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Vince Thomas

From The Floor

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Nuggets' flip-flop puts them in position to challenge Lakers

By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 30 2009 5:35PM

Pause for a moment and ponder the Bizarro World of the recently deceased Nuggets-Hornets fiasco. Remember last season? Denver was the most dysfunctional Playoffs squad of the decade. When ESPN's Bill Simmons recently described those old-look Nuggs as having a "lunatic fringe," I laughed and cringed. Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and (my god) J.R. Smith didn't play with reckless abandon. They abandoned every virtuous basketball tenet and just played reckless. The Lake Show swept 'em up and trashed them in four appalling games.

Meanwhile, the insurgent Hornets were league darlings. They had returned to post-Katrina Nola, trying to lead a revival, doing it with a squad that came out of nowhere to challenge the Spurs in a seven-game conference semis. We scoffed at the Nuggets and fawned over the Hornets. The Nuggets were stuck in neutral. The Hornets entered this season as the supposed challenger to a Lakers hegemony.

Then Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman traded A.I. (a disgruntled and careless older sibling) for Chauncey Billups (a dad), who fathered 'Melo and J.R. into better ballplayers. Kenyon and Nene stayed relatively healthy and Dahntay Jones turned into a newer model Raja Bell. Birdman kicked his habits and morphed into a new-millennium John Salley. They're good now. Really good. I see at least a good three- to four-year run as contenders ... just like we were saying about the Hornets last year.

The Hornets? Losing Janero Pargo to Greece started the slippage. The injuries have them in what appears to be a freefall. Just in case you forgot, on Monday Denver beat them by 58 points ... in New Orleans ... in a must-win game. It might go down as the worst Playoffs performance in history.

Even more concerning is that they limp into the off-season with an old, thin roster not too heavy on talent. Chris Paul's sore right knee had him looking mortal for most of the series, but the more telling optic was his lack of fire and apparent resignation. It was like he didn't think he had the weapons to go to war. The Hornets went from upstarts to has-beens without even a two-year "dynastic" period in between.

The Nuggets and Hornets have basically flip-flopped stories and conference import. Other than the Pistons, no '09 Playoffs team will fade from our memories faster than the Hornets. The Nuggs, on the other hand, might matter more than any other team in the Playoffs. They represent the only real challenge to the Lakers. They are the only ones that can make the Western Conference postseason matter.

Whereas there are several teams that will give Cleveland problems en route to a Finals appearance, the thinking is that L.A. is gonna coast to the Finals like Usain Bolt in the last 10 yards of his world-record 100 in Beijing. Let's forget, for the moment, that a Lakers waltz to the Finals ignores certain facts like ... oh, I don't know, that the Lakers don't defend with consistent tenacity or hold leads like stingy champs. Instead, let's acknowledge that L.A. is longer, deeper, more talented and more Kobe than any other squad in the West. On paper, and in daydream scenarios, L.A. doesn't see a seventh game until mid-June.

But this Denver team is dead serious and very real. The Nuggs can't score like the Lakers -- nobody can. But they can score with the Lakers. I can easily envision Chauncey, Melo and J.R. taking turns going for 30, maybe even doubling-up some games. Denver may not be as long as L.A., but that K-Mart-Nene-Birdman trio is imposing. They are strong, athletic and those dudes get after it. No one can shut down Kobe, but Jones can bother him, especially when Smith, Melo and K-Mart can take turns spelling him.

And you know what really makes them a threat? They have that needed mix of young hubris and veteran confidence that it's going to take to get four Ws in a series against the Lakers. All the ingredients are here for Denver.

A year after getting laughed off the court, Denver is actually capable of getting some revenge on L.A. The "lunatic fringe" has linked up with the steady-camp and now the whole squad is sort of crazy like a fox. I'm sure the Lakers aren't worried. But they should be.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at vincethomas79@gmail.com or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.

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