Team Preview: Denver Nuggets
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
For the Denver Nuggets and their fans, the 2006-07 season seemed full of promise as both NenÍ and Kenyon Martin were set to return from knee surgeries and the rest of the squad was still intact from its promising run to the Playoffs in 2005-06. Yet during the past three seasons, when things start looking up in Nugget land, something generally derails the good-feeling train. In this case it was Martin sitting out the year after undergoing more microfracture surgery. The club persevered, and fans remained upbeat until Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith were suspended 15 and nine games, respectively, for a scuffle at Madison Square Garden in mid-December. It seemed like the end, but when things start looking bleak in Nugget land, something positive always seems to happen. The club acquiring perennial NBA All-Star Allen Iverson, who quickly put his stamp on the Nuggets squad and got the fans excited again. Everything seemed as it should be and then fan favorite Earl Boykins was traded to Milwaukee for backup point guard Steve Blake. Of course, Blake turned into one of the biggest surprises of the year as he teamed with Iverson to form a potent backcourt duo. Anthonyís return led to a month of both stars feeling each other out, but both were playing off each other well and NenÍ was back to 100 percent by seasonís end. The club looked powerful heading into the Playoffs and expectations were running high, but the Nuggets had to face the eventual NBA Champions, the San Antonio Spurs, and you know the rest.
The team spent the offseason shoring up weak spots. Blake returned to Portland, so the club brought in veterans Chucky Atkins and Anthony Carter to provide backcourt depth with Iverson and Smith. DerMarr Johnson headed overseas, but journeyman Von Wafer seems more than capable of filling those shoes after his amazing performance in the Las Vegas Summer League. Martin finally appears healthy, NenÍ is fit, Marcus Camby isnít nursing any injuries and Anthony just keeps getting better. Throw in solid role players like Linas Kleiza, Reggie Evans and Yakhouba Diawara, and this club has the potential to finally break out of their first-round playoff rut and make some noise in the West.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The starting five is expected to be Camby at center, NenÍ at power forward, Anthony at small forward, Iverson at shooting guard, and Atkins at the point. Camby and NenÍ should see 30-35 minutes a night, with Anthony getting close to 37. Iverson and Atkins will be virtually interchangeable with both getting 30-35 minutes as well. Smith and Martin will be the first guys off the bench, and each should see 20-25 minutes of court time a night. Of the remaining players, Kleiza and Carter are the two most likely to surprise and end up getting anywhere from 10-15 minutes a night. However, other role players like Wafer, Diawara, Najera, and Evans will only see significant times if injuries become an issue.
* Marcus Camby - DEN [C]: Despite being passed by Carmelo Anthony as the teamís prime fantasy player, Camby still brings a lot to the court/stat sheet. Camby played a miraculous 70 games last season and posted 11.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, a league-leading 3.3 bpg, and 1.2 spg (very high for a center) while winning the leagueís Defensive Player of the Year award. Heís a consistent 70-75 percent FT shooter (also solid for a pivot) and is also a good bet to hit better than 46 percent from the floor. Even with Martin and NenÍ both healthy, we donít see Cambyís numbers dropping significantly. What does concern us is this guy used to be an injury waiting to happen, and his relatively clean bill of health for two years now has us wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Expect Camby to see action in roughly 60 games, but those games will be highly productive ones.
* NenÍ - DEN [PF]: After sitting out all of 2005-06 after blowing out his knee in the seasonís first game, NenÍ returned in 2006-07 and made the case that he was worth the huge contract extension he had received. Granted, early on he struggled to get his knee to 100 percent and then suffered a bruised right knee that kept him out for 14 games, but after that the 6-10, 260-pound Brazilian just got better and better as the year went on. He was thrust into the starting power forward role after Kenyon Martin went down again and finished the season averaging 12.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.2 apg and one steal and one block per game. The big man also shot an amazing 57 percent from the field and a passable (for a big man) 69 percent from the line. He enters 2007-08 as the clubís starting power forward despite Martinís return and should keep that title all season while also being more than capable of backing up Camby at center. With Martin returning, we expect NenÍ to see nearly 33 minutes a night in 70-75 games while posting numbers very similar to last seasonís.
* Carmelo Anthony - DEN [SF]: Anthony not only increased his production across the board in 2006-07, he also proved he could virtually maintain that production with another superstar (i.e. Allen Iverson) in the fold. In 2006-07, Anthonyís scoring average rose from 26.5 to 28.9 ppg, his rebounding from 4.9 to 6.0 rpg and his assists from 2.7 to 3.8 apg. He maintained satisfactory steal and block numbers while also making 80 percent of his free throws and 47.5 percent of his attempts from the field. He also remains a moderate threat from downtown (39-for-149). Anthony will once again be the Nuggetsí starting small forward, but his versatility will also allow Karl to use him at the ď2Ē when the team wants to go big and at the ď4Ē if Karl wants to go small. After watching his production shrink minimally after Iversonís arrival last year, we donít see any reason why he wonít once again see 36-39 minutes in 70-80 games while posting numbers in the range of last year.
Linas Kleiza - DEN [SG,SF]: Kleiza showed some real flashes of brilliance in 2006-07, and we donít see any reason he wonít continue to improve. The only problem is that Kenyon Martin is back, and Anthony never seems to come out of the ball game. Those two factors will limit Kleiza to around 10 minutes of court time a night, which isnít going to be enough to bring him anywhere near fantasy relevance Ė unless, of course, someone gets hurt.
Eduardo Najera - DEN [PF]: If minutes in the NBA were dolled out to the guys that played with the most passion Najera would be an All-Star candidate. Unfortunately Kleizaís continued growth and the return of Martin will leave the ex-Oklahoma star as the teamís primary bench warmer in 2007-08.
* Allen Iverson - DEN [PG,SG]: Iverson embarks on his first full season with the club, and if his first 50 games are any indication, weíd say heís still got plenty of fantasy game left in him. Sure, his scoring decreased after coming from Philly, but he still posted 24.8 ppg along with 7.2 apg, 3.0 rpg, and 1.8 spg while increasing his field goal percentage from 41.3 percent to 45.4 percent. His free-throw shooting took a dip in Denver (75.9 percent by seasons end), but we think that was more aberration than trend as he averaged 81 percent in 2004-05 and 89 percent in 2005-06. The bottom line is the guy proved he could play alongside another star, distribute the ball, and still get his. Iverson remains a viable early-round pick in almost all league formats.
J.R. Smith - DEN [SG]: Smith had a chance last year to show everyone he was the answer at scoring guard. Instead he flashed gobs of potential from a scoring aspect but brought little else. The end result was the club trading for Iverson and Smithís demotion to a 15-20 minute a night backup job, specializing in three-pointers. That wonít change this year, and with Chucky Atkins on board, a guy capable of moving between the 1 and the 2 with ease, Smith may see even less court time.
Yakhouba Diawara - DEN [SG]: Diawara had some impressive rookie moments. The problem is heís without question the least menacing offensive threat on this ball club. Diawara will see occasional minutes as heís one of the teamís best on-ball defenders, but for a comparison, think of a poor manís Bruce Bowen, and then think about zero fantasy value.
Anthony Carter - DEN [PG]: With Iverson and Atkins both able to play the point and Smith and Anthony both capable of manning the ď2,Ē we just donít see Anthony being any more than a bit player in this teamís rotation, i.e. he has zero fantasy value.