Does Losing Linas Kleiza Doom the Nuggets?

Noah CrouseContributor IAugust 10, 2009

DENVER - MAY 23:  Linas Kleiza #43 of the Denver Nuggets shoots a jumper against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 23, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets have said goodbye to another key member of their Western Conference Finals team. First to go was free agent shooting guard Dahntay Jones, who accepted a free agent deal with the Indiana Pacers. Then over the weekend the team dealt rarely used center Steven Hunter to the Memphis Grizzlies for a draft pick and a little salary cap relief.

Now it appears Denver is about to lose small forward Linas Kleiza, who has reportedly received a contract from Greek basketball club Olympiakos.

His deal has been announced as a two year contract valued at $6 million dollars per year, with an option to opt out and return to the NBA after the first season. This new contract is a nearly an 80 percent increase in salary for Kleiza, who earned one and a half million dollars playing for Denver last season.

At the beginning of the offseason, Denver extended a qualifying offer to Kleiza, which would guarantee he would make $2.7 million dollar next season.

While Kleiza has been a solid rotation player for the Nuggets, there is no way he is worth $6 million dollars a year. He has been far too inconsistent and has not shown enough growth as an all around player to warrant that much salary. Based on his play last season, the $2.7 million dollars Denver offered him is probably too much.

It was obvious that alleged contract problems were in Kleizas head last season. He was nowhere near the player Nuggets fans were used to. He struggled to find his rhythm for much of the season and was terrible on some nights.

He did pick up his game during the playoffs, but it was a case of too little, too late. No way were the Nuggets or any other team going to throw big money at him.

While Kleiza is a decent offensive player, he is very inconsistent. He tends to rely on his jumpshot too much, although he is at his best when he is driving to the basket. He also offers very little as far as rebounding goes, averaging only 3.5 rebounds per game during his NBA career.

That isn't even addressing his biggest struggle, which typically occurs at the defensive end of the court. His defensive intensity and effort are usually lacking and he suffers from too many mental mistakes on that side of the court.

All detractors aside, Kleiza was a valuable member of the Nuggets bench. Next to J.R. Smith, Kleiza was their only scoring threat off the bench. Similar to Smith, Kleiza could be considered a wildcard who at a moments notice he could be counted on to hit a three-pointer or get a big basket.

That makes this Nuggets fan wonder who, if anybody, the Nuggets are going to replace Kleiza with. Their bench is now less talented and will seriously lack scoring depth, especially if J.R. Smith is given the starting shooting guard position. Who will come off the bench and score?

Will it be Renaldo Balkman, who offers hustle and defense, but not much else. Will this deal mean that the team will bring back reserve point guard Anthony Carter? Can Carter match the potential scoring output Kleiza would have provided? Probably not. Before you jump in and say Ty Lawson, realize that he is a rookie. While he will be counted on to provide some scoring punch, he cannot do it alone. And honestly it may take some time for him to adjust to the NBA game.

This move puts the Nuggets further behind their Western Conference counterparts. If they are forced to resign and then required to rely on Carter or Balkman to carry the bench scoring, the team could be in serious danger of being a one hit wonder; a team that possibly will not see the Western Conference Finals for years to come.  

Right now Denver is playing a dangerous game. Sticking with the roster they had last season is a good thing, but they also have to realize that everyone around them is getting better. They cannot sit idly by and watch the rest of the Western Conference grow stronger while they continue to lose pieces.

Knowing the Nuggets front office, they have got something up their sleeves. Considering they have over $8 million dollars to spend on a trade exception, it can be expected that they will do something.

But now they have lost two valuable trade pieces. Gone are the expiring contract of Hunter and the potential of a sign and trade deal involving Kleiza. That leaves future draft picks and not much else for them to dangle out there, hoping that someone will bite.

Hopefully the right deal comes along and the Nuggets wow the fans, because if they don't next season could be very long.