Carmelo Anthony could be on the way out, but the Denver Nuggets still have a season to play regardless. Can they succeed despite all the distractions surrounding them?
In some ways, doing a Denver Nuggets preview is kind of pointless. Carmelo Anthony is still on the roster, but it's probably only a matter of time until he's traded. The Nuggets certainly want to get something for him before he departs for free agency, but they have time to make that happen. Denver's decision on what to do with Anthony obviously affects their team tremendously next season. But still, we'll do the best we can while accounting for that contingency.
Here's what we know about the Denver Nuggets: their 2009-10 season went off the rails with George Karl's illness. Before Karl got sick, the Nuggets were building toward a rematch of their 2009 Western Conference Finals with the Lakers. They often lost focus, causing them to lose to poor teams, but against the league's best, they were outstanding. As I noted back in February, the Nuggets won 11 of their first 14 games against the top six teams in the league at the time (Cleveland, the Lakers, Orlando, Boston, Utah and Dallas).
It's that poor finish that explains why Anthony and others feel the Nuggets window has closed. Denver did little to dissuade anyone from that feeling by dismissing GM Mark Warkentein and assistant GM Rex Chapman, the architects of these teams. In their place is former Raptors assistant GM Masai Ujiri, as well as 30-year old Josh Kroenke, the son of owner Stan Kroenke that will be taking more of an active role in the team's day-to-day operations.
All the upheavel has caused SB Nation's Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs to ask a simple question: what's going on?
What direction is this team heading in? The franchise player is in limbo along with a number of other players and even head coach George Karl who is in the last year of his deal. If things shook out just right for Denver after the season they could erase roughly $57.2 million from the roster by letting Melo walk, K-Mart walk, J.R. Smith walk, Arron Afflalo walk, tearing up Chauncey Billups' team option season, and having Nene opt out of his player option season.
But the more likely scenario is probably tearing up Billups' contract and re-signing him, maybe re-signing K-Mart at a reduced price, having Nene take his player option season, trading J.R. Smith, re-signing Afflalo, and either re-signing Melo (not looking promising) or trading Melo for some type of package.
On the court, the Nuggets finished as the third-best offensive team and 16th-best defensive team last season. That said, Denver Stiffs believes the defense can be a big strength of the team.
As funny as it sounds, the Nuggets biggest strength has always been defense. When the Nuggets are flying around defensively and creating turnovers, clogging the lane and getting blocks, and rotating properly they become the most explosive team in the NBA and one that will run teams right out of the thin air at the Pepsi Center.
Consistency remains an issue, though, and the defense won't get any better with the addition of Al Harrington in the offseason. That said, Harrington was brought in to space the floor better, which could lead to better ball movement. The Nuggets' offense became predictable at times last year as they worked through Anthony, and Harrington at least gives them another scoring threat as Kenyon Martin recovers from injury.
Alas, none of this means much without Anthony. Roundball Mining Company believes the Nuggets need to move now and trade him for value while they can.
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.
On the flip side, Nugg Doctor did his best to sell Anthony on a future in Denver.
I truly believe the Nuggets are still just a piece or two away from being once again a real contender in the Western Conference. Last season was tough losing Coach George Karl to cancer and having key players go down with injuries entering the playoffs, but we still won 53 games last year and the future is bright.
Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith's erratic attitudes and salaries are coming off the books after this season and Denver will be one of a handful of teams in the running for a headline free-agent this offseason. If winning is truly your #1 bullet point don't leave town in hopes of greener pastures. Instead, work with the pieces you have been given and add more talent in the years to come.
As currently constructed, the Nuggets aren't that far off. The core of the team that made the West Finals is still there, and last season didn't go off the rails until Karl got sick. Harrington is a bit of a ball-stopper, but he's a major upgrade on their bench too. Backup point guard Ty Lawson is a year older, which should account for any drop-off in Billups' game. If there weren't chemistry issues, I'd say Denver is a darkhorse.
Alas, there are, which makes predicting a record tough. Here's what the bloggers came up with.
- Denver Stiffs: 47-35 with Anthony, less without
- Roundball Mining Company: 40-42
- Nugg Doctor: 50-32 with Anthony, 30-52 without.