The season is still a ways away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little). We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else. In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next couple months or so. We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z. Today's team: Denver. Jump to the comments to discuss the Nuggets and make a prediction on their record.
Last year's record: 54-28 (Pythagorean record: 50-32)
Playoffs: Beat New Orleans 4-1 in first round, beat Dallas 4-1 in second round, lost to LA Lakers 4-2 in Western Conference Finals.
Offensive Rating: 110.4 (7th)
Defensive Rating: 106.8 (8th)
Pace: 94.3 possessions/game (5th)
Projected starting lineup:
*: I'd start Afflalo, but I don't know if Denver will
- Is this team really elite or was last year's run to the Western Conference Finals a bit of a fluke?
- How much more can Carmelo Anthony's game grow?
- How will they handle losing two of their top nine rotation players in Jones and Kleiza? Can Afflalo and others replace them?
- Their frontcourt guys (Nene and K-Mart) uncharacteristically stayed healthy, but the Nuggets didn't really increase their depth behind them. Will they stay healthy? Can Denver survive again in the West with only three real quality bigs (them and Birdman)?
- What's the next step for J.R. Smith? Does he start? How will his tumultuous summer, which included a bad episode with Twitter, a reckless driving charge and his captain openly calling him out for his immaturity, affect him?
- How will management get this roster to improve when they are so up against the luxury tax?
- Chauncey Billups will be 33 this year. How will the Nuggets manage his minutes? How much of an impact will Ty Lawson make?
- Was Denver's defensive improvement a mirage, or can it be maintained despite the strong personalities on the team?
Last year was the honeymoon stage of the supposed Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson heist. This year is going to be where the long-term portion of the trade is going to be judged.
What do I mean? I don't think there are too many smart hoops fans who felt the Nuggets would be worse in the short-term with Billups rather than Iverson. (If you were one, shame on you). Billups' game, based mostly on efficiency, leadership and unselfishness, was perfect for a team like Denver that plays so frenetically. It also helped in George Karl's pleas to change Denver's "culture," which was already in transition before Billups came to town. Karl was already installing a new defensive system, and early returns were promising. Billups just made that transition easier. We all should have seen the short-term gains coming.
Of course, I doubt anyone thought Denver was going to have this much success in the short term. By that, I mostly mean playoff success. Denver emerged as a legitimate threat in the West by routing New Orleans, destroying Dallas and giving the Lakers a run for their money. A play here, a play there, and Denver might have made the Finals. Sure, their bracket opened up for them when San Antonio entered the playoffs so banged up, but Denver took advantage of their opportunity and proved their worth against the Lakers. This was and is a damn good basketball team.
But now comes the problem of trying to build on that success, which is a major uphill climb with Denver because of all the long-term salary they have. Adding Billups' long-term contract only made things worse on that front. The short-term gain was four more wins in a weaker West, with all their injury-prone guys playing more games than normal, and a fairly lucky (all things considered) draw to the Western Conference Finals. The long-term cost might be losing resources needed to build on that short-term success. In other words, Denver may have reached its peak with the Billups trade.
All that said, I think Denver did the best it could to improve or at least maintain their position this summer. Dahntay Jones isn't a big loss, and the swap for Arron Afflalo, who does the same things Jones does but costs half as much, was a brilliant move. Letting Linas Kleiza go was also a good decision, because he was never going to get the proper playing time behind Carmelo Anthony to justify a long-term contract. Trading for Ty Lawson on draft day was also a brilliant move because he can immediately play backup point guard minutes.
But none of those moves move the Nuggets too far forward, and there are a few things that could move Denver backwards. For example, Nene played 77 games last year, even though he's averaged just 53 games per season in his career. If he gets injured, that's a huge loss, because he's so underrated and because Denver only has one legitimate backup big man. Also, if JR Smith's summer struggles carry over into the season beyond his seven-game suspension, the Nuggets could take a step back.
At the very least, San Antonio and Portland have certainly passed Denver (though you could argue they were already ahead of Denver last year), and others could too. Denver will still be a factor, but I don't see them getting back to the Western Conference Finals again until the next rebuilding effort.
Mike's prediction: 53-29, second in the Northwest, fifth in the West.
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