FanHouse Preview: Denver Nuggets
Denver's previous coach wasn't bashful about title talk.
"To win a championship, you've got to talk championship,'' Michael Cooper said on several occasions as members of the media attempted to keep from snickering.
Let's just say Cooper, who compiled a 4-10 interim coaching stint before being silenced in January 2005, didn't do much more than talk championship.
Now, the guy who replaced Cooper is doing a lot of such spouting. But nobody is snickering.
"I believe this team can win a championship,'' said George Karl, who has led the Nuggets to five straight playoff berths since taking over.
The Nuggets never were closer to that during their first 33 NBA years than last season. They advanced to the Western Conference finals, throwing a scare into the Lakers before falling 4-2.
Now, Karl and some players have not been shy about saying the Nuggets have what it takes to claim the crown. Wait, you say, didn't they pretty much remain pat during the offseason while other top teams beefed up?
"I think other teams made moves after looking at where we were,'' said forward Kenyon Martin, who believes his Nuggets are better than the defending champion Lakers.
Other reasons were Denver owner Stan Kroenke, whose team is over the luxury-tax threshold, not wanting to go on a spending spree, and the Nuggets believing they have chemistry in place and there was no reason to mess with it.
It all came together with what was concocted in the laboratory last November. That's when the Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups from Detroit, giving them the heady point guard they desperately sought and sending them on their way to a 54-28 season and the Northwest Division title.
Other things mixed perfectly. Forward Carmelo Anthony saw his scoring average decrease, but he became a better all-around player. Big men Martin and Nene amazingly were able to stay healthy the whole season.
Center Chris "Birdman'' Andersen, who looked as if he would go the way of the Dodo bird because of a 2006-08 NBA drug suspension, saw his career resurrected. And guard J.R. Smith continued to develop, finishing second in voting for the NBA Sixth Man Award.
But Smith was suspended by the NBA for the first seven games of the regular season because of a reckless driving guilty plea from a 2007 accident that killed a passenger in his car. That means the Nuggets, who will play five of their first seven on the road without Smith, will be tested early.
The Nuggets, you see, might have the "Birdman,'' but they're still thin on the wing. They lost free-agent swingmen Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza during the offseason, although Karl has been pleased with summer perimeter acquisition Arron Afflalo. And the Nuggets remain a big undersized in the post.
Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year, says it's "very fair to say we haven't had a marquee move.'' But Warkentien said the Nuggets won't hesitate to make one if there's any sign of slippage.
"We'll see where we're at,'' said Warkentien, whose team has a $7.4 million trade exception that expires Nov. 3. "One thing I think has been proven is, if we indeed have slipped, when you get to that analysis that we need more, I think this group has proven that we'll take the driver out and give it another big swing.
"We're not afraid to hit driver. And, on the first tee of this season, it seems to be a little more prudent to hit 3-wood. But, again, we're in a good spot. Let's hit 3-wood and see how it works. If we get stuck, Big Bertha's coming out. Big Bertha's still in the bag.''
Right now, though, nobody on the Nuggets seems too concerned about getting stuck. Everybody is too busy talking championship.
Last Season By the Numbers
Record: 54-28 under George Karl. Won Northwest Division, 2nd in the Western Conference. Eliminated by Los Angeles Lakers (4-2) in the West final.
Offense: 110.4 points per 100 possessions, 7th in the NBA, 7th in shooting, 24th in turnover rate, 15th in offensive rebounding, 30th in free throw rate.
Defense: 106.8 points per 100 possessions, 8th in the NBA. 6th in shooting defense, 8th in opponent turnover rate, 23rd in defensive rebounding, 25th in opponent free throw rate.
Top Performers: Forward Carmelo Anthony's team-high 22.8 scoring average was lower than the previous season's 25.7, but he developed into a better all-around player. After joining the Nuggets four games into their season, point guard Chauncey Billups averaged 17.9 points and a team-high 6.4 assists for them. Guard J.R. Smith provided instant offense with a 15.2 average while shooting 39.7 percent on three-pointers. Center Nene averaged a surprising 14.6 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds after having testicular cancer the previous season. Perhaps even more surprising was center Chris Andersen finishing second in the league in blocks with a 2.46 average.
All statistics via Basketball-Reference.com.
Player to Watch
FanHouse's Matt Moore and Tom Ziller preview one player to watch from each team. Here's a snippet of Moore's post on Denver center Nene.
Nene bounced back last season from a potentially career-crippling injury. This season he's looking at jumping to the next level. And the quickest way to do that? Dunk on everyone.
See Moore's full post on Nene.
IN: Arron Afflalo (trade), Malik Allen (trade), Joey Graham (free agency), Ty Lawson (draft).
OUT: Jason Hart (free agency), Steven Hunter (trade), Dahntay Jones (free agency), Linas Kleiza (free agency), Sonny Weems (trade).