Perseverance helps Nuggets maintain track record of success
Injuries, trade, skeptics can't keep Denver from 4th straight 50-win season
Pride, patience and perseverance.
All three were on display for the Denver Nuggets during the 2010-11 season.
Still on the priority list: postseason prosperity.
Despite being forced to reinvent themselves after trading their two leading scorers, the Nuggets exceeded most people’s expectations by winning 50 games for the fourth consecutive season and securing the fifth seed in the powerful Western Conference.
The wild ride came to end when Denver lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs. In a series that reflected the emotionally charged nature of the regular-season, three of the playoff losses were by four points or less.
“I don’t know what adjective you’d use to describe this season – scary, amazing, crazy,” Nuggets coach George Karl said as he reflected on the previous seven months. “It had so many different personalities from injuries to trades to gossip, innuendo. There seemed to be so many different things you had to persevere through physically and mentally.
“I know fans say that’s what we get paid to do. I’m going to tell you, not many teams would’ve made it through this year. This team not only made it through it, the organization made it through it. I think everybody’s pretty excited about where we are.”
Few could predict where the Nuggets would end up after All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony demanded a trade before training camp began in September.
Determined to find a deal that would appease Anthony yet not compromise the future of the franchise, team president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri patiently negotiated a three-team, 13-player trade that sent team captains Anthony and fellow Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks on Feb. 22.
In return, the Nuggets received five talented young players – Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov – along with three future draft picks and financial flexibility.
The Nuggets were seventh in the West at the time of the trade, and many “experts” predicted they would fall out of the playoff picture. They proved the doubters wrong by going 18-7 and moving up two spots in the conference standings.
“We’re excited about the guys we have,” Ujiri said. “There was good chemistry, which is something you hope for with a big trade like that. And the guys who were here (before the trade) gave us everything – and George did a tremendous job coaching through those times. We have to give credit to all the players.”
Ujiri’s work is far from over; the Nuggets face several important decisions this summer.
Veteran forward Kenyon Martin and shooting guardJ.R. Smith will be unrestricted free agents on July 1, while talented wings Arron Afflalo and Chandler will be restricted free agents, meaning the Nuggets can match any offer they receive from other team.
In addition, center Nene can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent.
Considering Denver is one of just three NBA teams to have reached the postseason in each of the past eight years, the Nuggets are not planning a major overhaul.
“We’re going to try and keep the core together and build from there,” Ujiri said. “There are some bright things looking forward to the future. It’s about building a winning culture. And I can happily say that we’re a little bit on our way to getting there.”
The 25-year-old Afflalo has made no secret of his desire to stay in Denver, and the feeling is mutual.
The coaches love Afflalo’s passion, work ethic and team-first attitude. Not only did he establish himself as the team’s top perimeter defender, but he averaged career-highs in points (12.6), rebounds (3.6) and assists (2.4) and finished eighth in the NBA in three-point percentage (.423).
The only thing that slowed Afflalo was a nagging hamstring injury that forced him to miss 13 regular-season games and the first two games of the playoffs.
“He had a great year, and to be sidelined for 15 games does not end on the note I’m sure he wanted and the positive karma it probably should be,” Karl said. “I’m disappointed for him because he’s one of the few guys I call a low-maintenance player who is enjoyable to be around on a daily basis.”
Karl said Afflalo is a strong candidate to be a team captain next season, a role he would embrace without hesitation.
“The experiences I went though this year in developing and continuing to get better as a player, I’m going to try to do it 10 times more for next season,” he said. “I just want to be a better overall player where I can have that impact and make sure we continue on (in the playoffs).”
Martin and Smith also expressed interest in remaining with the Nuggets. Martin thrived as the lone team captain following the departure of Anthony and Billups, averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds after the All-Star break, compared to 6.3 and 5.3 in 25 games before the break.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Martin said. “We’ve got a good team. Still a lot of question marks up in the air for next year. We’ll see. I’ve been a part of this for seven years. I don’t want to leave, but it’s out of my control right now.”
If nothing else, the Nuggets proved in 2010-11 that they won’t use uncertainty as a crutch from improving and moving forward.
“We’re going to keep growing,” Ujiri said. “There will be something for (the fans) to cheer about.”