With the departure of Marcus Camby most fans, analysts and pundits agree that the key player for the Nuggets this season is Nene. I have concurred with that belief as it is painfully obvious that the Nuggets are in big trouble if Nene misses another 60 games this season. As much attention as Nene is receiving there is one other player who I believe is vital to the Nuggets success this season who has yet to have a single article written about him and that is Linas Kleiza.

Kleiza is an eye of the beholder player. Almost everyone you talk to will have a slightly different view of the Vanilla Gorilla. Some think he is a very good player who would be starting for half the teams in the NBA. Some see a one dimensional player. Some see him as an overrated scrub and others will tell you that he can be a star.

In my opinion there is some truth in every one of those observations. For a late first round draft pick Kleiza has been incredibly productive. He had an average first season and then made a major jump in production in his second season. Last year, his third season in the NBA, he earned even more playing time and produced a 41 point game against the villainous Utah Jazz. The Nuggets like him enough that they turned down a deal with Sacramento last season that would have brought in Ron Artest because they did not want to part with LK (and also because George Karl was getting a nervous twitch just thinking about adding another, shall we say, strong willed player like Artest to a team that was already past its quota).

Some of the things Kleiza has done well include making the adjustment from college power forward to NBA combo forward, which is a hurdle that has caused many a talented player to be dumped out the colon of the league, adjusting to the NBA three point line better than anyone expected and his ability to drive to his right and explode to the rim to finish.

In the past I have stated that I believe Kleiza is somewhat overrated by most Nugget fans due to his quick adjustment to the NBA. I think he blossomed so quickly that many observers overestimated his ceiling. For example, I think Kleiza’s ceiling is the fifth floor (I am just making this floor system up so just try to follow along). He reached the fourth floor in his third season. Because of that some people think his ceiling is the seventh or eighth floor. Combine that with the low expectations that come with being drafted in the late 20’s and I can understand why anyone who has watched him would be prone to overrating him.

If I think he is overrated, how can I say he is a key to the Nuggets this season? First of all, he does have room to improve. I do not think he will ever be a 20 point per game scorer and a player who you can give him the ball on the wing and let him do his thing. I already mentioned his ability to drive right. If he can learn to do even half as well driving left as he does driving right, it will make him a much more dangerous player on offense. His second season he shot 37.6% from three point range and 85.2% from the free throw line. Last season those numbers dropped to 33.9% and 77.0%. If he can get those averages back up to where they were two seasons ago that too will allow him to raise his level of play on offense even higher.

If Kleiza does indeed continue to raise his offensive performance he can be the offense off the bench that every team needs and will allow George Karl to insert J.R. Smith into the starting lineup. I believe Starting J.R. alongside Allen Iverson will greatly increase the Nuggets chances to succeed. Karl has mentioned that he realizes he can play AI and J.R. Smith in the backcourt together and indeed he did that at times last season. One key reason it is in the Nuggets best interests for J.R. to be a starter is that will mean neither Anthony Carter nor Chucky Atkins will be starting. (I realize the whole cliché it does not matter who starts and who finishes and no matter who starts J.R. can still play 30 minutes a game, but I want my best players on the court together as long as possible. For me that means J.R. is a starter.)

Kleiza can also have an impact in more ways than just scoring. Before last season I proclaimed that I thought LK could become that key player that every championship team needs and I still believe that. He has the potential to be that Robert Horry type player who can hit the big three, grab the big rebound or produce the key blocked shot. He is never going to be a lock down defender due to his “tweener” physical traits although he is smart enough and dedicated enough to be a cog in a strong team defense.

While I may be somewhat less optimistic than other Nugget fans on how high Kleiza’s potential might be, I do believe he can be a player who plays a crucial role on a championship caliber team. If he can continue to build on what he has done his first three seasons, and I have no reason to expect he will not continue to do so, he will allow Karl to play his best players on the court longer and thus the Nuggets more successful.

Other Denver Nuggets News:

Allen Iverson, or more accurately his wife, has given birth to their fifth child. Pickaxe and Roll would like to welcome Dream Alijah Iverson to the world.

Peter Vecsey is bound and determined to have Jamaal Tinsley traded to the Nuggets. This post from Indy Cornrows quotes a report from Vecsey that the two teams are haggling over the Pacers including the league maximum of $3 million to close the deal. If this trade does go through I owe Vecsey a big apology, but I find it difficult to believe Denver is really interested in this trade.

Kenyon Martin is the latest Nugget to miss practice time due to inflammation in his right knee. With some players when you hear they have a knee problem you have to ask if that is the knee he had surgery on. Not with Kenyon. No matter which knee is bothering him, it is the one he had surgery on. Just for the record, the Denver Post said it was his left knee on Tuesday and then claimed it was his right knee on Wednesday. I trust it is either one or the other and not both.

The Rocky Mountain News has a story where George Karl claims the team is buying in to what he wants and he has not been happier at this point in any season about any team he has coached. Nugget fans everywhere have prayed that some good would come out of the embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Lakers last season and if it got the attention of this team and proved to them the need to pay attention to the little things and take care of business during the regular season then I will be happy.

Thanks to the power of Ebay I have acquired tickets to the Nuggets preseason opener and am excited to give some first hand reporting on what I see.

NBATV’s Real Training Camp makes it’s annual stop in Denver tomorrow and I will be rolling tape incase there is anything interesting that needs to be documented in the Pickaxe and Roll Film Room.

Around the League:

Portland fans seem to think they have something good being cooked up in the Pacific Northwest. Check out the reaction from Dave over at Blazer’s Edge for some of the cautiously optimistic euphoria. (Keep in mind the Blazers lost to Golden State by 15 tonight so they probably will not go 82-0.)

Elgin Baylor was recently dismissed in a dastardly way by the Clippers. Clipper Steve has complete coverage nd the Sports Guy has a great recap of Baylor’s tremendous career complete with a look into his dominance as a player, courage as a black player before the civil rights movement took hold and the incredible dignity he displayed upon his retirement. Anyone who loves the NBA is shortchanging themselves if they do not read that article.

Dallas still considers themselves a championship contender.

John Hollinger uses statistical analysis to determine how each player will perform during the course of the season. He posted his projections on ESPN.com today (you can definitely lose a few hours poring through this stuff) and as can be expected he has angered quite a few fans around the country. I have a deep respect for how Hollinger strives to utilize statistics to analyze players, but one problem is he is constrained by the numbers. One criticism people who do not like or understand what he does is that he does not watch the games, but he does. He watches more than almost anyone. Anyway, to his credit he makes no attempt to hide that fact and he will tell you when he thinks one of his projections may be off. Well, Tom Ziller at Sactown Royalty is another fan of Hollinger’s work, but he is baffled by the projection for Kevin Martin. I will let TZ take it from here.

The team over at Hardwood Paroxysm is putting together team previews in a way only they can (make sure you scroll to the bottom and read the setup for the previews first).

Apparently number one pick Derrick Rose has recovered from his shaky summer league performance and is looking great in camp.

New SB Nation Blog Fear the Sword declares the Cavaliers are in a much better place this training camp than they were last year coming off their finals appearance.