If Nuggets fans were listing their top feel good stories from the 2007-2008 season one of the top tales would certainly be the development of Linas Kleiza. Kleiza has developed a reputation around the league as a guy who can score without having to dominate the ball and because of that when Denver and Sacramento were discussing sending Ron Artest to Denver the player the Kings wanted was Kleiza.

The majority of Nugget fans were very much against sending Kleiza away. On February first I posted a poll asking Nugget fans if they would rather trade Kleiza or J.R. Smith to get Mike Miller and it was a landslide in favor of shipping J.R. out of town instead LK. Of course, that poll was taken before J.R. made his big leap in production after the All-Star break, but the message was clear. Nugget fans saw Kleiza as much more valuable than J.R. Smith.

I have to wonder if not only the Nugget fans, but the Nuggets management as well, are overvaluing Kleiza. I can certainly see the case in favor of LK. He was a power forward in college who has successfully made the switch to small forward in the NBA. That is a very difficult transition to make and if you read the recaps from the Portsmouth and Orlando predraft camps you hear the stories of quite a few players who cannot recreate their game to play at an NBA level.

Not only has Kleiza made that transition he has excelled. He learned to shoot the three, he is incredibly quick up and down the floor (how many times did we see him get behind the defense for an easy dunk in transition this season?) and he is very effective driving to his right to get in the lane. It really is impressive what he has accomplished.

To top it all off, he was a late first round draft pick (acquired in the trade that sent Jarrett Jack to Portland and also brought the Nuggets Ricky Sanchez, AKA the only guy who was drafted in 2005 that was not in the NBA’s draft media guide) which makes him seem all the more special.

I agree with all of those things and I also agree that he is an important player to the Nuggets. One mindboggling stat that Matt from Ridiculous Upside/Hardwood Paroxysm/AOL pointed out to me a couple of months ago was Kleiza’s clutch stats on 82games.com. They track every player’s stats during the last five minutes of a game or overtime when the score is within five points or less. The numbers show that under those circumstances Kleiza was by far the Nuggets best player.

The second best player was Carmelo who won 56.3% of his matchups and whose clutch play when projected out over 48 minutes gave Nuggets a plus/minus of 4.1 points. Now compare that to Kleiza who won 75% of his clutch time matchups and when you average his plus/minus out over 48 minutes the Nuggets outscored their opponents by 20.7 points!

Kleiza’s numbers even outclassed players like Manu Ginobili (+/- of 18.4 and 64.7% wins) and Kobe Bryant (+/- of 10.9 and 66.7% wins).

To be fair Kleiza did not have the sample size of those other two, but nevertheless, those numbers are still impressive.

With all of those positives it is easy to see why LK is so popular with Nugget fans and executives. I just have one question.

Have we seen the best of Linas Kleiza?

I believe Kleiza has almost reached his ceiling as a player. The fact that he has gotten to this point so quickly, and somewhat surprisingly, makes it easy to expect more from him in the future, but how much more does he have to offer?

Will Kleiza ever be a guy who can get his own shot? Was his 37.6% shooting from three point range in 2006-2007 an aberration (it dropped to 33.9% last season)? Will he ever be a passable defender? Can he be a starter for a playoff team?

In my mind the answers to those questions reveal that Kleiza is a good, but limited player. His PER for last season was 14.43, which suggests he is a below league average player. His rebound rate, though still good for a small forward dropped as did his three point shooting percentage.

Right now I believe there are teams out there who believe he has much more room to grow. That brings us to a new question.

Should the Nuggets pursue trading Kleiza this summer?

Many Nugget fans lament the fact that Kleiza is blocked by Melo at the small forward spot and believe that sooner or later LK will have to go somewhere else. I on the other hand believe the Nuggets are a very good fit for Kleiza. He never needs to carry the scoring load. He gets open looks and driving lanes because defenses do not key on him due to the talent of his teammates. They play at a fast pace where he can utilize his quickness and instincts running the floor.

That being said, I do think Denver should be open to trading him. I doubt his stock will be any higher than it is now. Sacramento is certainly a team that is interested in him. If Denver could get the 12th pick in exchange for Kleiza and draft a player like Russell Westbrook from UCLA should they do it? Westbrook could give the Nuggets a better defender in the backcourt to pair with AI. Could they use the 12th and 20th picks to trade up to land a true point guard like D.J. Augustin? If options like that are available, Denver should look into what could be done.

As I said, Kleiza is a good fit for Denver and vice versa. Trading him would create a new issue of who comes off the bench to back up Melo. Bobby Jones would be my first solution to that issue, but George Karl is clearly not Jones’ biggest fan. I do not want Denver to trade Kleiza, but I also do not want them to pass up on a chance to improve the roster because they are overvaluing what they have in him.

As long as Denver has two or three scorers on the roster, Kleiza will be a very good asset for the Nuggets. He is a nice role player and is good enough to take advantage of his opportunities that defenses give him. However, if Denver ever reaches the point where he is one of the top two scoring options on this team, the Nuggets will be in some serious trouble.

Enjoy him. Appreciate him. Just do not overrate him.

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