paycheck even though they are not giving it their all every time they step on the court. To them it is justified by the fact that somewhere along the line things did not go the way they wanted to. Maybe management pulled the rug out from under them or the coach is pushing them to do something that is a little more difficult to execute than they are used to.
Looking back, maybe luck has played as much of a role as anything. What would have happened if they traded Camby before the 2007-08 season and Nene missed 60 games? Fortunately, they dealt Camby before this season when Nene has been healthy and ready to prove what he is capable of. The playoff sweep at the hands of the Lakers provided the impetus for the players to buy into the emphasis on defense in training camp. Coming off of any other previous loss where they were not so humbled perhaps the players decide that the extra effort to play good team defense is not necessary. The AI trade was designed to save money, but they were able to bring back a player who may not have the pure talent as Iverson, but he has the perfect game to fill a void on the roster.
Sure it is only six games into the season, but the Denver Nuggets have risen to the challenges that have been set before them. I have no idea how far this newfound mental edge will carry them. It may end with a team celebrating on the floor of the Pepsi Center after game four of a first round playoff series. All I know is that this group is much easier to cheer for than previous editions of the Denver Nuggets and that means a lot.