Game Preview: Hornets vs. Nuggets 1/6/12

January 6, 2012

After lengthy speculation, they traded their superstar player, receiving multiple players in the deal. From the outside, virtually every NBA analyst expected them to make a precipitous drop to the bottom of the standings. Sound familiar? It’s also the story of the 2010-11 Denver Nuggets, who dealt Carmelo Anthony to New York in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov. Despite what was deemed to be a devastating blow of losing their best player, the Nuggets earned a No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, where they were ousted in a closer-than-it-appeared 4-1 series defeat to Oklahoma City.

As the Hornets proceed through a hectic, compressed 66-game schedule, they’ll be trying to replicate some of what the Nuggets accomplished in ’10-11. Hornets players readily acknowledge that outside expectations have changed considerably, but that could provide additional motivation on the court.

“Most of the guys on this team have been underdogs all their lives,” said Carl Landry, who is in his first full season as a Hornet in the starting five. “It’s nothing new to any of us. It’s fuel to the fire. It makes us want to work that much harder to go out and win ballgames, and prove everyone wrong.”

If New Orleans exceeds national projections this season, it will likely be due to a balanced rotation and improved bench depth – traits that have buoyed Denver’s post-Melo success. The Nuggets go 10-deep with quality options at all five positions, while the Hornets have been sparked early in 2011-12 by contributions from reserves such as Chris Kaman, Jason Smith and Greivis Vasquez.

Friday’s matchup is the first of two between the Hornets and Nuggets over the next four days. On the same night of the BCS championship game in the Superdome on Monday, the Western Conference foes play in Denver. New Orleans returns to Denver for a March 9 game, followed by Denver coming back to NOLA on April 4.

Intriguing matchup: Point guard, Jarrett Jack vs. Ty Lawson
Through the first week of the regular season, Jack and Lawson were leading their teams in scoring (not counting Eric Gordon’s average of 20.0 points in one game). Both offensive-minded players are ACC products, hailing from Georgia Tech and North Carolina, respectively. Jack’s primary task is to keep Lawson from driving into the paint and launching open three-pointers.


The Nuggets have been an above-average team for nearly a decade, winning between 43 and 54 games every season since 2003-04. Over that eight-year span, however, they’ve lost in the first round of the playoff seven times, breaking through only in 2008, when they advanced to the Western Conference finals. The Denver franchise’s revitalization began with the drafting of Carmelo Anthony in 2003, a move that transformed the Nuggets from league doormat to perennial postseason qualifier. After seven-plus years in a blue and gold uniform, though, Anthony declined to sign a contract extension that would’ve kept him in Colorado long term. As a result, the Nuggets dealt the high-scoring small forward to the Knicks. Denver then surprised virtually everyone around the league, winning at a higher rate following the blockbuster trade than prior to it. A move to the Mile High City proved to be a blessing for several players, making the Nuggets a much better team than analysts projected. Denver opened the 2011-12 regular season at 5-2, including impressive wins over Dallas and the Lakers.

What’s new
Let’s start with who isn’t here. During the prolonged offseason, many NBA players signed deals to compete in leagues overseas, but the vast majority of those contracts contained opt-out clauses, allowing the player to return to the U.S. at their discretion. In the cases of Nuggets players Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, however, they signed to play in China, which has extremely restrictive rules related to contract opt-outs. As a result, none of the past Nuggets are currently eligible to play in the NBA. The Chinese basketball season doesn’t end until March, making it unlikely that any member of the trio will be eligible to compete stateside before then. In the interim, the Nuggets have replaced the contributions of those players by increasing the minutes for several returnees, as well as by acquiring backup wing men Rudy Fernandez (played for Portland last season) and Corey Brewer (Dallas).

Nuggets star
On a team that shares responsibility across the board, you could hold a lengthy debate on who may be the Nuggets’ best player, with several reasonable options. Based on the 2011 offseason, though, a strong case could be made that their most important player is power forward Nene. An unrestricted free agent, Nene was a pivotal piece in several teams’ plans to potentially improve, but he ultimately re-signed with the Nuggets. The Brazilian big man is one of the NBA’s best finishers, a terror around the rim who runs the floor very well for a 6-foot-11, 250-pounder. The 10-year pro battled injuries early in his career, but has steadily improved and is in his prime at age 29.

Nugget on the rise
When Ty Lawson was selected as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, skeptics wondered whether the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder was big enough to ever be a standout NBA player. But after backing up Chauncey Billups as a rookie, Lawson has been elevated to a starting role and has been outstanding early in his third year. The North Carolina product was supposed to be a shaky perimeter shooter when he entered the NBA, but is over 40 percent from the beyond the arc in his pro career.

On the sideline
George Karl is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, as well as a remarkable individual story. Karl has beaten both throat and prostate cancer, which led him to recently become a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. Karl is among a group of only seven men who’ve won over 1,000 NBA games as a sideline leader (the others are Larry Brown, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson). In several previous NBA coaching stops, Karl earned a reputation for turning around teams with a history of losing.

Did you know?
The Denver Nuggets were originally known as the “Denver Rockets” in the 1960s and early 1970s, but changed their nickname to Nuggets in anticipation of their move from the ABA to the NBA. The NBA already had a team called the Rockets, who played in Houston and still do four decades later.

Players the Nuggets want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Nuggets need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 3)
Energy guy tends to stay on perimeter and launch treys.
One of three Italians in the NBA (Belinelli, Bargnani).
Shot career-best 84.7 from line last season.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 3)
Over 40 percent in three of four full pro seasons.
Quickness makes defenders wary of running at him.
Awful start for him in 2011-12, at 4-for-28 (14 percent).

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