A big-time congratulations is owed to Nuggets point guard and Denver native Chauncey Billups for sacrificing his summer to help bring home a gold medal for Team USA in the 2010 FIBA World Championships. But it's fair to ask whether or not Billups' sojourn to Turkey is good for Denver among other thoughts Nuggets fans should be pondering right now.
The 2010 FIBA World Championships was littered with Nuggets-related sub-plots that I'm sure many of you noticed. Now that the tournament is complete with head coach Mike Krzyzewski doing a masterful job bringing these young guys together for a long overdue Worlds' gold medal, I've come up with five post-FIBA thoughts for Nuggets fans to debate before training camp begins in a few weeks.
1) How will Chauncey's 2010-11 season be affected by all this?
Lost in all the "will or won't Carmelo Anthony stay in Denver?" nonsense that has engulfed this blog and Nuggets Nation throughout the summer has been the story of the the Nuggets second-best player, Chauncey Billups, playing for his country in the FIBA World Championships at a time when the likes of Melo, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and others couldn't be bothered to show up. I'm probably in agreement with most Nuggets fans as being incredibly proud of Billups - whom I thought got screwed out of a spot on the 2008 Olympic squad - while simultaneously being very concerned about his energy level entering the 2010-11 season.
At age 33 last season, Billups was off to his best start as a pro basketball player until mid-March when his legs got visibly tired and his shooting percentage went south, most likely the result of logging too many minutes throughout the regular season. And during the Nuggets post-season loss to the Jazz, Billups was routinely beaten off the dribble by Jazz point guard Deron Williams, a younger/quicker version of Billups in many ways. Opening the 2010-11 season, the general consensus among Nuggets fans was that Billups could use some much-needed rest for another NBA Finals push. But instead, Billups opted to play for Team USA and was integral in bringing home the gold for our country after an inexcusable 16-year drought.
Krzyzewski complimented Billups on his veteran leadership from Day One of training camp for the 2010 USA Basketball team and started Billups in all of Team USA's games. But Coach K may end up on the Stiff List this fall if Billups looks older than his 34 years thanks to the many minutes he played in Turkey. Like we've seen with Nuggets head coach George Karl, Coach K simply didn't trust Billups' understudies in important in-game situations even though, like we saw against Williams and the Jazz, Billups was at least one step slower than many of his opponents in Turkey. All this means is that Billups and Karl will have to make adjustments to Billups' on and off-the-court routine at the outset of Nuggets training camp later this month.
The bottom line for me is I don't begrudge Billups whatsoever for proudly representing our country this summer. But Billups' participation will have an impact on the Nuggets and it probably won't be positive.
2) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook...egads!
If you haven't done so already, I strongly encourage Nuggets fans to read Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnaworski's latest dispatch from Turkey discussing the evolution of Kevin Durant into quite possibly the world's best basketball player. It's frightening, but at 21 years old Durant is already several steps ahead of Melo as a player and I don't think it's a stretch to predict the Oklahoma City Thunder, who won just three less games than Denver last season, leapfrogging over our Nuggets in the division standings by this season's end.
Of equal concern to me was watching the stellar play of Durant's Team USA and Thunder teammate, Russell Westbrook. Throughout the World Championships, Westbrook provided an athletic energy burst off the bench both offensively and defensively, skying over the opposition for easy layups, thunderous dunks and key rebounds. Westbrook actually outplayed Team USA's starting point guard, Derrick Rose, and found himself on the floor for critical stretches during crunch time of many games alongside Billups.
Late last April I compared the Durant/Westbrook duo to the Alex English/Fat Lever duo who propelled the Nuggets to our franchise's first "Golden Era" throughout the 1980s. If Durant/Westbrook turn out to be even better than English and Lever (as I expect them to), the Nuggets front office will have a lot more to worry about than trying to beat the Lakers.
3) I'd gladly take Eric Gordon in trade.
Since I used to live in Los Angeles part-time and still visit often, I've probably watched Eric Gordon play more than the average Nuggets fan. I've always liked his game, but never loved it...until now. Gordon's minutes were spotty and inconsistent in Turkey, but when given the opportunity to play he consistently delivered, made big three-pointers and played surprisingly good defense against taller opponents.
There have been a number of Melo trade rumors involving the Clippers and many have included Gordon. While I think the Nuggets could do better trading Melo, having seen Gordon step it up on the biggest international stage I'd take Gordon, Chris Kaman and the Timberwolves' 2012 first round pick (owned by the Clips) as a consolation prize if the Nuggets can't get Blake Griffin in a possible Clipper deal.
4) The Nuggets should have matched Linas Kleiza.
I put former Nugget Linas Kleiza on the new Stiff List for disappearing against Team USA in the semi-finals on Saturday of FIBA play. But prior to that game, Kleiza - along with the Rockets' Luis Scola - was one of the best players in the 2010 FIBA World Championships. Moreover, Kleiza quickly bounced back from that Team USA defeat to score 33 points, grab seven rebounds, dish out four assists and pick up three steals to lead a thinned-out Lithuania squad over Serbia to win the bronze medal today.
Cheaper, younger and quite possibly better than free agent acquisition Al Harrington, Kleiza looks primed and ready for the 2010-11 season. I'm predicting good things for Kleiza when he joins the Toronto Raptors and wish him all the best in his return to the NBA. I just wish he was doing it in a Nuggets uniform.
5) Melo, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Paul? Who needs 'em?
I'm going to write more about this for my next SB Nation column, but after seeing Team USA's "B Squad" proudly and earnestly represent our country while bringing home our first World Championship Naismith Trophy in 16 years, it begs the question: why should Melo, LeBron, Wade, etc be granted a spot on the 2012 Olympic Team simply because that's when they want to show up? Like this current Team USA squad, Melo, LeBron and Wade did us proud by playing in the 2006 World Championships (for which they disappointingly took home a bronze medal), followed by playing in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. And thus, I didn't blame them whatsoever for not wanting to play in the 2010 FIBA Worlds.
But you can't have it both ways.
Durant, Westbrook, Rose, Gordon, Billups, Andre Igoudala, Lamar Odom and the others who participated this summer should get "first dibs" on a roster spot for the 2012 London games. If Team USA wants to reserve two veteran spots, as they did to accommodate Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd for the 2008 Beijing games, I have no problem with it. But after reading more about the type of teammate LeBron was on past Team USA squads (Wojnaworski couldn't help but sneak another LeBron-was-a-pain-in-the-ass-on-Team-USA story into his latest Durant story), it's fair to ask if we even need him or his entourage buddies at all.
Again, I want to sincerely congratulate Billups, Coach K and the rest of Team USA's players, coaches and organizational personnel for putting a true basketball team together. It was thrilling watching them play and I never tired of rooting for this group. In a summer that's been me-first for many NBA players, it was nice to be reminded of what basketball is all about...if only temporarily as the Autumn of All-Things-Melo is almost upon us.