Before the season most Nugget fans had written off Kenyon Martin. Not only was he one of the most overpaid players in the league, but he was coming off his second microfracture procedure. It was bad enough when Denver was getting his measly 13 points and six rebounds for all that cash. Now that he seemed to constantly be in rehab, the investment was even worse.

The book on Martin had been written. He was an untradeable player who would never be healthy and be nothing but a millstone holding the team back. Add in some of his behavioral problems (getting suspended for the remainder of the 2005-2006 playoffs against the Clippers or sending a posse member into the stands to threaten a heckler) and many Nugget fans love to hate K-Mart.

I admit in the past I was part of the chorus who spoke mostly ill of Kenyon Martin. However, over the course of the 2007-2008 season many of my opinions of Martin have changed. I believe he deserves a great deal of credit from Nugget fans for what he accomplished last season.

After the second microfracture surgery Kenyon could have easily given up, mailed in his rehab, sat around on the bench in his business casual wardrobe and collected checks from Stan Kronke. It would have been understandable if he could not come back. After all, there have been plenty of athletes who never came back from just one microfracture proceedure.

Instead, Martin worked his tail off and was able to regain 90% of the athleticism that once made him an All-Star. It does not matter how much you hate the chest pounding and posing he displays after his thunderous dunks, you have to respect the work ethic and heart that Kenyon displayed in order to be healthy and contributing once again.

Entering the season Martin and Nene were both slated to play about 20 minutes a game as they continued to recover from offseason injuries. That plan was altered when Nene broke his thumb in the fifth game of the season. Through the remainder of November Martin averaged slightly under 23 minutes a game. In December Kenyon’s average minutes played jumped up to 31.1. His minutes climbed again in January to 32.7 and peaked in February when Kenyon was on the floor for 35.5 minutes a game.

He could have easily limited his own minutes and no one would have blamed him, but he did not. Not only had he beaten microfracture surgery for the second time, but the Nuggets relied very heavily on him throughout the season because of Nene’s health issues and the fact that, with Steven Hunter tied to the bench, no one else on the roster could defend on the block the way Martin could.

Looking at his numbers they are still disappointing for a player with Kenyon’s contract and original expectations. Kenyon’s game clearly has some warts, most of which we knew about when he arrived from the petro chemical swamps of New Jersey. He takes too many long jumpers, his free throw shooting left much to be desired (bottoming out last season at a career low 58%) and of course there are all the histrionics and trash talk that rile up opponents about as much as it motivates he and his teammates. Last season his PER was a below league average 14.75 and his rebound rate was poor for a power forward putting him in the neighborhood of guys like Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic. Even so, Kenyon’s value to Denver is not in his stats, it is in his ability to defend the post.

What makes Martin special is his commitment to defend his man. Whether it be Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant he loves facing off against the best players the NBA has to offer. That is a powerful attribute and one that is sorely missing from the Nuggets. Marcus Camby gets all the press with his blocks and rebounds, but when Denver needs someone to guard a player who can score in the paint it is not Marcus who guards him. It is Kenyon.

Despite his role and relatively meager statistics, Kenyon is not just a one dimensional player. He can score in the paint, even if it is not in a traditional back to the basket way, he is a marvelous passer, he is the best pick and roll screener on the roster and he can still finish extremely well.

Kenyon will always be an injury risk, but if you look at his career he has only missed more than 17 games twice in his eight seasons. He played in 71 games last season and I see no reason why he could not do it again. You never know who is going to miss 40 games and who is going to play in all 82. Players who were at one time injury risks have become ironmen in the past. Because of what he brings to this team defensively, I would be more than happy to bring him back next season.

That being said his contract is still considered to be one of the more toxic deals in the league with three years and over $45 million(!) left to be paid out. While I appreciate what Kenyon has done by getting back on the court, if Denver can manage to trade him either for some salary relief or as part of a larger deal that makes sense, they probably have to do it as long as they are acquiring a similar defensive minded interior player as part of the transaction. The one trade I would absolutely not make would be a one for one or one for two swap taking on someone else’s long term cap killing contracts just to get rid of him. I would happily bring Kenyon back next season, even with that massive contract, before I weaken the team simply to get rid on him.

No matter what happens from here, another injury, a trade, a slow fade or maybe even a better season than the last, I think Kenyon Martin deserves some gratitude from Nugget fans. No matter how annoying or underachieving you think he is, he definitely gave it his all and honestly that is all any of us can really ask for.