Thirteen games into the 2011-12 NBA Season, Al Harrington is making his case to be the NBA's Sixth Man Award Winner.
It's a good thing the Nuggets didn't "amnesty" power forward Al Harrington before the start of this season.
For those who don't remember, the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to select one player for a full buyout without the dollars spent being counted against the team's salary cap. (Teams can do it again before next season, as well.) Harrington - having signed a five-year, $34 million contract in the summer of 2010 - was a prime target to be amnestied by Denver given that he under-performed last season and was out of shape from the get-go of the 2010-11 campaign. In fact, many around here at Denver Stiffs referred to the Harrington signing as "Mark Warkentien's Revenge" - i.e. the Nuggets departing basketball operations man saddling the new regime, led by Masai Ujiri, with an onerous contract for an aging player. By essentially writing off Harrington's contract, the theory went, the Nuggets would have had to write a huge check while opening up a roster spot for a more productive player.
But due to a confluence of circumstances, including the uncertainty over re-signing Nene, the Nuggets needed to meet the NBA's cap threshold of dollars spent and Harrington himself pledging to get into great shape during the off-season (remember, neither Ujiri nor head coach George Karl could see Harrington during the off-season), Harrington remained in Denver.
And the fans should be most grateful.
Harrington indeed got himself into great shape and even with Nene coming back, Harrington has become an invaluable member of the Nuggets at the power forward position. Just 13 games into the season, Harrington is averaging 14 ppg off the bench, to go along with almost five rebounds and a steal. Most impressively, "Big Al" is making 55.3% of this shots, thanks largely to him attacking the basket rather than settling for jump shots like we saw all too often last season. That 55.3% isn't just a career high, fellow Stiffs. It's nearly 10 percentage points better than his previous career high of 46.3% when he was an Indiana Pacer eight years ago.
Behind the stat line, Harrington has been a veteran leader to his teammates, has played good defense against much bigger players and has routinely made timely three-pointers and layups late in the shot clock. He also has sparked the Pepsi Center crowd more than any other Nugget this season, which is fun to see.
Suddenly, that $34 million contract spread over five seasons doesn't look so unreasonable.
When I interviewed Karl last March, the Nuggets head coach made it a point to stick up for Harrington when answering my question as to why Timofey Mozgov wasn't getting more playing time ...
" ... the signing of Al Harrington has been better than he gets credit for. We've won a lot of games with Al Harrington."
Many fans (including me) were ready to laugh Karl out of the room for his insistence on standing by Harrington at that time. But Karl's loyalty to his veteran power forward is paying off handsomely this season and Karl knows it, saying recently to the Denver Post's Chris Dempsey ...
"If you had an MVP right now ... this season it would be Al."
And Harrington may be more than the Nuggets MVP. He might be the NBA's Sixth Man Award Winner, too. Among the NBA's premier bench players - including Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum in Portland and Louis Williams in Philadelphia - the Thunder's James Harden may be Harrington's toughest competition for the award this season and the likely recipient for his exceptional bench production.
But nevertheless, it's fun to have a Nugget in the running for an NBA Award. Not surprisingly, this Stiff-laden franchise rarely produces award winners. Since joining the NBA in 1976, we've never had an MVP, never had a Rookie of the Year winner, never had an All-Star Game MVP winner, have had just one Most Improved Player recipient (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1993) and have had two Defensive Player of the Year winners (Dikembe Mutombo in 1995, Marcus Camby in 2007) ... which in and of itself is comical considering how bad the Nuggets defense has been since the franchise's inception.
I rarely get to meet Nugget players and it's probably best that I don't. But I met Harrington soon after he signed with the Nuggets last summer and couldn't help but like the guy. "Big Al" has a charming personality, is bright, asks questions and is engaging. And those I've talked to that know him have nothing but good things to say about the guy.
So count me in as happy to see one of the good guys having a great season for our Nuggets, especially after his struggles of last season.
On to the links...
Nuggets forward Al Harrington is a tower of power - The Denver Post
Dempsey chronicles Harrington's struggles last season and the hard work he put into getting back into shape for this season.
J.R. Smith's sister brawls during game in China - CBSSports.com
I'm sure Nuggets fans everywhere are shocked to hear this news.
Sources: Nuggets, Gallinari talk extension - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
Negotiations on a contract extension are underway between Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari and his representatives, according to Marc Stein.
Ty & Chico: Lawson, alter ego playing star roles with Nuggets - The Denver Post
Benjamin Hochman writes about Ty Lawson's quirkiness.