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Golden Nuggets: Digging a hole to China...

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J.R. Smith joins fellow Nugget Wilson Chandler by signing with a Chinese Basketball Association team, and Kenyon Martin could be next. And suddenly, the NBA lockout is punishing the Nuggets for constructing a balanced, deep team.

Soon after drafting power forward Kenneth Faried and swinging a draft night trade to bring Andre Miller back to Denver alongside small forward rookie-to-be Jordan Hamilton, I asked Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke and vice president Masai Ujiri if the acquisitions of Faried and Hamilton could be construed as "insurance" for the possible departures of Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and/or Kenyon Martin. During that post-draft press conference, both Kroenke and Ujiri dismissed my question with a political answer along the lines of "we've had great conversations with Chandler, J.R. and Kenyon's representation" - i.e. the selections of Faried and Hamilton were simply to add more depth to an already deep Nuggets roster. Especially if Chandler, J.R. and K-Mart were coming back.

Well ... if ... and I mean IF... the Denver Nuggets play basketball at all this year - or next year, for that matter - the selections of Faried and Hamilton may prove to be somewhat fortuitous. For as of the writing of this column, the once-deep Nuggets are seeing their roster depleted before our eyes with Smith signing Wednesday with a CBA team based in the Zhejiang province, coincidentally the same province Chandler will be playing in. And as Nuggets fans know all too well, the CBA is insisting on NBA players playing out their entire one-year contracts while their representatives squabble over the NBA's version of the CBA (pardon the pun); the now defunct collective bargaining agreement. 

At the conclusion of the 2010-11 NBA season - a conclusion that saw our team of 10 "good" players lose in the playoffs to a team with two great players, a few good players and a few mediocre players - the debate around here was whether or not the Nuggets needed to part with a few of those good players in order to get one great player. Or if one of our "good" players - notably Danilo Gallinari, Chandler, Smith, Ty Lawson or Timofey Mozgov - could evolve into a great player with a full training camp in Denver under coach George Karl. Little did we know that we'd pay the price for having too many "good" players, because that's exactly who is going to play overseas.

You see, if you're Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant and so forth, you'd be foolish to play overseas, risk injury and forego salaries and endorsements that equal tens of millions of dollars. But they are great players. "Good" players - like Smith and Chandler - not only aren't making tens of millions of dollars in the NBA, but they're not making tens of millions anytime soon. Especially when the NBA's CBA eventually gets worked out with presumed lower and less guaranteed contracts.

So if you're J.R. Smith or Wilson Chandler, it's hard to pass up $2-$3 million when you're "only" making $5-$6 million in the first place.

But China's gain is the Nuggets loss. Because while myself and most of Nuggets Nation were applauding the selections of Faried and Hamilton, replacing Smith, Chandler and possibly K-Mart is no easy task. Faried may be a beast on the boards, but will he bring the intangible toughness and defensive quarterback leadership that we've seen from K-Mart these past two seasons? Hamilton may have a sweet shooting touch and huge upside offensively, but late-round swingmen rarely pan out in Year One of their NBA careers and it's doubtful that Hamilton can replicate Chandler's defensive versatility (and that's assuming Hamilton can fill up the basket with shots like Smith can ... also doubtful).

In other words, the Nuggets astute ability to replace Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups with four "good" players, a move that ostensibly gave them incredible flexibility under the NBA's incoming new collective bargaining agreement, could come back to bite them should the lockout end in time for NBA games to resume. Chandler and Smith are now off to China and in theory won't be back, whereas Lawson is set to play in Lithuania and Mozgov is playing in Russia and can come back mid-season, barring injury. But regardless of who comes back and who doesn't, potentially a third of the Nuggets roster will have had a very unconventional off-season.

It's not that there's some international premium on players from the Nuggets 2010-11 roster per se. It's just that when your team is comprised of fringe NBA players heading into a prolonged lockout, China, Lithuania or any country willing to offer your players a paycheck to play basketball can look awfully appealing.

I was really excited to see the 2010-11 Nuggets give it one more shot with the roster as-is plus Faried, Miller and Hamilton. Now some major gaps have to be filled and that excitement is waning.

 

On to the links...

J.R. Smith of Denver Nuggets signs Chinese league contract - ESPN
Wilson Chandler will have some company in China this season. Fellow Denver Nuggets free agent J.R. Smith is following him overseas.

NUGGETS: Basketball Without Borders a success story for Masai Ujiri
Aaron Lopez catches up with Ujiri after another great Basketball Without Borders camp.

Houses divided could be biggest impediment to labor peace - NBA - CBSSports.com Basketball
When sports leagues go into labor lockdown, the solution obviously lies in getting owners and players on the same page. But Ken Berger says in the NBA's case, each side finding a consensus of its own might be the biggest challenge.

NBA Lockout ‘Blood Issue' Is Wholly Twisted - SBNation.com
The NBA lockout now apparently rests on whether the sides can agree on a cap structure. What a stupid way for a season to potentially die.

Nuggets' J.R. Smith signs with Chinese team amid NBA lockout 'uncertainty' - The Denver Post
Benjamin Hochman communicates with J.R.'s agent who cites labor 'uncertainty' as Smith's reason to take a shot playing in China.