Team Name: Denver Freakin’ Nuggets

Last Year’s Record: 50-32

Key Losses: Marcus Camby (traded to Los Angeles Clippers), Eduardo Najera (free agent, signed with New Jersey Nets)

Not So Key Losses: Yakhouba Diawara (free agent, signed with Miami Heat), Bobby Jones (traded to New York Knicks), Taurean Green (traded to New York Knicks)

Key Additions: Chris Andersen (singed as free agent), Renaldo Balkman (trade with New York Knicks)

Not So Key Additions: Sonny Weems (draft day trade)

1. What Significant Moves were made during the offseason?

The Nuggets actually accomplished three things this offseason. They cut payroll, resigned J.R. Smith (my personal number one offseason priority) and made a minor overhaul of the bench.

First of all, let’s address the cutting of salary. Coming off the most embarrassing of their five straight first round exits Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kronke decided he was not down with paying $100 million in salary and luxury tax payments in order to endure another first round exit. As a result the Nuggets looked for ways to reduce their payroll. The first step was trading their first round draft pick (and the guaranteed contract that came with it) to the Charlotte Bobcats for a future first rounder.

The next, and most controversial, cost cutting measure was the trading of Marcus Camby to the Los Angeles Clippers for the right to swap second round picks in the 2009 NBA Draft. The final cost cutting measure was allowing Eduardo Najera to walk as a free agent. These two transactions became known as “the Nuggets got rid of the only two players on the whole entire team who played any defense and got nothing back in return.” Well, in the spirit of election season where all kinds of lies and myths are being thrown about let me inject some truth into the proceedings.

First of all, Marcus Camby is a wildly overrated defensive player. Allen Iverson is always in the top ten in steals and led the league in steals in 2003-2004. He must be a good defensive player right? Well, no. That is not right. Why do fans and experts alike make the same mistake when judging Marcus Camby? Camby is a great shot blocker and a good rebounder, but he is not a great defender. If you watch how he plays defense closely, it is difficult to say he is even a good defender. He is a poor one on one defender, a poor pick and roll defender and a poor perimeter defender. However, simply because he can block shots and rebound that makes him a Defensive Player of the Year candidate? Here is some truth for NBA fans all over the world; Nene is a better defensive player than Camby is.

(Before we move on, we need to address the argument that the Nuggets did not get anything in exchange for Camby first of all read this to remember the high price some teams pay to dump salaries and everyone treats the $10 million trade exception like a penny lying in a pool of urine along the side of the road. I believe the Nuggets will use the exception after the season. If they let it expire, then let the expletives fly.

Najera was a key player for the Nuggets from the time he was acquired at the 2005 trade deadline and yes, he did walk for nothing, but they did acquire a younger, more athletic, and it is important to note, cheaper version of him in Renaldo Balkman.

Secondly, the J.R. Smith signing was a very good deal for both parties. J.R. displayed a lot of growth last season, but there are enough questions surrounding him that a five year, $50 million deal might have been a bad idea. The three year $16 million was a great compromise.

Lastly, the Nuggets brought in players like Renaldo Balkman, Chris Andersen and Dahntay Jones who can bring energy and fast paced chaos off the bench. They also brought in Ruben Patterson on a non guaranteed contract for training camp and he has a good shot at making the team based on his energy and defensive intensity. Add those players to J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza, who can bring some energy off the bench and the Nuggets have some decent depth.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Talent – There are very few teams that can compare with the Nuggets in top level talent. Both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson can carry a team for days and even weeks at a time. Kenyon Martin was a number one overall draft pick and has satisfactorily returned from microfracture surgery on both knees. J.R. Smith is potentially an all-star level performer. Nene was drafted seventh and has the size and athleticism to be a top ten center in the NBA. Linas Kleiza scored 41 points against the evil Utah Jazz last season and many observers believe he could start at small forward for much of the league.

Motivation – I believe motivation will be a strength of this team. For the first time they were bounced from the playoffs without an alibi. In the past we always heard excuses like, “We played them as tough as anyone” or “Just wait until we get a full training camp under out belts.” Last year against the Lakers they had to accept the fact that they were not in the same class as L.A. was. Because of that they all have had to look in the mirror and decide if they want to do what is necessary to be competitive with the best teams in the league. They also have been hearing about how they will fall apart without Camby. I believe at first the players were demoralized by the Camby trade, but over time it has had a unifying effect.

Roster Flexibility – George Karl has a nearly endless series of combinations he can utilize on the court. Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Linas Kleiza, Nene, Chris Andersen and Renaldo Balkman can all play at least two different positions on offense. They can match up with any look the opposition can throw at them and more importantly, can force the opposition to adjust to them.

Team Speed – George Karl has said that this may be the fastest team he has ever coached. They can run, pressure the ball, force turnovers and have the potential to, believe it or not, be a very solid defensive team.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Team Play – The Nuggets are a selfish team on both ends of the floor. Their offense is typically a matter of who can get their shot off first. Some of that is by design and some of it is by personality. There have been games where more than half of their half court possessions have included two or fewer passes and only once in a blue moon do they have a possession where there are more than four passes. That kind of offense is relatively easy to defend. The Nuggets high scoring is a matter of pace, not a matter of great offense. They were the second highest scoring team in the league by points per game, but were only eleventh in the league in offensive efficiency last season scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions.

They experience the same problem on the defensive side of the ball. Camby was an unbelievably selfish player on defense playing strictly for blocks and not to play solid defense. While he is gone, he was not the only guilty party. Many of the other players play the passing lane for steals. Again, some of that is by design, but some is simply a matter of personality.

If the Nuggets are going to reach their potential, they will have to change their collective selfish mindset.

Leadership – It sounds funny to say that this team has lacked leadership with the big time names on the roster. However, they do not have a player who will call everyone together and demand a stop or demand a good possession. One key reason for the lack of leadership is the most talented players, Melo and AI, do not give enough effort on defense to command that kind of respect. Melo claims that he is going to be that kind of leader this season, but Nugget fans have heard such proclamations before.

Style of Play – This may take some people by surprise, but I believe the Nuggets decision to play up tempo frenetic basketball is actually a hindrance instead of a strength. This is a pretty heavy topic, but the fact remains that no team with a pace factor in the top five has won a title since the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers. To me that is pretty telling. I think the affect of altitude on today’s well conditioned athletes id nowhere near the advantage the Nuggets believe it is. Also, only 41 of their 82 games are at home so why tailor your style of play to take advantage of the surroundings in only half of your games? Defense and shooting work pretty well no matter where the game is held and that is why teams like the Spurs, Pistons and Celtics have had so much success over the years.

Allen Iverson’s Future – Allen Iverson is in the last season of a very lucrative contract. He approached the Nuggets about an extension during the summer and was rebuffed. I have no idea if Iverson will be on the roster after the trade deadline, but I doubt he will be around this time next year. If the goal of management is to cut salary even further then the best way to do that would be to trade Iverson. Theoretically they could pare over $4 million off the payroll by trading him. If Denver gets off to a slow start, the chances of AI being dealt increases and I think it does make sense to trade him although doing so would be akin to waiving a white flag on the season. No matter what management says there will be rumors surrounding Iverson all season long until he is either traded or the trade deadline passes.

George Karl – Many Nugget fans wanted Karl’s head after last season, but the team stuck with him. Did the players stick with him as well? The Nuggets have experienced their fair share of coach/player conflict in the playoffs and last season saw Carmelo Anthony yelling at Karl, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” while their season was going down in flames. After that Karl claimed he would coach “his way” this season and so far the Nuggets have focused almost exclusively on defense although Karl did not go completely Norman Dale on them and conduct practices without a ball. It remains to be seen if Karl’s way entails relocating slacking players to the bench, but to this point the players have bought in. If Karl pulls too tightly on the reins, it is not out of the question that he faces a mutiny at some point this season.

Games 83 Through 88 – Over the last five seasons the Nuggets have gone 4-20 in the playoffs including a 2-8 record at home. Last season they could not even get to game 88. That is ugly and unacceptable.

4. What are the goals for this team?

I think there are different answers depending on whether you are talking about the goals of management or the goals of the players. Management has clearly been geared towards the future. The Camby trade revolved around future cap flexibility. They traded their first round pick for a future first round pick. Older players Camby and Najera have been sent packing in exchange for younger players. Management would never admit it, nor should they, but I do not think they expect anything other than another first round exit at best from this squad.

The players however, want to get past the first round of the playoffs. They will tell you they want to win 60 games and win a championship, but I think deep down even they know that is not realistic. However, I think every player on the roster will tell you that they want to get to the playoffs and win a playoff series and I believe they all think that is possible.

5. Is this a make or break year for Carmelo Anthony?

I believe this may be Anthony’s make or break year as a Denver Nugget. The team entertained offers for Carmelo this offseason and some in the organization took the exercise more seriously than others. Melo is a tremendous talent and has the ability to be a top ten player in the NBA. Offensively there is almost nothing he cannot do. He has won a collegiate title, Olympic bronze and as of August 2008, Olympic gold. In the NBA he has reached the postseason in every season of his NBA career, but has yet to advance. He has grown as a player every offseason, but mostly offensively. Last season in the middle of a prolonged shooting slump he dedicated himself to being a better rebounder and posted some impressive numbers in that category. There has been progress and it is a safe bet Melo will continue to progress as a player.

Even so, in my mind two questions remain. First, when will he take the big step on offense and become a player who not only scores on his own, but helps his teammates get easy baskets? Teams focus their defensive strategies around Melo. When he has the ball in the post, most teams double him and the other three defenders are perched on the edges of the lane ready to help at a moment’s notice. He must learn to make the defense pay for focusing so much attention on him.

Secondly, when will he exert as much effort, both physical and mental, on defense? Melo has proven in brief instances that he can be a very good defensive player. To this point in his career he has chosen not to apply himself to the point where he is a defensive asset. No one expects Melo to check Kobe Bryant and shut him down, but he should be able to handle Luke Walton without getting lost and giving up open shots. Then, when the game is on the line, maybe he does switch over to Kobe and work his butt off for a few key possessions. Melo can do it, the problem is up until this point in his career he has chosen not to.

To get back to the question at hand, Melo must take a big step forward this season in order to retain the Nuggets faith in him. As I mentioned earlier, the Nuggets should be motivated this season after the disaster that befell them last season in the playoffs, especially Carmelo. If Melo continues to play the same way he always has, despite the embarrassing playoff exit last season, the Nuggets may run out of patience with him.

Melo may only be 24 years old, but if the Nuggets do not see a shift from playing for a spot in the All-Star game to playing to win at all costs, they may have seen all they need to see from Carmelo Anthony.

Projected Finish: 47-35, 2nd in the Northwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference