2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: No. 4 seed; lost in Round One to the Utah Jazz in six games
Additions: Al Harrington, Shelden Williams
Key Losses: Johan Petro, Joey Graham
Projected Rotation Players for 2010-11: Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith, Al Harrington, Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Renaldo Balkman
Look for the 2010-11 Nuggets to take the term “contract-year mercenary” to never-before-seen heights.
Carmelo Anthony’s status as a free-agent-to-be is common knowledge at this point, but did you know that Kenyon Martin, trigger-happy J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups (the team is unlikely to pick up his $14.2 option for 2011-12) are all playing for new contracts this season?
That doesn’t really set the stage for a lot of selfless play in the Mile High City, as K-Mart looks to beef up his numbers in the paint (on the bright side, he’ll hit the boards like a beast), while Smith and Billups are dialing for dollars from the outside.
While Melo’s not exactly playing for a contract (he’s getting max money wherever he ends up), building a winner is likely not on his list of priorities, given his well-publicized desire to blow town. If you’re keeping score, Melo, K-Mart, J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups will all be in short-first mode, with newly acquired scoring forward Al Harrington and Nene demanding touches as well.
If this sounds like a volatile situation that could quickly devolve into a train wreck, well, it is. However, this is still an extremely talented crew that will score a lot of points and win fairly consistently, in spite of itself. It helps that none of the Nuggets’ remaining rotation players— Nene, Chris Andersen (a Hype favorite), Ty Lawson Arron Afflalo and Renaldo Balkman— need the ball to be effective.
Only Afflalo is in pursuit of a new deal, and he’s going to earn that with defense, not scoring.
Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Nuggets at 43.5. While this number is probably not far from the Nuggets’ actual total for the coming year, it’s tough to see this team losing half of its games, given the immense talent and versatility on the roster as well as the inspirational return of cancer-free (hopefully permanently!) head coach George Karl.
If Carmelo Anthony gets his wish and is sent out of town early in the year, the deal is likely to net the Nuggets a fair amount of production and added depth. If the Nuggets smartly elect to hold on him for until the trade deadline (or close to it) and he exhibits the maturity and professional pride that a team should be able to expect from a max player, this team could approach 50 wins and could earn a 5-6 seed in playoffs.
However, with Melo unlikely to finish the season in Denver, any postseason success will be predicated on how quickly and effectively the team is able to integrate their new faces.