Nuggets fans have seen it all over the first 52 games of the 2007-2008 season both on and off the court. There is a term for that type of phenomenon - inconsistency.
The Nuggets have proven that they can defeat anyone in the league, except for the Lakers (they get another crack at Boston tomorrow), and they have proven that they can lose to almost anyone (except Minnesota, no matter how poorly they played, they managed to beat the Wolves four times).
Right now Denver is only a game and a half out of the Northwest Division lead and they are sitting in a tie for seventh in the Western Conference. Those facts sound promising, but if the playoffs started today the Nuggets would be on the outside looking in due to tiebreakers.
Taking all of what we have seen and heard into account, what do the last 30 games of this season have in store for Denver? Due to the depth of the Western Conference this season a 50 win team may be sitting at home to watch the first round of the playoffs. After the first week of the season I concluded that winning 55-60 games was a pipe dream and this team was destined to end up right around that 50 win plateau. The Nuggets will have to finish up 18-12 to get to 50 wins this season.
Are they still heading for 50 wins? Can they do better? Can they fall short and be the really good team sitting at home?
Let’s weigh what we know, and what we think we know to see what the outlook for the remainder of the season will be.
Denver has as much talent as anyone even without Nene and Chucky Atkins. At this point the Nuggets cannot plan on Nene returning to the court this season. If he does it is a bonus, but I think we can all agree it would be unfair for him to be pressured into returning before he is ready. Atkins will probably be back in a month, but he is no prize.
The Nuggets have seen Linas Kleiza, Anthony Carter and even Eduardo Najera make major contributions to the team this season. I do not think anyone expected these three players to do as much as they have for the team.
We all know what we will get from Camby every night and Kenyon Martin is getting better as the season goes along.
Allen Iverson is consistent as far as his final output, he will end up with 24-30 points and seven or eight assists most nights, but no one has any idea whether or not he will take 15 shots or 30 shots to reach those numbers. When he is on, he is a marvel, but when he is off and he just keeps taking shots, it can be frustrating to watch.
The real key is Carmelo Anthony. Over the past week or two I have noticed that he seems to be back into the groove he was in before the fracas at MSG last season when he was consistently pumping in 30 plus points a night and making it look way too easy. Generally Iverson tries to exploit small cracks in the opponent’s defense, but when Melo is lighting things up AI gets large crevices instead of those minute creases to drive through. Because of that, I believe all the speculation from when Iverson was acquired (it was Melo’s team and AI would have to fit in) was correct. The Nuggets are better off when Melo is the driving force than when AI is.
The Nuggets clearly have the talent to win their division and make a playoff run, and if Melo is truly entering into that special zone and he continues to focus on rebounding and playing some defense, he can carry them further than they have gone before.
However, if Melo struggles on offense and settles for long jumpers without working the post or attacking the rim, this team will struggle to even make the playoffs.
The bottom line is this team has the top level talent, and the supporting cast to be great.
This team is full of veterans and three starters have been vital cogs on NBA championship teams. They know what needs to be done night in and night out. These guys have done it in the past and they have the quotes in the papers to prove they understand how crucial it is to bring a strong effort and play defense every game.
Even so, the primary struggle for this team has been between the ears this season. They have failed to do what they claim they know they have to do. George Karl has not been much help either claiming that it is up to the players to motivate themselves.
I had hoped that the last game against Portland would help them turn a corner mentally as they battled a team on the road without Camby in a very important game and came out on top. The very next game, an equally important bout with Utah in Denver, they completely gave away the second quarter to Utah and ended up losing because of it.
I believe the Nuggets know how they must approach every game from here on in. They should feel a strong sense of urgency as any kind of losing streak will surely place them out of the playoff picture.
If they fail to play every game with a sense of urgency they will undoubtedly end up wondering what went wrong as they play golf instead of basketball after the 82 game regular season.
I am probably giving them more credit than they have earned in this area, but I think there has been a slight increase in focus lately.
Outlook: Positive (but definitely worrisome)
I have fretted over the month of March since before the season started. From March 2nd through April 1st the Nuggets opponents include games at Houston, versus Phoenix, versus San Antonio, at Utah, at San Antonio, versus Toronto, a five game road trip that includes games at Detroit and at Toronto, versus Dallas, versus Golden State, at Phoenix and then versus Phoenix again as the calendar turns to April.
Denver may be lucky to get through March with a .500 record. Anything worse and their season may be over before April Fool’s Day.
I cannot wait to hear what George Karl’s low ball goal is for wins that month. I bet it will be something like five.
Hopefully the Nuggets have seen the last of the long term injuries for this season, but there is still more than a third of the schedule remaining.
Over the last four seasons Camby has averaged 16 missed games per campaign. At this point he has only missed three games in 2007-2008. Looking at that history, it is likely he will miss another five to seven games. Camby has also been known to leave games early due to nagging injuries which is not reflected in the number of games he has missed due to the fact he has played briefly in them.
Iverson has missed nine games a season over the previous three years (not including the games Philly sat him out while they were trying to trade him last season). That is not taking into account the 34 games he missed four seasons ago. AI has yet to miss a game this season, but it stands to reason he may miss five or six from here on out.
Eduardo Najera has missed three games this season. Last season was the healthiest season of his career and he still missed seven games. Every other season in the NBA Najera has struggled to stay healthy for more than 60 some games.
In addition to Camby, AI and Eduardo, if we found out tomorrow that Kenyon Martin was out for the season would anyone be surprised?
The point is, apart from Nene and Chucky Atkins, the Nuggets have experienced fairly good health for their key players. Previous seasons show that we should expect guys like Camby and AI to miss a few games from here on until the end of the season. With the closing schedule they are facing, any absences by Camby, Iverson, or even Najera could be crippling.
Carmelo Anthony has said that he loves the team they have now, but any trade would be an improvement. With an attitude like that we can only hope that when his playing days are over, Melo can be the GM of the Knicks.
I think every Nugget fan is looking forward to the trade deadline in the hopes that Denver can improve their team somehow, but for Melo to openly say that any trade would help is basically saying to Eduardo Najera, Kleiza and J.R. Smith that the Nuggets are better off without them because those are the names bandied about the most in trade discussions.
I realize that everyone in the NBA knows it is a business and that anyone can be traded at any time, but to have Melo come out in favor of a trade might make things a little uncomfortable in the locker room.
I expect the Nuggets to pull off a deal before the deadline and the most likely trade would be for Ron Artest. The biggest fear surrounding Ron is his mental and emotional instability, but I do not believe Artest would be a disruptive force. He is a competitor and it has been my impression that when he has been traded in the past, he really plays the good soldier after he arrives. Eventually things fall apart, but due to the fact his contract expires after next season, and he can opt out after this season, the Nuggets should not have any problem shipping him out if he proves to be too difficult to control.
My gravest concern surrounding Artest is how he fits in on the court. He likes his shots on offense, and it seems to me his effort on defense has slipped a little in Sacramento.
I have endorsed a trade for Artest, but I still would prefer a trade for Mike Miller. I think the deal for Artest would improve the Nuggets enough where the playoffs would be certain, but if they could acquire Miller, I think they would once again be a dark horse title contender.
The only negative aspect of pulling off a midseason trade, other than the risk of making a bad trade (cough, Zach Randolph, cough, cough), is George Karl’s reaction to it. Karl talks about how he needs a good 30 or so games to figure out his team after training camp. If Denver adds a significant player at the trade deadline it will only give him another excuse to use should things not work out. All we heard about from Karl last season was how they needed a training camp to really integrate Iverson in with the team. Has anyone seen anything different from this team this season with a training camp than last season without one?
Outlook: Positive (despite Karl’s annoying shtick)
In two of the three previous seasons under Karl the Nuggets have been the hot team entering the post season. We all remember the fantastic run after the All-Star game in his first season as coach. Last season the Nuggets finished up the season on a 10-1 run. Denver may need another hot finish in order to even make the playoffs. Hopefully they can pull off another strong April.
Conclusion: At this point in the season I believe the Nuggets will win 50 to 52 games, but I do not believe they are capable of achieving anything more than that, especially as presently constituted. A 50 win season would be a nice accomplishment, but it would certainly end up with another first round exit at the hands of one of the truly elite teams in the conference.
Obviously, things can change quickly with the trading deadline approaching and injures potentially tipping the current balance. No matter what happens over the next thirty games, the real fun will start when the regular season is finished.