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John Schuhmann

The Nuggets have missed Kenyon Martin's presence on the defensive end.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Without Martin, Nuggets not packing as powerful a punch

Posted Mar 27 2010 11:42AM

Injuries are a part of the game and every NBA team must deal with them. But right now, the Denver Nuggets are dealing with an issue that goes well beyond rest and rehab.

George Karl is undergoing a series of radiation treatments for throat cancer and the Nuggets don't know when they'll see their head coach again. At this point, Karl isn't expected to return to the bench until the playoffs. When you take away a coach that's won almost 1,000 games in the league and add the stress of a serious health concern, your team can't help but be negatively affected.

On top of dealing with Karl's cancer, the Nuggets have a standard player injury that's another big concern. Kenyon Martin has missed the last 12 games with patella tendinitis in his left knee, and the timetable for his return is very much in the air as well.

Martin was having arguably the best season of his career, even better than his All-Star season in New Jersey. No, his numbers aren't as good they were in 2003-04, but Martin's value is not about points, rebounds and field-goal percentage.

Karl calls Martin "the quarterback of our defense," and without their power forward, the Nuggets are simply not very good defensively.

In the 55 games that Martin has played, the Nuggets have allowed 103.5 points per 100 possessions. And in the 18 games he's missed, they've allowed 107.7. That's not quite the drop-off that you'd have if you took Dwight Howard out of the middle of the Magic's defense, but it's the difference between being the 12th best defense in the league and being the sixth worst.

Opposing offenses haven't shot the ball much better from the field in the games without Martin, but they've turned the ball over less, got to the free throw line more, and grabbed more offensive boards. Rebounding is Martin's greatest strength, but he's also the rare player that can realistically guard all five positions.

"And guard them well," Chauncey Billups said. "Defensively, he's as good as it gets."

In fact, Karl often assigns Martin to guard the opposing team's best player, no matter what position they may play, down the stretch of games. Martin has done as good a job as anyone could in defending Kobe Bryant on key possessions against the Lakers.

"I'll put him on anybody," Karl said at All-Star weekend. "I love it when [the opponent runs] pick-and-roll at the end of a game and we switch it. I say, 'OK. You just switched on to our best defender.'"

The Nuggets have also been worse offensively without Martin. Overall, they're 10-8 without him and needed Carmelo Anthony's buzzer-beater in Toronto on Friday to avoid their first four-game losing streak in more than three years.

Martin is no stranger to knee injuries, of course. Over the past seven seasons, he's missed a total of 180 games, almost all due to problems with either one of his knees. He's had microfracture surgery on both of them. So while his latest injury isn't related to the surgeries at all, it still elicits quite a bit of frustration.

"It's not easy by any stretch of the imagination, because I want to play," Martin said this week. "I've been playing well."

And he had been playing through pain for most of the season, but it got worse as the year went on. He'd tried everything to help subside it: anti-inflammatories, acupuncture and massage cupping techniques.

"I did it all, but it got to a point where nothing would work," he said. And eventually, the pain was too much.

Now, in addition to sitting out, Martin is undergoing platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, in which platelet-rich plasma is separated from a vial of his own blood and then injected into his knee in an attempt to help tissue recover. It's a painful process, but Martin's doing whatever he can to get back on the court and knows when he does, he'll still have to play in pain.

"I know what I can deal with," he said. "It's my 10th year. It's just trying to get it to a point where I can tolerate it."

Martin began riding a stationary bike on the Nuggets' current five-game road trip, and is doing a little bit more every day. He'll be re-examined when the team returns home, with just seven games left in the regular season. Of course, he doesn't want to return too early, in fear that the pain might build back up and put him back in a suit when his team needs him most.

"The real season starts April 17th," he said.

At this point, there's no guarantee he'll be ready by then. PRP therapy doesn't work for everybody. So while the Nuggets wonder when they'll see Karl again, they also wonder if Martin will get back his uniform before it's too late.

"We're real concerned about [Martin's status]," acting head coach Adrian Dantley admitted. "But the only thing you can do is keep playing. We hope we get him back. We're a better defensive team when he's out there. A better team when he's out there."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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