Last year, the Denver Nuggets seemed to be one injury away from falling out of championship contention all season long. Fortunately for them, that one major injury never happened and they remained remarkably healthy throughout the entire season.
In the offseason, while most teams were busy bolstering their lineups with depth and athleticism, the Nuggets stood pat with the same players that catapulted them to the Western Conference Finals, making a statement that they felt they were already championship caliber.
Since the Nuggets soared to their franchise best start and appeared on the verge of being mentioned in the same breath as the Los Angeles Lakers, several key injuries and some apathetic play have marred their early season success and now leave many unanswered questions on the table.
However, the most glaring question I have may not be the same one that prognosticators across the NBA are pounding into our heads, namely the absence of Chauncey Billup's leadership and Carmelo Anthony's scoring presence. In fact, I believe that in many ways the Nuggets have played a more inspiring brand of basketball since the loss of their two stars to injury and have demonstrated some of the "it" factor I have been calling for since tip-off of game one this season.
Instead, it unfortunately seems that what I have feared all along may be coming true; the Denver Nuggets just aren't as good as the other Western Conference's elite teams. They certainly aren't as deep as the Lakers, Spurs, or the Mavericks, and they are entirely too one-dimensional.
Even as Carmelo was shooting his way to the top of the league in scoring and into the crux of the MVP discussion, I couldn't help but feel as though in many ways the Nuggets had reverted back to their 2007-selves, allowing opposing teams to score at will and relying far too much on one-on-one play on the offensive end.
Hell, even in 2007 they had Eduardo Najera diving for loose-balls, putting a body on his man for every board, and contesting every shot. Now, they don't even have that. Instead, we are left to believe that Nene had some sort of "breakout" game when he only pulls down eight rebounds.
Even our "spark-plugs" from last season (Chris "Birdman" Andersen and J.R. Smith) have lost some of their luster. Birdman, for the most part, has looked like he is so focused on blocking shots that he forgets he is 6-10 and could easily pull down a rebound or two. And the longer J.R. remains stuck in the sixth man roll, the more content he seems to be to jack up shots from half-court trying to generate "instant offense".
That said, with the recent injury to Andersen, who will likely miss at least a week with a sprained ankle, and the unknown time lines for the return of Billups and Anthony, the Nuggets appear to be desperately thin at every position and could definitely use the services of their stars. I only hope that once they return, some of the team-focused play from a year ago returns with them.
I don't think it's a coincidence that arguably the Nuggets' most successful season of all time coincided with one of Carmelo's lowest scoring averages of his career. Anybody who watched the Nuggets play last year certainly wouldn't say that 'Melo had a down year. He just seemed to flow within the offense a bit more, and appeared more willing to make the extra pass for a good shot. Dare I say that the MVP chatter has been a curse for the Nuggets?
I may sound a bit grim, and that's largely because I do feel a bit cynical about this team, but I am hoping that some good may come out of this adversity.
Maybe Renaldo Balkman will get some playing time in Birdman's absence and prove that he deserves to be in the rotation on hustle alone. Maybe J.R. will get to start a game and show that he might actually be a better and more complete player as a starter. Maybe Anthony Carter will finally play his way out of the rotation all together after he strings together a handful of pitiful games in a row. Maybe Mark Warkentien will take off his "executive of the year" blinders and realize that this team desperately needs another big body in the middle.
Or maybe that is all just wishful thinking, and we will just be content to win 52 games, finish fourth in the West, make it to the second round of the playoffs, bow out submissively, and ask fans of the Denver Nuggets to have more patience with this "young team". The jury is still out.