With the curtains having closed on the Olympics we have officially entered the basketball doldrums, a time when we can review the past and speculate on the future, but must wait patiently for the return of live games. The silver lining this summer is that the NBA has returned to normal. The 2011 lockout is sealed in the history books, and we have a full 82-game season to look forward to, including a regular media day, training camp and preseason schedule.
But though the comfort of traditional routine has been restored in the bigger NBA picture, the Denver Nuggets find themselves in a uniquely interesting position. As a result of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups being traded during the 2010-11 season prior to the lockout, combined with the subsequent trades of Nene and Arron Afflalo as well as the departures of Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith in free agency, only two current Nuggets players, Andre Miller from 2003-06 and Ty Lawson from 2009-10, have gone through training camp at the Pepsi Center. And no two Denver players have done so together.
Remarkably, Ty Lawson is the only holdover on the Nuggets roster from when the sun set on the Melo era nearly a year and a half ago. Along with Lawson, the nine (nine!) current players acquired by Denver over the year prior to the start of the 2011-12 season – Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Jordan Hamilton, Kosta Koufos, Andre Miller, Timofey Mozgov and Julyan Stone – were deprived of training camp last year by the lockout. And of course the players who joined the Nuggets this year – Evan Fournier, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, Quincy Miller and Anthony Randolph – simply haven’t been around long enough to have the opportunity yet.
It is difficult to overstate how impressive it was for Denver to attain the sixth seed in a highly competitive Western Conference last season and take the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of postseason elimination, considering the fact that most of its players were more or less thrown together on the fly. True, every team in the league missed the chance to have training camp, but few had gone through as complete a roster overhaul as the Nuggets.
Given last season’s success, the addition of All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Iguodala, the apparent dedication to improvement shown by McGee as he trains with Hakeem Olajuwon, and the entire crop of young, exciting players who are hungry for their chance to develop and earn playing time, the upcoming training camp should be one of the most exciting and important for the Nuggets in many years.
I recently wrote a fairly optimistic post on the prospect of Iguodala improving Denver’s perimeter defense. In comments and in RMC’s more recent 5-on-5 piece, Kalen and Jeremy were quick to point out that the numbers may not tell the whole story, and that without an improvement in overall team defense an individual player may not be able to make significant improvements, points which I readily concede.
So one thing Nuggets fans should be hoping for from the upcoming training camp is that Denver uses it as an opportunity to instill, as Kalen said, “a renewed sense of dedication to defense.” While it may be hard to pinpoint who precisely to blame for the unfortunate regression in the Nuggets’ perimeter defense last season, I would propose that pointing a finger at the absence of Kenyon Martin might be a reasonable place to start.
“Defensive quarterback” was a term often used in describing K-Mart’s captaincy. It was a role he seemed to take pride in, and he grew into it even more enthusiastically after Melo was traded. Whether or not that role fell or should have fallen to Afflalo, he is gone, and that point is moot. What matters now is that the team requires rejuvenated defensive leadership.
Likewise, the Nuggets need clear leadership on offense. Since the departure of Billups, several players have taken their turns in leading at various times, but no single player has clearly emerged as “the guy” who will rally the troops.
In training camp, captains (plural because the Nuggets always have more than one) will be chosen. Roles and goals will be clearly defined. The excitement of all these young players finally having the chance to go through the process together, learning the playbook, developing chemistry and battling for the chance to see court time, should energize the team. But equally important is the need for key players to assume the mantle of responsibility in leading this roster through a successful season and into a future as a legitimate title contender.
It’s time for the future leaders of the Nuggets to become leaders in the present tense. Ty Lawson must assume control. The offense starts with him, and he dictates the terms of how the rest of the team plays. As Charlie recently pointed out, his arc of improvement and strengthening of mentality over the course of the last playoff series was highly encouraging. He needs to continue building on that progress and grow into the leader the Nuggets will need him to be if they’re to offer him the kind of contract extension he hopes to land..
Gallo, too, must own his role as a go-to guy. He gets some slack for being injured over a large part of last season, but he has to step up now and be a presence of confidence and stability who the coaching staff can trust (in how many games has he not closed out the fourth quarter?) and who his teammates can rely on.
On defense, the Nuggets will need Iguodala to be the coach on the floor that Kenyon once was, directing his teammates and helping them stay focused on their roles. If he can successfully take on this kind of leaderhip, it will go a long way towards reifying my optimism regarding his defensive impact, transcending his individual skills and strengthening those of his team as a whole.
Denver was already going to be a better team next season by virtue of the improvement of its developing players and by being able to prepare properly. But now that the talent level has been raised by landing Iguodala, training camp this season represents an even greater opportunity not only to get better, but to genuinely break through and elevate the team to the next level.
Let’s hope they capitalize on it.