By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Dec 23 2011 9:30AM
The Denver Nuggets' roster may not look all that special, but you only have to go back to last spring to realize that this team can be one of the NBA's biggest wildcards this season.
The Nuggets went through a major identity change in February, dealing franchise star Carmelo Anthony, along with Chauncey Billups, for a package of players from the New York Knicks. Normally, a team takes a big step backward when they're forced to trade an All-Star, but the Nuggets turned out just fine, going 18-7 after the trade before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.
Now, the Nuggets must recover from more change: the departures of Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, who are all playing in China until March.
It's very possible that neither Martin nor Smith, both unrestricted free agents, would have been returning to Denver anyway. And if last season is any indication, dealing with their departures shouldn't be a problem for coach George Karl, who probably didn't get enough credit for navigating his team through the 'Melo-drama that lasted from October to February.
Karl somehow kept the Nuggets in the playoff picture through five months of rumors and speculation, but the more impressive feat came after the trade, when he turned his new group into one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Nuggets ranked fifth in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break.
Offensively, they ranked sixth after the break, and were much more balanced than when they had Anthony, who had the league's fifth-highest usage rate before the trade. Eight different Nuggets averaged at least 11 points per game after the deal, and none of them averaged more than 14.7.
The Nuggets' success after dealing Anthony was remarkable, and can clearly be attributed to the power of teamwork. So while other teams covet the league's biggest stars, Karl seemed happy coaching a group of players that won't be found in the national headlines.
"I think teams are better than superstars," the coach said at the start of training camp. "I think Dallas proved that last year. And hopefully, we can prove it again being one of those teams this year."
The biggest challenge, Karl admits, will be replicating the defense that his team played after the trade. He considered Martin his best defender, and Martin's departure will likely mean more minutes for Al Harrington, who's never been known for his defense.
"I think our offense is going to be fine," Karl said. "But the thing that I want to see is how good defensively, on a consistent basis, we can become."
Ultimately, that end of the floor will determine if the Nuggets make the playoffs for the ninth straight season. With the condensed schedule that this season brings, one of the advantages Denver has over its Western Conference competition, despite the departures of the China three, is depth.
Thanks to the return of free agent Nene, the likely return of restricted free agent Arron Afflalo, and a trade that yielded Denver Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from the Dallas Mavericks, Denver should have a solid rotation from spots 1 through 9.
The Fernandez/Brewer pair will give Karl some legs at the wings behind Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari, but the Nuggets' depth starts at the point guard position, where both Ty Lawson and Andre Miller are worthy of starting. Karl will have no choice but to play them together for stretches, but as long as Afflalo is back, Karl will lean heavily on his "glue guy" at the two.
Up front, the Nuggets could use another body, unless No. 22 pick Kenneth Faried proves ready to contribute right away.
How it all comes together offensively and defensively will be the challenge for Karl. But we saw him work his magic last season, and there's no reason to doubt that he can do it again. The man himself seems pretty confident.
"We're going to beat people because we're a team," Karl said. "We're going to play hard and we're going to have a lot of depth to our talent."
1. Play together. Without a real star, the Nuggets must move the ball and replicate the balance they had after the Anthony trade.
2. Help Nene on the glass. The departures of Chandler and Martin will hurt the Nuggets in the rebounding department, especially since Nene isn't a very good rebounder for his size. So the wings will have to get in on the action.
3. Make a deal. Miller has a reasonable, expiring contract and is probably not in the Nuggets' long-term plans. So there may be opportunities to pick up another asset if a contending team needs a veteran point guard.
1. The Nuggets were great at getting to the free throw line throughout last season (both Anthony and Gallinari ranked high in free throw rate), but they were the seventh-best free throw shooting team before the trade (78.5 percent) and the second-worst free throw shooting team after the trade (71.7 percent). Then they shot even worse (70.6 percent) in their five-game series with the Thunder.
2. Karl on his need to keep Afflalo on the floor last season: "Arron was this foundation of consistency at the basics of the game. As the season went on, I was amazed, I felt naked not having him on the court." Afflalo missed 13 games down the stretch and the first two games of the playoffs, both losses in Oklahoma City.
3. Karl has coached 23 seasons in the NBA, and in the 21 seasons where he wasn't fired midway through, he's made the playoffs 20 times. He expects to be 21-for-22 after this season.
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LAST YEAR: 50-32, 2nd in Northwest
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
TY LAWSON, POINT GUARD
12.8 PPG | 4.3 APG | 1.5 SPG
Lawson thrived as a starter towards the end of the season, but the fleet-footed guard struggled to slow up Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. That's a concern.
ARRON AFFLALO, SHOOTING GUARD
12.6 PPG | 3.6 RPG | 2.4 APG
Afflalo ranked eighth in 3-point percentage (.423) and was clutch for Denver in some big moments. He's one of the better jack-of-all-trades wing players in the league.
DANILO GALLINARI, SMALL FORWARD
15.6 PPG | 4.9 RPG | .862 FT%
An all-around scorer who falls in love 3s a little too much, he is the Nuggets' best offensive threat who could realize his vast scoring potential in Denver.
AL HARRINGTON, POWER FORWARD
10.5 PPG | 4.5 RPG | .357 3PT%
Star, role player, sixth man ... Harrington has done it all in his career. His biggest contribution will likely come in practice as one of Kenneth Faried's tutors.
NENE , CENTER
14.5 PPG | 7.6 RPG | .615 FG%
Injuries are always a slight concern with the reigning FG% champ. With his big payday should come a bigger role ... can he thrive as a team's go-to guy?
|Kenneth Faried||6-8||228||F||Glass-cleaning No. 22 pick may be asked to contribute right away.|
|Andre Miller||6-2||200||G||Will bring leadership and will play some minutes with Lawson.|
|Chris Andersen||6-10||228||C||Has been a much more efficient scorer since returning from his drug ban.|
ADDED: G/F Corey Brewer, F Kenneth Faried, F Michael Ruffin, G Rudy Fernandez, G Jordan Hamilton, F Chukwudiebere Maduabum
LOST: F Wilson Chandler, F Melvin Ely, G-F Gary Forbes, F Kenyon Martin, G J.R. Smith, G Raymond Felton
DANILO GALLINARI, FORWARD
The Nuggets seemingly got a solid return when they sent Carmelo Anthony to New York. But two of the four players they received in the trade are already gone (though Raymond Felton was swapped for Andre Miller and the Nuggets retain Wilson Chandler's rights). Gallinari can help validate the trade by becoming the Nuggets 'new go-to guy.
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