Ahhh, summer. A time generally reserved for talk of baseball and NFL training camps has surprisingly shifted its sports focus to the NBA, and the sports world couldn't be happier. The Association has the media wrapped around its finger right now, highlighted by the circus that Lebron and his crew have been putting on for a few weeks. All the craziness revolving around the King and the other top-tier free agents has completely over-shadowed a very quiet yet productive off-season for the up-and-coming Denver Nuggets, the talented yet troubled team from the Rocky Mountain state. With the league offering up revamped rosters that are loaded with talent like we haven't seen since the mid 90's, the Nugs are in need of production now more than ever. Here is a look at what they've done, and what they need to do.
Last season ended with such disappointment in Denver. The team was unanimously considered the second-best in the Western Conference to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers for all but the last month of the season, when the cancer battle of head coach George Karl proved too much for the team that was so full of promise to overcome. With a lackluster performance in the first round against an over-rated Utah Jazz team, one in which the Nuggets had their top three bigs injured in Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris "Birdman" Anderson, their lack of depth, and length, was exposed. While no-names Joey Graham and Malik Allen put in valiant efforts, the dream that was the NBA Finals came crashing down around the Nuggets in another first round exit. The biggest summer for the NBA in recent memory was upon them, and the Denver faithful were waiting for some big moves to be made. Besides, they have an award-winning front office led by Mark Warkentein, who recently won executive of the year when he brought home Chauncey Billups, found Arron Afflalo out of nowhere, and resigned the Birdman. Was this the year the Nuggets put together the team needed for a championship?
Now in my mind, as a self-proclaimed die hard Nuggets fan, the team only needed to add select pieces, not the biggest names, to an otherwise very strong base. The Nuggets have young talent, and lots of it. Nene, at 27; Carmelo Anthony, at 26; JR Smith, at 24; and Ty Lawson at 22 provide one of the most promising futures in the league, and the veteran presence of Chauncey and the former NCAA Player of the Year Kenyon Martin round out the team in a special way. But what is behind them? The Birdman, while wildly popular, is a 32 year old center that has no post-game or straight up defense, but can dunk and block with the rest of them. He is fun to watch, but his presence does not guarantee a championship. Arron Afflalo, a kid with a huge upside who can shutdown any opposing one, two, or three, can make it rain from deep and understands and executes his role perfectly. He brings so so much to this team. But besides that, the Nuggets have a bunch of players that no one knows of, and that's not a good thing. Malik Allen? Joey Graham? Johan Petro? These are the guys that are supposed to round out a championship rotation? Short answer: no freaking way.
So the seventh of July rolls around, and the available bigs start dropping like flies. Amare (who, let's face it, was never a realistic fit in Denver), Chris Bosh (also a pipe dream), Tyrus Thomas, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, hell, even Darko Milicic scored a contract. For over a week, the Nuggets remained silent observers of the free agency feeding frenzy. Bigs were still moving. Boozer went to Chi-Town. Tyson Chandler went to the rival Mavericks. Hakim Warrick, a former teammate of Melo's at Syracuse, went to the Suns. And perhaps one of the biggest and best moves of the summer went down when the hated Utah Jazz scored Al Jefferson to replace the loss of Boozer. Yet stll, the Nuggets remained patient at the trigger. With the conract of Mr. Warkentein expiring in a matter of weeks, many expected the Nuggets to do nothing until the situation was taken care of. Then, out of nowhere, the team wraps up three contracts at once, bringing back the solid veteran Anthony Carter to back up the backup Ty Lawson, and brought in two bigs, Al Harrington and Shelden Williams, and the blogosphere blew up immediately. No one seemed happy with the acquisition. Well let me tell you folks, you are quite mistaken.
"But Mitch, why would the Nuggets add a defensively soft, jump shooting power forward in the big-and-getting-bigger Western Conference?" Because the Denver Nuggets don't need a bruiser, that's Martin's job. They don't need a low-post threat on offense, that's Nene's job. They also don't need a shot blocker, that's for the Birdman. The biggest missing piece from last season was a go to scoring option not named Chauncey or Melo. Without Kenyon or Nene in full form during the playoffs, the normally dynamic offense from the Mile High City was static, and the team resorted to Mr. Big Shot turning into Mr. Huck Up Shots Like I'm JR Smith. There was nowhere else to go. Yes Melo got his, he always does, and always will. Same goes for Billups. But a successful roster in professional basketball needs players that don't just fill one role. Enter Al Harrington, the forward from New York that has a great offensive game, a decent defensive game, and most importantly, size. With Harrington now in the mix, scoring is going to come so much easier for the team. Chauncey can once again focus on being a playmaker, not a scorer. Melo now has a very legitimate option to go to when he gets double and triple teamed. Bench scoring isn't going to be solely in the hands of JR Swish. Sure the Nuggets didn't get a great defender in the former New York Knick, but they did find a guy that can put up seventeen and nine every night without disrupting the established pecking order within the Nuggets' offense. This is a HUGE singing for the team. Believe it or not though, as important a signing as this is, I think the other free agent they landed is equally as important and here's why. Shelden Williams can ball. Period. I don't know if you saw him with Reddick at Duke, but the dude was dominant. Sure he hasn't put up yet in the Association, but how are you going to pass up a twenty six year old banger who is one of the great players to come out of Duke? And in the NBA, you want every guy on your roster to be one hell of a ball player. Lets compare this new rotation to last year's shall we?
Starting Five stays the same (Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Nene).
Last Year's Bench: Ty Lawson, JR Smith, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro, Joey Graham, Malik Allen. (Carter and Balkman as well, if that matters.)
This Year's (projected) Bench: Ty Lawson, JR Smith, Al Harrington, Chris Andersen, Joey Graham, Shelden Williams. (Again, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman will be riding the pine).
So basically the Nuggets replaced Allen with a tougher, younger Williams, and Johan Petro with the already well established Al Harrington. Looks to me the Nuggets are way ahead of where they were last year when they were considered to be one of the top tier teams in the league. "But Mitch, the Nuggets still need to add a true big right? Someone to clog the lane?" Nope, and here's why. Shelden Williams can, and will, be that big that completes the Nuggets roster. He holds the single season record at Duke for blocks, as well as the career record for blocks and rebounds. AT DUKE. One of the most consistant programs in the history of the NCAA. He has collegiate career numbers comparable to Tim Duncan. This guy has the goods. Besides, even if the Nuggets were to add a big, who would they get? Brad Miller just signed with Houston. Are the Nuggets going to add Shaq? No way. The big-man situation in Denver is now finally settled. Should the Nuggets call it a summer? No way. The Nugs are a swingman away from hoisting that trophy at the end of the Finals. Joey Graham is a servicable backup for Melo, sure. He went off in game six against the Jazz, but that was a fluke, his first dynamic game in the powder blue. But who is left on the free agent list that the Nuggets can afford? That player is Rodney Carney. If you haven't seen this kid play, watch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUwkC4a_MeM . The bench of the Nuggets provides a lot, A LOT, of energy. Ty Lawson is a blur, JR can go off like few others, and the Birdman hypes up the crowd more than anyone on the team. We already know that Williams can ball, but another scorer would lock up the Western Conference for the Nuggets.The best part about Carney? He would sign for the minimum, probably around 850,000 dollars. Not only would it provide a cheap fix, but it would also provide a major talent boost.
No matter what the Nuggets do at this point, they have started off the summer in a great fashion. But are they contenders? Will the chemistry work? Sure there are still questions, but Denver is sitting pretty compared to this time last year. They are poised for another great run towards that elusive championship, and I know they are hungry for greatness. The future is looking good in the Rocky Mountains.
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