A Pre-Season Season Preview

Below you will find my submission for this year’s Celtics Blog preview-palooza.  It is a little silly to write a season preview seeing as how we have no idea what will happen with Carmelo.  Regardless, it was fun to write and I recommend you head over to Celtics Blog to read the other Nuggets previews

(update: the Nuggets previews have not been posted as of yet so keep checking back).

Up-update: links to the other Nuggets previews from Nate at Denver Stiffs and the Nugg Doctor are posted.

Team Name: Denver Nuggets

Last Year’s Record: 53-29

Key Losses: Johan Petro, free agent – New Jersey Nets, Joey Graham, free agent – Cleveland Cavaliers and coming soon to an arena in the New York Metropolitan area Carmelo Anthony

Key Additions: Cancer free George Karl, Al Harrington, free agent – New York Knickerbockers, continual trade rumors

What significant moves were made during the off-season? The primary change over the summer in Denver was an overhaul of the front office.  Out is 2008-09 Executive of the Year Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman.  Enter former Toronto Assistant General Manager Masai Ujiri.  There is also a change at the top.  Stan Kroenke has purchased a majority interest in the St. Louis Rams and as a result had to turn over control of the Nuggets.  His choice was Josh Kroenke.  You may have noticed they have the same last name and that is no coincidence.  Josh is Stan’s son.  Before you get too concerned about the potential pitfalls of nepotism, Kroenke the Younger is not some nitwit who has been lying out by the pool all his life.  He played division one basketball at Missouri and has been in training for a font office position over the previous three years.  Advisor Bret Bearup remains an important part of the management team and he has likely seen his influence increase with the departure of Warkentien.

The new triumvirate of Ujiri, Bearup and Kroenke has been thrown into the fire thanks to the other big development of the summer which is the non-demand trade demand from Carmelo Anthony.  How the trio deals with Anthony’s desire to play in a major market will go a long way towards defining their tenure with the Nuggets.

What are the team’s biggest strengths? If it were not for Carmelo’s desire to play elsewhere, I would say cohesion.  Clearly, that will not be the case.  With Melo’s status very much up in the air I suppose I will say the biggest strength for the Nuggets is payroll flexibility.  The front office has been seeking a trade that will bring back a young stud, some draft picks and expiring contracts.  The fourth piece they are looking for is a player who can step in and produce at the small forward position.  That is why there was the flirtation with Andrei Kirilenko and Andre Igoudala.  The Nuggets seem to be getting a little too greedy and as a result may have lost their best shot at pulling off a trade which would bring them all four of their goals when the four team deal fell apart.

I still believe when push comes to shove the Nuggets will make a trade featuring expiring contracts, which will give them tremendous payroll flexibility entering the unknown world of the new CBA.  Carmelo will be gone.  Kenyon Martin’s massive contract expires after this season.  Chauncey Billups can be bought out for $3.7 million and Nene has an early termination option after this season as well.  Denver could very well enter the era ushered in by the new CBA with a pared down payroll and a handful of decent young players.  With everything on the table from decreased player salaries, decreased length of contracts, and maybe even a hard cap, Denver could be in a great situation going forward under any new restrictions on player salaries that may be in place.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? Once again the likelihood of Anthony being traded nullifies my initial answer of health and age and thus I must say uncertainty.  The Nuggets were amongst the sorriest teams in the league between 1990 and 2003.  While Denver has the opportunity to make a relatively quick turnaround, there is always the chance they could plummet into the abyss of malfeasance.  A great deal of the Nuggets’ future prospects hinges on what they can acquire for Carmelo.  If the answer is Derrick Favors, two first round picks and expiring contracts, I like their chances to rebuild quickly.  If it is Danilo Gallinari, Eddy Curry and the first round pick behind door number two the outlook is considerably murkier.

What are the goals of this team? I believe there are conflicting goals amongst the management of the Nuggets.  George Karl wants to win Carmelo back and convince him Denver is the place to be if he wants to win.  Bret Bearup has reportedly been keen on trading Carmelo even prior to this summer.  Josh Kroenke probably wants to avoid seeing Denver’s streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances cease in his first season at the helm.  Coming to Denver from Toronto Ujiri probably wants to make sure they do not lose Carmelo for a trade exception and a draft pick or two as the Raptors did with Chris Bosh.

While it is painful to admit trading Carmelo is in Denver’s best long term interests with the return of Karl to the bench and Chauncey getting up there in years, the Nuggets primary goal should be to get the best deal possible that jettisons Carmelo from Denver.

How good could the Denver Nuggets be as currently constructed in 2010-11? It would have been very interesting to see if the Nuggets could have recaptured some of the magic that propelled them to the 2009 Western Conference Finals.  Denver could very well choose to hang onto Melo and play out the season.  Under that scenario, could they challenge the Los Angeles Lakers as they did two springs ago?  Al Harrington provides some offensive punch and can fill in at power forward while Kenyon Martin recovers from his latest surgical procedure.  Chauncey Billups has worn down late over the previous two seasons, but with Ty Lawson set to improve after a very solid rookie season, the Nuggets can afford to limit Chauncey’s minutes a little more this season.  Arron Afflalo is in the process of turning into their Bruce Bowen without the dirty tactics as he has shown some tremendous defensive ability while proving to be a threat from behind the arc.  Nene is in a position to build off of two solid seasons and Chris Andersen will hopefully be at full strength again after undergoing knee surgery of his own.  J.R. Smith had a nightmare season and while his shot selection leaves so much to be desired, it seems nearly impossible that he will shoot a mere 33.8% from behind the arc again.

If Denver remains together as currently constructed, they would all know it was their last run together.  To top things off George Karl is entering the final season of his contract.  The players could treat it as one final shot at winning together, or they could fall apart under the weight of their collective unknown futures.  Sadly, things do not look good on that front with Kenyon Martin already proclaiming he would be back on the court had he been offered a contract extension.  Even so, under that scenario, I see no reason why Denver could not be as dangerous as any team in the west in a seven game series.

Sadly, I doubt we will ever know what this team could have accomplished.

Projected Record: 40-42 – Denver’s record is impossible to predict right now as it is all based on when Carmelo is traded and for what.  At this point I expect him to be on the team past December 15 when the latest crop of free agents can be traded and that means the Nuggets would win a few games prior to his departure.