Denver has its limits
Nuggets have promise, but joining the elite is unlikely
Posted: Wednesday May 2, 2007 2:19PM; Updated: Thursday May 3, 2007 1:18PM
Carmelo Anthony never rebounds, Allen Iverson never passes, Kenyon Martin never plays, J.R. Smith won't be seen until October, the team makes too much money and coach George Karl is too volatile to be trusted with a pro club.
Carmelo Anthony has turned the corner, Allen Iverson needs to look for his shot more often, Kenyon Martin is on the comeback trail, J.R. Smith won't be 21 forever and George Karl is the perfect mad scientist for this high-upside bunch.
Nobody can tell where these Nuggets stand. Anyone pretending to know for sure is a filthy liar, and anyone feigning ignorance about this squad just isn't telling the truth. Because, on the surface, the Nuggets are an easy read: Denver is a solid scoring squad that works from the outside-in, featuring a diverse bunch of interior defenders, with both skill sets making up for the deficiencies of the other. The question is, With the big pieces on the roster likely unchanged for the next two or three years, is it enough to move past the prime of the West and into the NBA Finals?
Probably not. This team doesn't smack of championship potential. Capped out already and destined to pay the luxury tax, it appears as if the team's only chance to turn the corner would come from within its own locker room. Iverson and Marcus Camby would have to sustain their brilliance, Anthony would have to continue to round out his overall game and Martin would have to make the unheard-of comeback from microfracture surgery to both knees.
Expecting much more from the team's youngsters is a bit much. It's hard not to drool over Nene's defensive abilities, and the big man knows how to finish in the lane, but he's not going to suddenly round into a go-to post player entering 2007-08, his sixth season. One thing Nene is worth, we've discovered, is the money he's making -- compare his defensive aptitude and ability to stay on the court with guys like Samuel Dalembert and Mark Blount.
Smith is another matter. Karl benched him for Game 5 of the Nuggets' first-round loss to San Antonio based on his shot selection alone. This is the same lottery-type talent who was traded off of the Chicago Bulls (a team that can go half a quarter without a field goal) last summer for the pittance of two second-round picks, and he's now on the record as having confrontations with both his pro coaches, Karl and New Orleans' Byron Scott. The kid can score, and will only get better (both in terms of all-around game and getting his head on straight), but he also boasts the NBA's most replaceable skill set (scoring from the wing, with an off-and-on three-point shot), so if he does do any growing, it may not be in Denver.
With their first-round picks sent to other teams and the cap space used up, the Nuggets will have work around the fringes to improve. One possibility, taking into account their solid frontcourt depth and need for perimeter scoring, would be to work out a deal with the New Jersey Nets for free-agent gunner Eddie House. Denver could send little-used rebounder Reggie Evans to the Nets (one of the league's worst rebounding teams) for Clifford Robinson's nonguaranteed contract, Bernard Robinson and a re-signed House. This would lower the luxury-tax hit while giving the Nuggets a valid three-point shooter. Don't be surprised if the team also tries to make a deal to dump Eduardo Najera, a Karl favorite whose production may not be worth his price tag ($4.95 million next season).
A whole season with Iverson, Nene and an improved Anthony could be enough to grab the home court in the first round of next year's playoffs. But expecting Denver to grow in a conference-leading squad is too much. Not with that cap inflexibility, not with those opponents and not with its in-house limitations.
Still, it should be an interesting run for this core group while it lasts -- and the Nuggets should never be underestimated in a seven-game series. Getting through the whole season without injuries, infighting or Nate Robinson tackling one of them ... that's the initial obstacle.