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Shaun Powell

Coach George Karl (right) is content to wait it out as Denver builds around its prospects.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver takes steps back now to get brighter look at tomorrow

Posted Apr 4 2012 9:41AM

When a team trades its two best players -- one of them about to be a three-time Olympian in his prime -- in the span of a year, can things possibly get better?

The Nuggets won't have anything to show right away for shipping out Carmelo Anthony and Nene, maybe not even later this month in the playoffs (that's assuming they make it that far).

There's a price to pay, obviously, for shaving off so many points, rebounds and late-game impact. So let's clarify: the Nuggets aren't better ... they're better off.

Three reasons:

Rookie forward Kenneth Faried.

A young roster overall.

Salary cap space.

"We're moving in the right direction," said coach George Karl.

When Karl says "I'm on board with this" then you know Denver's plan, while not perfect, is sound. Karl is very much a win-now kind of coach that is still chasing that elusive championship and knows the value of superstars. And now the Nuggets don't have any.

But they're being built with the immediate future in mind. They're grooming players for major roles and stocking up on assets just in case a chance to grab a star through a trade comes along. They're operating within a reasonable budget, keeping the team competitive while also keeping Karl hopeful that something big could happen while he's around.

The mistake the Nuggets and other teams often make is comparing themselves to Oklahoma City. As in: the Thunder kept getting the right young players and after a few years, look where they are.

What's forgotten is that the Thunder had lots of luck. They were blessed with the second pick in the Greg Oden Draft (2007). They also took a chance on a point guard prospect (Russell Westbrook) in the '08 Draft. Without getting a gift-wrapped Kevin Durant in '07 and having Westbrook pan out, do you know who Oklahoma City would be right now? The Nuggets.

All the Nuggets can do is prepare themselves for when luck strikes, then be ready to capitalize on it.

You start with Faried. He's a Nene clone, right down to the braided hairstyle, who's younger and much cheaper. That made Nene expendable at the trade deadline. The rookie from nowhere went from playing 60 minutes total in December and January to being a big part of the future by late February. His life changed that month when he came off the bench and got 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Grizzlies, then bested that two weeks ago with 18 and 16 against the Celtics.

"I'm not content," he said. "I want to get better."

Trading Nene and his $67 million deal to Washington allowed the Nuggets to not only get JaVale McGee in return, but to cleared room so they could re-sign Wilson Chandler to a 5-year, $37 million deal. It was a win-win-win because, although the Nuggets did give Nene that extension four months ago, things changed. And Nene, while a solid player, wasn't a star by any means.

The Nuggets are now on the clock with McGee, who was somewhat of an oddball in Washington and never completely reached his massive potential. McGee will wise up because his surroundings have changed. He's not a member of the Phi Delta Wizards anymore. The Nuggets, while young, are more professional. Besides, McGee -- a free agent in 2013-14 -- will be playing for money soon. The Nuggets -- or anyone else -- aren't willing to gamble millions, not in this new labor age, on a player who does nothing but tease. Money sometimes miraculously quickens the maturation process.

"It'll be an exciting process of watching these two young players, Kenneth and JaVale, growing up and getting better together," Karl said. "A lot of making the trade and bringing JaVale here was done with Kenneth Faried in mind. We believe he's that good and will help JaVale that much, and vice-versa."

It goes beyond those two. In the last year, the Nuggets gave extensions to Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo, two players (like Chandler) who are solid, hard-working, reliable and just touching their prime. Al Harrington is signed through 2015 on a very reasonable ($7 million average) deal, and Chris Anderson is around for the next two seasons. Ty Lawson's deal doesn't come up for two seasons. The Nuggets' payroll will be below $50 million next season and there's no dead weight, meaning they could put together a package to get a potential star, if that's what it took.

As it stands, this is a 45 to 50-win team in a normal season and capable of reaching the second round of the playoffs if the matchups are right. Karl believes the Nuggets can do that this season, as they fight for one of the last two or three spots out West.

"We're certainly good enough to make the playoffs and once we get there we can shock the world," he said.

"Obviously, though, we're built with tomorrow in mind. And that's fine. When we made the trade there was the thought that it might be six months too early. It might be a year too early. But as a coach, you get excited about their enthusiasm for the game and willingness to learn and improve. We've just got to go out and fight and compete, and I think we will. I think we'll be better sooner than most people suspect."

You could argue the Knicks or Wizards aren't better with 'Melo and Nene than the Nuggets are without those two. Really, whose roster is in better shape fiscally, physically and in the standings?

The Nuggets aren't fooling themselves, though. They'll need a star before they can think about the next level. In the meantime, they've done everything to ensure that life without one isn't so bad.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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