New Era: Youthful Nuggets set to make own mark on NBA

Despite roster turnover from 2009 conference finals appearance, Denver still a major player in West
by Aaron Lopez

Defining the beginning of an era tends to be an inexact science.

When Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson arrived in Denver in 2009, he walked into a locker room filled with talented veterans fresh off an appearance in the Western Conference finals.

The Nuggets, it seemed, were in the midst of something special. They had two All-Stars in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups and a blend of talented players such as Kenyon Martin, Nene and J.R. Smith.

As the new kid on the block, Lawson made a point of listening to his veteran teammates while working toward earning playing time and respect in his first NBA season.

Three years later, Lawson is the lone player left from Denver’s 2009-10 roster. At 25, he is considered one of the veteran leaders in a locker room filled with tech-savvy 20-somethings.

As the Nuggets prepared to open the 2012-13 season in Philadelphia on Halloween, there was a sense that new era was beginning.

“You can tell we have a different team and a different aura,” Lawson said. “We had a good culture back then (in 2009-10), but we’re a lot younger now. I feel like we’re growing up together and going through this together. It’s our time, and we’re growing up as a core.”

The change in demographics, attitude and culture is no accident.

Team president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri have been working tirelessly to construct a roster loaded with youth, athleticism, talent and ambition.

The Nuggets are determined to prove that they’re more than high-scoring, high-flying entertainers destined to bow out in the first round of the playoffs. A prerequisite for success is believing in yourself.

“As a competitor, I’m not going to say somebody’s better than us,” Lawson said. “We’re all young and hungry to win. I can see it everybody’s eyes. Sometimes you can see that somebody doesn’t want to play, but all of us want to get better and win a championship. Everybody is willing to do what it takes to win on this team.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA team that collectively worked harder than the Nuggets this summer.

Center JaVale McGee, 24, and forward Kenneth Faried, 22, spent several days working on their footwork and interior moves with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston.

Forward Wilson Chandler, 25, center Kosta Koufos, 23, and guard Julyan Stone, 23, rarely left Denver during the summer as they recovered from respective hip and knee injuries.

Lawson, Corey Brewer, Jordan Hamilton, Andre Miller, Anthony Randolph and rookies Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller also made frequent appearances on the Nuggets practice court.

In addition, newly acquired swingman Andre Iguodala helped the U.S. Olympic team capture the gold medal at the 2012 London Games, while Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov won bronze with his native Russia. Forward Danilo Gallinari also represented his country; Italy went 8-0 to qualify for the 2013 European Championships.

“They’ve had great summers, very committed and focused summers,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “They’re coachable and they’re worthy of my trust. Last year, they did everything I asked them to do. We all felt with a lucky bounce or circumstance, we could’ve got to the second round (of the playoffs).”

Rarely does a team create a buzz by losing in the playoffs, but the Nuggets emerged as a team to watch after taking the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games last May. Denver rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and led by four points in the fourth quarter of Game 7.

Seeking to build upon that momentum, Ujiri acquired the All-Star Iguodala from Philadelphia as part of a four-team trade that sent starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo and veteran forward Al Harrington to the Orlando Magic.

“I can’t deny I’ve been his fan for a long time,” Karl said of Iguodala. “I think he fits how we want to play. He’s a rock. He’s not a flamboyant player as much as being a consistently solid player on both ends of the floor.”

Iguodala, 28, set the tone in training camp and the preseason with his professionalism and work ethic. He is a five-tool player who can run the floor, defend the opposition’s top player, finish at the rim and knock down the perimeter shot.

After leading the league in scoring last season, the Nuggets would like to be known as more than just a team that lights up the scoreboard. They spent much of the preseason working on improving their defense, and Iguodala is expected to play a key role in that area.

“He's a great pickup for them — a guy who's a winner," Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "He's versatile, and he's a guy you have to pay attention to. He adds a different dimension to this Nuggets team.”

Iguodala certainly is an impact player who takes Denver a step closer to an NBA title. The Nuggets have reached the playoffs in nine straight seasons (only Dallas and San Antonio have longer active streaks), and are poised to duplicate their run to the conference finals in 2009.

"I think we expect to be better," Karl said. "The team understands that getting top-four seed is why you play the regular season. Our depth is going to be an asset. We're a young team that has to learn a lot of things as the season goes on."

While staying focused on the immediate future, the Nuggets also are respectful of their past. To usher in a new era and pay tribute to its history, the team unveiled an alternate gold jersey that features the skyline logo that was popular in the 1980s.

“We decided we might need to freshen up the look a little bit with this new team going forward,” Kroenke said. “We wanted to create our own persona with a new look.”

Defining the beginning of an era can be a tricky thing.

The Nuggets hope to someday look back on 2012-13 and say that a championship era began.