Watching the replay of the Olympiacos-Entente Orleanaise Euroleague game, I couldn't help but notice the undeniable impact of one Linas Kleiza.
Kleiza scored 19 points, all in the fourth quarter, and was the catalyst for a come-from-behind victory for Olympiacos, which included him making five of eight from three-point range. Olympiacos scored 30 points in the quarter and seemed to be inspired by the play of Kleiza.
Since his departure from the Nuggets, I have been adamant about Kleiza's lack of importance to the future of this franchise, but watching his performance the other day, I am beginning to reassess my hasty contention.
The Nuggets most glaring weakness is their lack of depth in the frontcourt. Kenyon Martin, Nene and Chris Anderson are all formidable big men, but an injury to any of the three would be a devastating blow to this team.
Beyond this obvious weakness, it is hard to find many flaws in the makeup of the Nuggets. That said, as you begin to examine Denver's second unit, the lack of a true three-point threat (beyond J.R. Smith) seems to be a second area where they could stand to make some improvement.
The Nuggets bench as it stands now really only consists of a three-man rotation of Ty Lawson, Anderson and Smith. Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman have been known to make brief appearances, but their impact is minimal at best.
In the offseason, the Nuggets placed an emphasis on resigning "Birdman" Anderson, but in doing so lost both Dahntay Jones and Kleiza to free agency. Arron Afflalo was signed to fill the void left by the departure of Jones, and has done so seamlessly.
However, there was seemingly no importance placed on finding a replacement for Kleiza and as a result the Nuggets appear to be lacking some of the offensive potency they had coming off of the bench last season. They did bring in Joey Graham, but he has played only sparingly so far and has been practically invisible when he has been in the game.
Had they found a way to resign Kleiza, the Nuggets would have one more critical offensive weapon, making their bench one of the most compelling in the league. A secondary lineup consisting of Lawson, Smith, Kleiza and Anderson would certainly be an imposing proposition for opponents to match up with.
Kleiza had a breakout season in 2007-2008, averaging 11.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 23.9 minutes. Part of what contributed to the Nuggets' decision to allow him to walk was his regression last season, when he saw his averages dip to 9.9 points and 4.0 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game.
While it may not sound like much of a slip in production, anyone who saw the Nuggets play for any significant portion of last season couldn't help but notice his inconsistency and complete lack of defensive awareness.
Kleiza did finally show flashes of his offensive abilities in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, where he proved to be one of the most difficult matchups for the eventual champs. He was one of the key contributors in a couple of the games and was essential to keeping the Nuggets in the series.
Kleiza's absence this season hasn't proven to be much of a factor yet, but I can't help but think that as the season progresses, and the inevitable injury bug catches up with the Nuggets, they will definitely miss the threat of him coming off of the bench. He certainly gave the Lakers fits last season and that might be just the type of production they will need as they make their playoff push.
The Nuggets still own the rights to Kleiza, so if he does decide to come back to the NBA, they would have first-say over the terms of his return. Based on his performance so far this season in the Euroleague (18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, both ranking in the top 10), it looks like the Nuggets might come to regret their decision to let him go.
I can't help but think that while he might not be vital to their success, Kleiza certainly would have been a luxury that could have bolstered the Nuggets' current lineup. For now, I guess we'll have to settle for Joey Graham.