For all we know Carmelo Anthony could be playing for another team tomorrow, but today the despised Utah Jazz are in town which means the Denver Nuggets will be focused on one thing, taking them out.
The Jazz have made significant changes to their roster, some voluntary, some not. Gone are Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and replacing them are Al Jefferson and Raja Bell. Some observers believe the Jazz are better. I am not one of them.
Al Jefferson is undoubtedly a better post player than Boozer. The issue in my mind is the Jazz had no problem getting easy shots at the rim thanks to their exceptional execution. Jefferson may be able to get more close shots than Boozer did on the block, but at what cost? Boozer is a very good passer and fit exceptionally well in the offensive scheme. I almost wonder if adding Jefferson to the Jazz will be akin to when the Suns acquired Shaq. Simply adding a player to fill a need does not necessarily make for a better team.
The Nuggets also tend to do a pretty good job defending Jefferson. In his three seasons in the Western Conference Jefferson’s scoring average against Denver has always been lower than his overall average for the season. I believe that is due mostly to Nene. Nene is strong enough to keep Jefferson from getting position too deep. I am sure the Jazz will continue to rub Jefferson off a screen across the lane in order to knock his defender off of him so he can set up as close to the rim as possible. Denver will have to be ready to defend that motion and it will be incumbent on the Nuggets guards to obstruct and irritate Jefferson as he crosses the lane.
The player who provides the most difficulty for Denver will continue to be Deron Williams. Williams has great range, is quick with the ball and posses very good size and strength. Chauncey Billups will struggle to stay in front of Deron on the perimeter while Ty Lawson is too small to deal with him on the block. I would anticipate that Arron Afflalo will start off guarding Williams with Chauncey on Raja Bell. Afflalo will have the same problems with Williams as Chauncey as he is will struggle to stay in between Williams and the basket, but he has a better chance to slow Williams down than Chauncey does and while Williams might try to post Billups up, he will not do so with Afflalo.
As far as team defense, the Nuggets must do a better job of building their defense from the inside out. The Jazz are not a great three point shooting team at this point in the season. Raja Bell is excellent and Williams is solid, but C.J. Miles is slightly below average, Mehmet Okur is out and Gordon Hayward struggled from the college three point line last season at Butler. If the Nuggets can reduce the number of easy opportunities the Jazz have in the paint and close out on Bell, they should have more success defending the Jazz than we are accustomed to.
Offensively, Jerry Sloan has come out and said Utah cannot contain Carmelo Anthony. Andrei Kirilenko has had success in slowing Melo down in the past, but injuries have robbed him of some of his athleticism and Melo has been getting the better of AK-47 over the past couple of seasons, when Kirilenko is on the court that is. The Jazz will most likely play Melo one on one with defenders on their toes ready to help on the drive and double him when he gets the ball in the post.
It will be interesting to see how Denver executes offensively starting two defensive minded players in Afflalo and Shelden Williams. Afflalo had an exceptional preseason, even tallying ten assists in the final game against the Suns. That was clearly an aberration though as he entered that game averaging under two assists per outing. Still, the Nuggets are asking Afflalo to do more offensively which may be a mistake. He is an average ball handler and passer for a shooting guard, but is not great off the dribble. He is best as a spot up shooter and a slasher. However, he worked his tail off this summer and he was a very good scoring guard in the preseason. I expect to see players grow over the summer and there is reason to believe Afflalo will be a better scorer this season than last. If the Jazz decide to put Bell on Billups and Williams on Afflao, a slight possibility, it will be interesting to see if Afflalo can make Williams work in the half court.
The Nuggets are also asking Ty Lawson to look to score more this year and he certainly has the talent to do so. With Al Harrington, who is ready to play despite still experiencing pain from his ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis, coming off the bench along with J.R. Smith the Nuggets will have as explosive a bench as anyone in the NBA. They should certainly have an advantage of the Jazz bench, although you know the Jazz reserves will continue to execute and work for high caliber shots.
Denver is the more talented team and they are playing at home. The players are probably holding out hope that a fast start can help convince Carmelo to stay as there is really nothing else to hang their hat on for this season. Coming off a playoff loss to Utah six months ago it will be an emotional night.
Of course, the best moment of the evening, win or lose, will be seeing George Karl back on the court again. I expect to see a motivated Nuggets team play a very good game, and at least for now, alert the league that they are a still a very good basketball team.