For most of the 2009-10 season the Denver Nuggets were the second best team in the Western Conference and held the title of the team possessing the best chance to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers. Things went horribly awry as any hope of earning a shot at a championship vanished on February 17, 2010 when news broke that George Karl had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in his life. Most fans still held out hope that Karl could return and the team would continue chugging along on its current trajectory.
That would simply not be the case and just over two weeks later when it was determined Kenyon Martin would miss a large chunk of the remainder of the season due to a frayed patella tendon the Nuggets ship was sunk. They did manage to hang on to their lead in the Northwest Division and somehow limped into the playoffs with home court advantage against the Utah Jazz. Utah quickly invalidated the Nuggets division crown and higher seed as they walked over the Nuggets in six games.
After watching possibly the most promising season in Denver’s 34 years as a member of the NBA fall apart it is very difficult to gage the current state of the franchise. While it is easy to envision a world where Denver is the team preparing to face off in game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers that world is probably further from reality than Nuggets boosters would like to think.
It would be great to simply bring back the same group of players with the return of a cancer free George Karl and expect a redo in 2010-11. The truth is there are far too many questions surrounding the franchise to expect the Nuggets can jump back into the mix and be the number two contender in the west again. George Karl certainly hopes to coach again and all signs point to him being able to do that next fall. Still, his status is currently unknown.
Two summers ago I declared Nene and Kenyon Martin to be players that we could safely assume would be healthy for at least 140 games combined every season. At the time that was an outrageous assertion. Nene has held up his part of the bargain, although he did suffer a serious injury in the last playoff game of 2009 and the penultimate playoff game of 2010. In both cases had Denver advanced they would have faced their next foe without Maybyner. While Nene has performed well, there are far too many times when he is far from consistent and has a habit of disappearing for large chunks of time when he is on the court.
Kenyon on the other has been able to overcome his knee issues for a time, but I fear the patella tendon injury he experienced this season is a sign of more to come. The blood that clotted through his microfracture procedures to replace his cartilage can only last so long before it begins to deteriorate and he has seen his games played drop from 71 in 2007-08 to 66 during 2008-09 and now 58 last year. While he submitted a very good season on the glass, what can Denver expect from him next season?
J.R. Smith regressed last season offensively, which is a frightening thought. His defense is much improved over where he was two or three seasons ago, but when a player who struggles with shot selection as it is sees his shooting percentages drop it is a concern. Like Carmelo, Smith inexplicably saw his rebound and assist rates drop in conjunction with his worst shooting percentages across the board since his rookie season in the league. He still had his games where he caught fire and was virtually unstoppable that lead us all to believe he was breaking out of his funk. It just never proved to be true.
Chris Andersen, the team’s number one priority from the summer of 2009, posted solid numbers and was worth the money he was paid. Unfortunately, he too suffered from knee issues, and the team informed us he went under the knife recently for his own patella tendon problem, and as a whole he did not provide the same boost on the second unit as he did the year before. Birdman has relatively low basketball miles on his odometer for a player his age. Even so, for a big man to struggle to recreate the impact he provided the season before in the first year of a five year deal is a red light, or at least a flashing yellow one.
Chauncey Billups posted some amazing numbers during the course of the season and he produced probably the best stretch of his career over the months of January and February. Then came March and April where Billups struggled mightily when the team needed him the most. Considering his struggles in the conference finals in 2009 and his advancing age, how much will he have left in the tank as the season wears on next year?
We already addressed Carmelo Anthony and his shortcomings. He received a great deal of recognition for finally breaking out when in fact, he still has a long way to go before truly deserving recognition as an MVP candidate and one of the top five players in the NBA. I fear he may never actually fulfill his still considerable potential.
Above and beyond the personnel there are concerns with management and ownership. 2008-09 NBA Executive of the Year Mark Warkentien is a free agent and can leave the team for greener pastures should he choose to do so. He has done an excellent job the past two seasons keeping the ship afloat even under strict financial constraints. He is in high demand and Denver better hope he wants to stay in town. The fact he has not been signed to an extension is very disconcerting though. While Warkentien shares some of the managerial burden with Bret Bearup and Rex Chapman, and they deserve credit of the relative achievements of the team, I am certainly not excited about the prospect of seeing Warkentien go.
Stan Kroenke has been a good owner in the past and has dumped some serious cash into the Nuggets in the past. Things have changed over the past couple of seasons as he has developed a strong aversion to the luxury tax. It is a business and if he does not want to pay the tax, I cannot fault him for that. Still with his endeavors in other sports, attempting to buy a majority stake in the St. Louis Rams and being close to taking over a controlling interest in EPL team Arsenal, it is clear he can afford to put a little more money into the Nuggets.
However, if he maintains his stance of paying as little tax as possible we may be facing another summer of salary dumps and cost cutting. Denver was talented enough, and shrewd enough, to survive the departure of Marcus Camby and the swap of Dahntay Jones and Arron Afflalo was stellar. Even so, the Nuggets suffered from a lack of depth and it will only get worse after another summer of slashing payroll.
There are a lot of teams with money to spend this summer and not enough high level talent to go around. If Denver wants to unload Nene or J.R. Smith to a team with cap space as they did with Camby, they will be able to do so.
The only asset the Nuggets really have going for them is Kenyon Martin’s expiring contract, they currently have no picks in the 2010 draft although they do hold the restricted rights to Linas Kleiza who could be a limited sweetener in any deal. Kenyon’s contract is only useful if Kroenke is willing to trade for more long term salary. Furthermore, such a trade is only beneficial if the right player is acquired. Apart from the fact they will be way over the tax in 2010-11, they are in almost as bad of shape for 2011-12 which makes it unlikely adding any big money long term deals will be acceptable to ownership. Plus with a lockout looming that season, few teams will be interested in acquiring any bloated deals that would put them behind the eight ball when salaries are undoubtedly slashed in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
If the Nuggets have anything going for them it is they only have two players currently under contract, with Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo likely being numbers three and four and Melo looming as a potential fifth, when the lockout hits. If Denver plays their cards correctly, they could be in a great position to compete under the new rules come 2012. That is not great news for the here and now though.
As I have written before I firmly believed 2009-10 was the Nuggets best shot at winning their first championship in franchise history and they way things played out, they did not even come close. What’s worse, knowing what we know about the players under contract and the men calling the shots, they will likely be even further away next season.
The most difficult thing for many teams to do is to be honest with themselves about where they are in their life cycle. Miscalculations can be deadly to a franchise. The gravest example is what happened to the New York Knicks over the past decade. They could never admit the need to rebuild and thus sank deeper and deeper into mediocrity. Because they waited so long to tear things down the process took much longer than it should have and in the meantime their fans were tortured with mismatched rosters and miserable results. On the flip side we have the Phoenix Suns who would be watching the conference finals from home had they been successful in trading Amare Stoudemire away.
With Kroenke unwilling to pump more money into the roster history will show this current iteration of the Nuggets peaked in May of 2009. Any attempt to prolong the window for this current group will most likely end in an extended period of mediocrity. Then again with six first round exits in seven years, that is pretty much the status quo in Denver.