After a tumultuous 2010-11 season—one that saw a blockbuster trade that turned the roster on its head—the list of questions surrounding the Nuggets is long.
Who will fill the scoring void left by Carmelo Anthony?
How will Denver's defense respond after losing leader Kenyon Martin to China?
Who will bolster the bench with J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler playing professionally overseas?
With so many new faces playing together, will these new Nuggets be able to create any chemistry with one another?
And despite all these questions, Denver knew its biggest priorities were re-signing free agents Nene and Arron Afflalo—two players that can and should be leaders for the Nuggets—which they did in the last few days.
10-year Brazilian big man Nene was signed first, to a five-year, $67 million deal that will likely keep him in the Mile High City until his retirement. With Melo gone and a multitude of youngsters on the squad, the Nuggets believed Nene's veteran leadership was essential to making this team go.
That and the fact that Nene's an athletic big who had the best field-goal percentage in the league last year are decided advantages in the Association.
Alongside him for the next half-decade will be Afflalo, the five-year player with potential that reaches much further than a mile high. Afflalo has improved every year he's been in the league in nearly every single statistical category and the amount of intangibles he possesses are profound. Afflalo's an extremely dedicated and driven worker, he's intelligent, very coachable and a leader by example.
With Nene and Afflalo, the Nuggets have pieces to build around for the future and it will be interesting to see how well the team can play together this year.
The start of the season is less than a week away, so lets look at the Nuggets starters, bench, player with the most pressure, the player on the rise and 2011-12 season expectations.
With Nene and Afflalo locked in, the Nuggets will return four of five starters they ended last season with.
Ty Lawson has returned from his short stint in Lithuania and looks to continue his own improvement, while Danilo Gallinari will have a chance to start from the season tipoff and Denver diehards can really get a look at what they have in the could-be star small forward.
Head coach George Karl talked before the season of moving Nene back to his natural power forward position and starting youngster Timofey Mozgov at the 5. But is he ready? It's the biggest question surrounding the Nuggets starters and only time on the hardwood will tell.
Here's a quick look at Denver's young, athletic starting five:
PG - Ty Lawson - Lawson stepped into the starter role late last season. The third-year guard will be asked to lead his team on the court again this year. While his athleticism isn't in question, his maturity and leadership is. Karl has talked about wanting more leadership from Lawson in the past and it's likely the youngster will have to step up in that department this year or risk losing his starting spot to veteran Andre Miller.
Lawson is an awfully athletic point guard that utilizes his blazing speed to blow by would-be defenders as he gets to the hoop. The small (5'9") guard uses his speed to pace the offense as well, pushing teammates down the floor, fitting Karl's "go out and play" style.
And Lawson knows how to get his teammates the ball, upping his assist average to 4.7 per contest last year.
What else may bring special play out of Lawson is the fact that Andre Miller is pushing him to be at his best or lose his starting spot. Karl says the two best players in training camp have been Lawson and Miller, which is exciting from a fan standpoint.
SG - Arron Afflalo - Afflalo is a dynamic, versatile and valuable player at the 2 spot. The fifth-year pro will be starting his third season in Denver and Karl absolutely loves him for his defensive energy and intensity. Afflalo is given the tough task of guarding the opponents' best scorer on a nightly basis and he certainly holds his own.
Without Martin on the team this year, Afflalo has become the Nuggets' top defender.
Offensively, he's grown comfortable coming off screens and knocking down open jumpers and he's an extremely efficient scorer, shooting 49.8 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from behind the arc last season.
His scoring numbers improved from 8.8 to 12.6 points per game last year; he will only continue to grow in that aspect.
SF - Danilo Gallinari - The next Dirk? OK, maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but Gallinari's game is strikingly similar to Nowitzki's.
At 6'10", Gallinari towers over opponents and his height advantage means a multitude of open looks at the rim. Leave him open and Gallinari is deadly shooting the ball in the mid-range and from downtown (35.2 percent).
Besides a sweet shooting stroke, this 23-year old Italian plays with a reckless abandon, crashing the hoop for rebounds (4.9 per) and attacking the iron on offense as well. The long-legged Gallinari gallops on the break and his aggression already draws him many fouls at only three years in the league.
And that size comes into play on the defensive end as well as Gallo's long arms change shot trajectories and block some attempts.
PF - Nene - After playing the last three years at center, Nene will be moving back to power forward. For the 6'11" beast, moving to power forward means playing against slightly smaller opponents on both ends of the floor.
While Nene's reached his peak, his production could improve due to the move.
Nene has enjoyed his best years the last three seasons, averaging 14.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest. Those numbers could grow as he uses his size and strength to his advantage on other 4's.
The transition back to power forward will be a boost to his defensive play, too, and Nuggets fans hope it does translate into more blocks for the big.
C - Timofey Mozgov - Mozgov, who will in all likelihood be the Nuggets' starting center, is a relative unknown for them. As a rookie last season, his numbers weren't great (3.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG), yet he possesses lots of potential.
This will be his first year as a starter in the NBA, and while Karl is completely sold on the Russian's potential, it's still up in the air whether or not he's ready to start now.
At 7'1" Mozgov gives Denver the size of a true center and he will be needed as a dominant defensive presence for the team.
One major positive for Mozzy is that he played at a high level in his native Russia this offseason, a sign he's possibly improving sooner rather than later.
Overall, the starters will have a height advantage over many teams, which will help with rebounding, a weakness of the team for years. They're also young and will be able to push the pace on teams, getting easy buckets on run-outs and fast breaks.
This will be an exciting unit to watch, and it could turn into something special over the course of the season.
Start of 2010-11 season: Lawson, Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene
Start of 2011-12 season: Lawson, Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Nene, Timofey Mozgov
Andre Miller (24) brings both leadership and experience to the Nuggets and will be a valuable asset coming off the bench.
The Nuggets bench has been transformed over the last 10 months and Denver will certainly be deep this season.
Sixth man J.R. Smith is gone, as is potentially strong scorer Wilson Chandler, but the Nuggets are hopeful additions of Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer fill their voids not just on the offensive end, but defensively as well.
But besides scorers, Denver's bench is full of height (Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Al Harrington and Kosta Koufos) and the Nuggets' three rookies are complete wild cards that could surprise many.
Out - J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, Gary Forbes, Raymond Felton
In - Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer, Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, Julyan Stone
PG - Andre Miller is loved by Karl and the old ball coach was likely ecstatic when the Nuggets' front office brought him back to the Mile High City in a draft-day trade. Miller is a veteran who has started over the course of his entire 12-year career and having him running the bench offense will make the team dangerous when starters sit.
Miller's a phenomenal passer, he rebounds well and can put the ball in the hoop when needed.
PG - Julyan Stone is an undrafted rookie the Nuggets signed out of UTEP. The 6'7" Stone not only leads UTEP in career assists (Tim Hardaway is second), but also Conference USA.
His size will be an asset as he can defend three positions and he's a strong rebounder as well.
SG - Rudy Fernandez gives Denver's bench that scoring punch Smith provided for years. Fernandez is a deadly three-point threat and can put the ball on the floor to scare off the dribble as well. He passes decently and can rebound the ball, too, meaning Fernandez is an all-around baller.
One downfall is that, much like Smith, Fernandez's attitude can get in his own way at times. Still, Fernandez is in line to be the Nuggets sixth man and he'll get lots of ticks.
SF - Corey Brewer is a worker—just what the Nuggets need off the bench. Brewer's the type of player that will do whatever the team needs, whether that means battling for rebounds, giving high-energy defense or scoring buckets.
Brewer's got a great vertical too, so look for him to dunk on at least a few would-be defenders this year.
SF - Jordan Hamilton, the rookie, will be behind Brewer off the bench and he must prove he can play with the pros. From looking at his Texas highlight tapes, Hamilton is ready.
The 6'7" small forward is extremely athletic, runs the floor well, can spot up and knock down shots or take the ball in the paint and finish with authority.
Hamilton may not get many minutes, but keep an eye on him when he does because he's liable to provide some highlight-reel plays.
PF - Al Harrington is who he is—a 6'10" scorer that can shoot from deep and loves to take defenders off the dribble. What he brings is the athleticism to run the floor while packing a punch scoring-wise.
If the Nuggets are down, look for him to come in and put up points to aid in the comeback.
PF - Kenneth Faried is a manimal—half man, half animal—a beast on the boards. In college, Faried set the NCAA career rebounding record, passing Tim Duncan. His hops are astounding and the 6'9" Faried's head is above the rim on many rebounds and dunks.
He is a raw talent, but with some work his post game could develop and he could become an offensive force. Immediately, though, Faried will bring high-energy boards.
C - Chris "Birdman" Andersen comes into this season looking to bounce back from an off year filled with nagging injuries in 2010-11. The Birdman is at his best when he flies around, flailing his arms to block shots. He's an energy guy that brings good effort to the floor defensively.
Miller will likely hook up with Andersen on many alley-oops this season.
PF/C - Kosta Koufos is a special bench player because he can play both the 4 and 5 positions. Koufos (6'11") gives the Nuggets even more size and he's a strong rebounder that gives good effort defensively.
He won't score much, but Denver doesn't need him to.
This is the Nene the Nuggets need. Aggressive and looking to dunk all over opponents.
This is a new era for the Nuggets. Nene is now their star.
After playing second fiddle for his whole career, Nene will be a go-to guy down low and his scoring will be counted upon. The big Brazilian is a superb scorer, working in the post with the up-and-under and quickly spinning for lay-ins, while he can shoot the mid-range jumper well, too.
Nene is adept at getting easy tomahawk dunks in transition when he runs the floor with Lawson, which will be happening all season long.
Beyond that, though, Nene will be asked to be the leader of the starters as he is by far the most veteran player of the bunch. That means no more pouting and getting himself out of games because he thinks he's not getting the ball enough, which should be helped by the fact that there's not a big-time ball-stopper on the team anymore.
Nene's an amazingly efficient scorer, yes, but he needs to be more aggressive when taking the ball inside, demoralizing defenders as he dunks all over them.
And on defense, Nene's got to give more effort towards shutting down opponents instead of halfheartedly playing against them as he's been known to do in the past.
Again, he will be helped by moving back to his natural position at power forward, and it should aid in improving his offensive and defensive play.
After being the most sought-after free agent this year and receiving a five-year, $67 million contract that some believe overpays him, Nene will be under the microscope. The pressure is on him to respond.
Can Nene be the leader, a consistent scorer and rebounder while increasing his defensive presence?
That's what the Nuggets bet on when they paid him so handsomely. He will have to prove it this season and in the near future.
Arron Afflalo is on the rise and everyone will know his name soon enough.
As stated earlier, Afflalo has improved every season in nearly every stat category. He's a player perennially on the rise as his tremendous work ethic takes him to levels others cannot achieve.
Last season was AAA's best, with career highs in points (12.6), rebounds (3.6), assists (2.4) shooting percentage (49.8) and even free-throw percentage (84.7).
The guy has developed his all-around game, and it shows.
He's no scoring specialist, but don't sleep on his abilities. Leave Afflalo alone in the corner and he'll drain a three. Cover him lazily through a screen and he'll catch-and-shoot your lights out.
Afflalo also drops dimes dutifully—he's not selfish and it shows.
Afflalo's an incredibly intelligent young man—he represented Denver in the labor negotiations—and he understands what it takes to be great. His smarts also make him a superior leader, as he knows how to motivate teammates. He knows he can ask more out of them due to his unyielding effort.
His effort is almost always at 100 percent, which is a chief reason why Afflalo's a dominant defender. He's quick and likes to play close, physical defense, getting into opponents' heads and forcing them into difficult shots.
He's confident, but not cocky, an on-court leader, a hard worker, a scoring threat and plays demonizing defense.
Arron Afflalo is undeniably a player on the rise, and perhaps a star in the making.
With a tremendous amount of turnover, it's tough to tell how well the Nuggets will play this season.
So many questions remain unanswered with less than a week until the 2011-12 season tipoff that this team could boom or bust.
Can Mozgov start? Will Nene improve at the 4? Will chemistry exist? Will new backups delight in Denver?
Can Karl, this late in his career, lead a team to the NBA Finals?
Still, some things are certain.
This will be the tallest front line the Nuggets have suited up in, well, ever
Their height will give them a decided advantage over others and rebounds should be aplenty.
Gallinari and Afflalo will be allowed to—and expected to—carry the scoring burden on their broad shoulders. Both are sharpshooters—from the mid-range and outside—and each know how to get the hoop for and-ones.
We know the Nuggets' bench is deeper, more athletic and possesses more size than in the past, and it's arguably one of the deepest benches in all of basketball. In this condensed season, in which back-to-back-to-back games will be played, deep teams will have a decided advantage and fare better in the end.
Faried, Hamilton and Stone will be given a chance to prove themselves and impact the team immediately.
We also know that a key to the Nuggets success this season will be running the floor on the fast break and using their youth and athleticism to their advantage.
Most certain is that George Karl will be there to steer the ship and lead these men into basketball battle. Karl is a great coach—one of the most experienced in the game today—and understands how to get the most out of his players.
At the end of the year, these young and physically gifted Nuggets will surprise many and will finish the season 46-20, sitting in third place in the West.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being your Denver Broncos Examiner, Rich is your CSU Rams Examiner and Kurtzman also writes for Blake Street Bulletin, Stadium Journey, Bleacher Report, and Mile High Hoops.
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