The importance of the Denver Nuggets 2012 training camp

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.

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • Booker Addison

    Good article. Totally excited about the addition of AI. Not sure anyone but a front line player can truly take over the roll of “defensive quarterback” simply by nature of where they are on the floor. Think KG and Tyson Chandler. AI will certainly help, but McGee and Manimal are not ready for that type of role…yet. Maybe the Nuggets can do another 2 for 1 for this type of big before the trade deadline or next offseason.

  • steve

    well said. great write up Denbutsu! I keep telling my friends the same thing. We are so young and have had so much turnover that this team hasn’t come close to reaching it’s potential. They write denver off every year as a 6-8 seed in west but i truly believe we could be top 4 if everything comes together. Obviously, that is a big IF.

  • magster

    Kenyon’s available. I would totally be OK with bringing him back to come off the bench behind Faried. I’m not sure Randolph is ready for the rotation.

    • denbutsu

      I don’t think bringing K-Mart back is really a viable option. For one thing, the roster is maxed out. But more importantly, Denver needs its players who will be a part of its future to step into leadership roles.

      • magster

        I think Koufos is expendable. I’m tired of waitng for a championship. I’d like KMart to be a hired gun for defensive stability coming off the bench. He won the Clippers game late in the season with us by being the smart wily vet, which led to the Clips maybe getting a higher seed. I also don’t know what role he had in locking down the Grizzlies in the 4th quarter of their epic collapse, but I would bet it was a big one. That was the difference in their series. KMart also had a big game 7 against the Grizzlies.

        (Though Mozgov scored zero points on 0-2 shooting in the bronze medal game so maybe he’s the expendable one).

        KMart can also mentor Faried a little. I don’t see a downside if we want to give it our best shot this season.

  • Ban

    K-Mart can still play. Anyone see his game 7 performance against the Grizzlies last year?; he and Reggie Evans pretty much locked down that whole team.

    But, yeah, signing K-Mart wouldn’t be a smart long-term move. A Randolph and Kostas Koufos both deserve to play.

  • John

    I don’t believe KMart would even want to come back. He has been pretty negative towards both Karl and the Nuggets, ever since they didn’t give him an extension on his already ridiculous contract.

    Plus, he doesn’t fit with the uptempo team we now have. He worked really well, when we had Melo and Nene loping up the court, and slowing things down. He would be a liability on this run and gun team.

  • eddi0

    Agree on Koufos, he deserves to play in Denver (after a pretty good season and was healthy all season), has a good contract and is legit 7′. This is Mozzie’s last year on his current contract and because of his offensive skills along with how he defended Bynum will be fetching a much more lucrative contract next year so I believe Mozzie will not be a Nug after this season (we won’t be able to re-sign Ty and Mozzie and Faried next year, one of the three will have to budge).

  • Poz_303

    Hey Denbutsu, great read and really enjoyed your article with statistical analysis regarding AAA and Iggy’s defense.

    Have to agree, this team has not had a chance to gel yet. There is a lot of potential here. I think the lack of training camp and all the roster changes in the past two seasons likely affected their defense rather than their uptempo offense.

  • Luis

    Can Iguodala be our go-to guy? If not I don’t see any potential go-to gut in our roster, maybe we should trade for Rudy Gay. Is this trade possible?

    • Zack

      Obviously that trade is possible, but I really don’t see it happening.

      I don’t think there’s any way the T-Wolves get rid of Derrick Williams for Koufos and Tony Allen.

      • Luis

        so it’s impossible

  • Josh

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I was just thinking about this a few days ago.
    Especially, when people were talking about GK being a possible Coach of the Year for making that post-Melo run into the playoffs, that was mid season with no time to adjust. Plus, you take into consideration how well the Nuggets played last season and remember all the injuries and inconsistent lineups GK was forced to play with to accomodate the healthy roster, i think the Nuggets improve significantly this year with a regular training camp and fairly healthy year. Predicting a 4-5th seed from this new team. I’d say the Nuggets move past the Grizzlies

  • BurkinaJoe

    The guy that is expendable is Corey Brewer no doubt. Too many SF/SG on the roster. Timo Moz has some really good games at the Olympiad. At 18pt showing, and the dunk against Spain. If there is anything in Youth and size then Moz has it. This is assuming that a roster spot goes to Quincy Miller.

    I think that with their depth, youth and growth there is no reason not to be in the top 4 in the west. The brutal opening road trips will test the Nugs, but 50+ wins, some good defence and leading the league in fast break points should be a given!

  • Tom

    I’ve never been a fan of Rudy Gay and I’m not sure he’s an upgrade over Gallinari/Chandler.

    Thinking about possible upgrades…

    At PG, Lawson might only be the 15th best in the league, but there isn’t that much difference between, say, number 5 or 6 and number 15. And who could we get to replace him? Washington management is pretty dumb, so maybe we could get John Wall. Maybe Stephen Curry is gettable. But there’s no obvious clear upgrade that isn’t also untouchable.

    At SF, the only player we might be able to get that’s an upgrade is Danny Granger. That could be a pretty good move. But we could also keep Iggy at SF and try to find a SG instead.

    At SG, I’d just buy low on one of Sacramento’s many SG assets like Marcus Thornton or Tyreke Evans. I don’t think I’d go for Jimmer Fredette unless he was very cheap, and he certainly would not start for us.

    PF is good for us. A potential all-star with an extremely dominant skill on a rookie contract? Maybe Josh Smith would be worth it, but I don’t think so. Next!

    The C position is not very strong. McGee had a good playoffs, but I’m not sold on him yet. Koufos and Mozgov will never amount to anything. Mozgov didn’t even start for his country’s olympic team, so how could he start for an NBA team? McGee’s contract is also not great. I predict the Nuggets will have buyer’s remorse halfway through the season and try to ship him off somewhere. But who can we get? Personally, I’d rather have Nene back, but barring him, if we could get someone like Al Horford or a healthy version of Andrew Bogut, that would be huge! Someone like Marc Gasol would be wonderful, but that kind of guy would be hard to get. Give McGee half a season, and if he hasn’t taken the “next step”, try to pry Horford from Atlanta.

    So that’s my prescription, try to get one of these guys:
    John Wall, Stephen Curry, Danny Granger, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Al Horford, Andrew Bogut.

    Out of those guys, my first preference would be Horford followed by Granger. Might only be an incremental upgrade, but you take what you can get.

    • Zack

      I would love to get Horford.

      Don’t go after Granger. He’s not a go-to guy like he should be (I live in Indiana).

  • parkhill

    Gallo, after a long career, is simply not aging well. He moves like someone a few years older. He should come off the bench and expectations of him should lower for his and the team’s good.

    Iggy and Dre should lead the team. Not saying Dre should start over Ty but I don’t think Ty needs the added pressure of leader just yet.

  • silver price

    NBA teams can bring up to 20 players to training camp. However, before the first regular season game they will have to trim the roster to at least 15 guys.