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Questions Remaining to be Answered

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We are currently in the calm before the storm that is training camp and the start to the new season and as you have probably noticed, I have not had much to say over the past week or so.  At this point the offseason is pretty much over and the cast of characters that will see playing time for the Nuggets are in place.  However, there are still several questions that in my mind have yet to be answered as we approach the 2008-2009 NBA season.

 

Who will be the starting point guard?

Heading into the offseason finding a starting point guard was at the top of most Nuggets fans’ wish list.  Anthony Carter played admirably in a role that was over his head last year and Chucky Atkins was injured most of last season and ineffective when he was healthy.  Carter’s contract was up after last season and it seemed like a good time to tell him thanks for all your hard work and good luck in the future, but the Nuggets brought him back for the league minimum for a player of Carter’s experience.

 

Even with the departure of Marcus Camby this team is talented enough to be a playoff participant.  That being said if Carter and Atkins are going to be playing a vast majority of the minutes at point guard they Nuggets are increasing the degree of difficulty for making a playoff run.  In hindsight the Nuggets probably would have been better off not committing to Carter so quickly.  The money they committed to carter could have been used to sign a player like Shaun Livingston who despite his history of injuries at least has a ceiling above ground level (especially it he was able to prove that he is ready to play once again).

 

Even with Atkins and Carter in the fold the Nuggets do have a potential all-star caliber point guard on the roster.  Allen Iverson.  If AI is playing the point, perhaps he will take some responsibility for keeping the ball moving and work to set up teammates, which he is capable of doing with great aplomb.  Starting AI at the point also alleviates the problem of having an undersized backcourt as the 6’ 6” J.R. Smith is ready to be the starting shooting guard.  It also relegates Carter and Atkins to the backup roles the Good Lord created them to play.

 

Of course that is just wishful thinking as the Nuggets starting point guard will be whoever is healthy between Carter and Atkins.

 

Will George Karl actually coach “his way” and if so, how does that differ from how he has coached the last two seasons?

It has become clear that the inmates have been running the asylum at the Pepsi Center under the majority of George Karl’s watch.  By listening to comments Karl has made to the media in the past it almost sounds like he lives in fear of his life if he tries to crack down on the players.

 

The days when Karl would walk out onto the arena floor to a thunderous standing ovation when he first arrived in Denver seem very long ago and it is difficult to comprehend how he has fallen so far in the eyes of Nuggets fans (well, actually it is pretty much all his fault so no, it is not difficult to comprehend after all).  He did coach the team in a completely different way back then.  They consistently ran the floor, worked for good shots on offense and attempted to play defense with more success than the past two seasons.  If someone was taking bad shots or not doing their job defensively, Karl would take them out and sit them on the bench.  No one was immune from a potential benching, even Carmelo Anthony found himself planted on a folding chair during the fourth quarter on more than one occasion. 

 

Under that style of coaching the Nuggets went on a historic second half run before getting bounced out of the playoffs by the dreaded Spurs in the first round. 

 

For some reason when next season started the firm but fair Coach Karl had been replaced by milquetoast don’t make any waves Coach Karl and the team has suffered for it.

 

If we can believe what Karl said after the Nuggets were swept by the Lakers we are going to see the coach who pushed the Nuggets to amazing heights during his first couple of months on the job.  That brings us to the next question.

 

What will the mindset of the players be heading into the season?

There are a couple of areas where I am worried about how determined the Nuggets will be entering the season.  The first concern is now that the players have had a couple of seasons worth of country club treatment how will they respond to a return of a demanding coach?

 

There is a common belief among teachers that they need to start off every school year by being tough with the students, because you can always let up a little, but if you start off soft and then try to crank up the discipline the kids will just blow you off because they know they can walk all over you.  Well, Nuggets players have been walking all over Karl for two years now.  If he turns back into the authoritarian are they going to listen to his message or are they going to blow him off?  If human nature is any guide, Karl will have a difficult time reclaiming the reins of this team.

 

The other area for concern regarding the team’s mindset is how much they will care and how hard they will play after the Camby trade.  As disappointing as it would be I can see these guys just mailing in the season and claiming they were screwed out of any chances of competing in the west by management especially if they get off to a slow start.

 

The sad thing is as Nuggets fans we cannot count on this team taking care of business not only physically, but also mentally as well as off the floor.

 

Is Melo going to be in shape?

I have pointed out in the past how much more explosive Melo was in 2006-2007 when he dedicated himself over the offseason to being in shape than he was in 2007-2008.  Well, Melo was already called out by Director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo for not being in top shape early in the Olympics and now he is taking some time off where he is not even going to pick up a basketball before training camp. 

 

I am glad he is taking some time off to rest after the Olympics as playing in July and August makes for a very short off season.  However, he still needs to make sure he is keeping himself in good enough shape where he can reach the level of fitness he was in two years ago during training camp.

 

The shape Melo shows up to camp in may give us a signal as to how seriously he is going to take this season.

 

Forget Melo, is Nene going to be in shape?

Even when Melo was not in tip top shape last season, he still was pretty effective.  On the other hand Nene needs to be in shape in order to do what he is capable of on the floor.  Nene took a beating by fans and the media for being in lousy shape entering camp last season.  I think some of it was a little too harsh as he was planning to use the Tournament of the Americas to begin to work his way back into playing shape only to hurt his calf.  Because of the calf injury the time he was planning on getting in shape before camp was lost.

 

All of us who are procrastinators can certainly feel his pain.  If you wait until the last minute to do anything, something unforeseen can arise to destroy your chances of executing your plan (hello power outage when trying to write a paper the night before it is due) no matter how well intentioned your plan may be.

 

Brazil did not qualify for the Olympics so we have not seen Nene since the end of last season.  He may be nearing four bills or he may be chiseled out of granite.  I am sure at this point he is somewhere in between those two polar opposites, but no matter what he weighs hopefully he recognizes that this year is his chance to be the undisputed starting center for the Nuggets and he cannot risk repeating last season’s weight problems by waiting too long to start working his way into shape.

 

Will the answer to any of the previous questions matter after the 2009 trade deadline?

I really believe the Nuggets could be the surprise team of the west next season.  I believe the national media is vastly over valuing the loss of Camby and the Nuggets still have plenty of talent to make the playoffs.  There is one thing that could completely remove Denver from any kind of playoff contention and that is an Allen Iverson trade. 

 

It is pretty clear that Stan Kronke is serious about getting this team under the luxury tax.  If that is indeed the case at this point the only way to accomplish that is to trade Iverson’s $20 plus million expiring contract and take back the smallest amount of salary allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  The Nuggets could cut a little over $5 million if they find a partner who is willing to take on an additional $5 million in salary to do the deal.  That sounds like a difficult proposition and I think in actuality it will be even more difficult than it sounds.

 

There are very few teams who would be a good match for AI.  He would have to go to a contender who needs a scorer very badly although I could see a team bringing AI in just for his expiring contract, but they would have to waive him so he could sign with a contender.  I also doubt that should the Nuggets trade AI that they would get an equal amount of talent back that would allow them to remain in the playoff race.  Maybe another Pau Gasol-esque trade is out there to be had, but the chances of that are slim.

 

Even if the Nuggets primary goal between now and the trade deadline is to trade AI in order to cut salary there are two circumstances where AI might end the season in powder blue.

 

One, the Nuggets cannot find a trade partner that will allow them to trade AI and take back significantly less in salary than they are sending out.  It would not do them any good to trade AI and bring back an equal amount of salary or even if it were to only save a million bucks or so.  If they cannot deal AI and gain significant financial savings through the deal I do not believe they pull the trigger. 

 

The second circumstance I could see them hanging onto AI is if they are safely among the top eight teams in the conference at the trade deadline.  The easier part of the Nuggets schedule is March and April.  If they are the sixth seed in February they could conceivably move even higher over the last month and a half of the season.  In that instance if the team is playing well (i.e. sharing the ball, playing defense and just generally caring) I could see Kronke letting the season play out and AI remaining on the roster.

 

Even if AI does remain a Nugget for the full season I remain convinced that this will be Ivereson’s last season in Denver.

 

Some of the answers to these questions will become apparent in the next few weeks, others will not be answered for months.  If Nugget fans can be sure of anything this season it is that the Nuggets are going to be involved in rumor after rumor and the next several months will certainly not be dull.