In addition to the never-ending questions surrounding the Carmelo Anthony saga, the Nuggets began training camp with a slew of non-Melo related questions that head coach George Karl will attempt to answer in the weeks ahead.
Regardless of what you may think of George Karl's coaching, you have to feel for the guy. Four seasons ago he had to coach a roster littered with bad apples, big egos and bad gamesmanship. Three seasons ago he had to endure an asshole blogger trying to get him fired. Last season he was beset by his second bout with cancer and had to watch a once-great team crumble in his absence. And, now that he has bravely fought back from a brutal radiation program to eradicate his throat and neck cancer, Karl has to run a training camp with a roster loaded with distractions, injuries and unanswerable questions...without his top assistant coach, to boot. Oh, and I did I mention his contract is up at year's end?
It shouldn't have to be this way for a 59 year old, future Hall of Fame coach. But such is life in the modern NBA. And Karl, like the other top-tier coaches in the game, is one of the masters at dealing with bizarre scenarios. After all, this guy has coached Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Vin Baker, Glenn Robinson, Anthony Mason, Tim Thomas, Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith, just to name a few of the sordid characters that have waltzed into a George Karl training camp at some point in his 22-year NBA coaching career.
But even Karl hasn't had to face anything like what's going on with his 2010-11 Denver Nuggets. Even Kemp's contract dispute with the Supersonics and Karl's public run-ins with Ray Allen in Milwaukee pale in comparison to what our head coach is dealing with right now.
Among the Nuggets 12 players sure to be on the opening night roster, just four - the newly acquired Al Harrington, the injured Chris Andersen, second year dynamo Ty Lawson and Karl's doghouse denizen Renaldo Balkman - are guaranteed to be in a Nuggets uniform next season (unless they get traded beforehand, of course). This leaves the team's top talent - Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Arron Afflalo - in some form of contract limbo all year long. Hence one of the reasons why Anthony claims to want out of Denver. But it's a little chicken-and-egg as had Anthony just signed his damn extension already, the Nuggets could take care of his teammates and head coach and start planning for the future.
As Nate aptly wrote the other night, it appears as though Anthony and the Nuggets have indeed broken up but just haven't told anyone yet. (I mean, did you see that press conference? What a joke.) And most unfortunately for Karl and his coaching staff, this distraction will color everything that happens in camp. I don't even know how Karl game-plans without knowing whether or not his best player will even be in a Nuggets uniform on opening night.
Putting the Melo-drama aside for now, here are some other key questions that Karl and his staff will have to address during training camp...
Who's starting at power forward?
We already knew K-Mart and Birdman would be out for some time (they've both had surgeries to recover from torn patella tendons...not good), and thus Harrington was brought in ostensibly as the team's K-Mart "insurance policy" at power forward. But Karl has gone on record several times saying he wants Harrington to come off the bench. This sounds nice in theory, but who starts at power forward in K-Mart's absence if Harrington is the team's sixth man? Should Anthony stay in Denver (get used to that lead-in for a sentence, by the way) and remain as the team's starting small forward, does this mean newly acquired Shelden Williams gets the starting nod? He's not even the best basketball player in his own marriage. Or Balkman perhaps? I have the feeling Karl would prefer to start me at power forward over Balkman.
Karl may ultimately have no choice but to start Harrington at power forward alongside Anthony and get all his offensive production off the bench from J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson. The bottom line is the Nuggets had no size to begin with before K-Mart and Birdman went down, and now they're a Nene or Harrington injury away from forming the smallest lineup in the NBA.
The Nuggets power forward curse continues and it's frightening.
How many minutes for Chauncey?
Starting point guard Chauncey Billups played 34 minutes per game last season and was visibly tired down the stretch. His shoddy shooting throughout the last two months of the 2009-10 regular season has been documented many times here. Now on the wrong side of 34 years old and having just logged heavier-than-expected minutes with Team USA at the FIBA World Championships, Karl must find a way to get Billups' minutes into the lower 30 range. Remarkably, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash (Billups' contemporaries age-wise at the point guard position) logged 36 and 33 minutes per game last season, respectively. But for whatever reason, Billups wore down while Nash remained sprightly and Kidd, well, was never that sprightly to begin with.
Enter Ty Lawson. Lawson is undersized, even for a point guard, but he proved throughout stretches of games last season that he can handle more minutes and hopefully has earned Karl's trust by this point. Still in the mix is Anthony Carter, a great guy who gives a great effort. But there's a big difference between playing hard and playing right, and "AC" seems to do more of the former than the latter. It's time for Lawson to get more minutes so Billups is fresher come the post-season.
Who will be the 13th Denver Nugget?
NBA teams are required to carry a 13-man roster and the Nuggets have only committed to 12 players thus far for opening day. This leaves a five-man competition for the 13th and final roster spot and the training camp invitees are NBA veteran Melvin Ely (who has shockingly made over $12 million in his NBA career...$12 million for Melvin Ely!!...and the players say the system ain't broken), Eric Boateng, Shane Edwards, Gary Forbes and Courtney Sims. Denver Stiffs reader "runningdonut" has done an excellent job breaking down all five of these players and believes one of them will crack the roster. Runningdonut's preference is Forbes, but given the circumstances at power forward and the Nuggets overall lack of size, I foresee them playing it safe with a known quantity like Ely. Ely is a Stiff and will contribute to the 2010-11 Nuggets about as much as Malik Allen contributed to the 2009-10 squad.
What to do about J.R.?
J.R. Smith completed his 2009-10 season by sulking on the bench during the fourth quarter of a crucial elimination playoff game and then pulled an Isiah Thomas (or shall we say pulled a LeBron James?) by walking off the court without congratulating the opposition on their series victory. Smith followed up that show of class by (allegedly) beating the crap out of a practice player during a Pepsi Center shootaround a month or so ago. Other than that, I've heard he's been shooting all summer long and is ready for action.
If Karl is insistent on Harrington coming off the bench he may want to consider starting Smith for two reasons. One, Harrington should provide ample offensive firepower as a reserve whereas Smith could jump-start the Nuggets offense early rather than having to save it. And two, by starting/showcasing Smith, Karl could increase J.R.'s trade value making a deal for the mercurial shooting guard more likely...and thus making Karl much happier. Smith is in the final year of his contract at $6 million, a number that makes him very trade-able if he could just comport himself as a professional. A tall order.
Will Karl's coaching hierarchy change?
After seeing lead assistant coach Adrian Dantley's inability to get the Nuggets out of the playoffs first round last season, despite having home court advantage and playing a severely undermanned Jazz team, many Nuggets fans have been advocating for Denver to bring in a former head coach as the team's lead assistant should Karl miss any time for health reasons again. The matter is even more alarming with Karl's top assistant, Tim Grgurich, not coming back for reasons unknown to the media. The Nuggets smartly tried to bring former Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown on board, but Brown is taking a much-deserved year off from coaching. And no, the recently hired Melvin Hunt doesn't cut it as head coaching material for this Nuggets squad.
Whether we as fans like it or not, this is probably a "the devil you know vs. the devil you don't know" scenario and AD will be back in place as the team's lead assistant. Should Dantley be thrust into the head coaching seat again this season, let's hope the experience he gained last season carries over...and the players don't quit on him and behave insubordinantly this time.
How to cut down on the whining?
When I asked Karl about this a year ago he got pretty defensive, but I believe the Nuggets - notably Anthony, Billups, Nene, Martin and Smith - are the biggest collection of whiners in the NBA when it comes to officiating. Maybe I'm biased the wrong way because I watch them more than any other team, but there's a reason why NBA officials routinely do the Nuggets no favors: it's because they're a bunch of cry babies.
Not lost on the great readers of this site was the NBA's recent announcement that the referees will get much more latitude with issuing technical fouls. It's as if the new rules were written specifically for our Nuggets because the actions now deemed technical-worthy include:
• Players making aggressive gestures, such as air punches, anywhere on the court.
• Demonstrative disagreement, such as when a player incredulously raises his hands, or smacks his own arm to demonstrate how he was fouled.
• Running directly at an official to complain about a call.
• Excessive inquiries about a call, even in a civilized tone.
In other words, we're totally screwed with the officials this season. I don't think Anthony, Billups, Nene, Martin or Smith will make it out of the first quarter if these rules are enforced. In fact, the only thing that will keep Martin out of technical foul trouble will be his rehabbed patella tendon.
If they accomplish nothing else in training camp this year, Karl and his staff must emphasize these new technical foul rules or they'll be playing four-on-five Hickory High Huskers-style during the second half on opening night.
I'm sure I missed some other questions that Denver Stiffs readers would like to see addressed, so please include them in your comments. And be sure to thank Carmelo Anthony for ruining what would otherwise be a semi-productive training camp.