Season preview: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have the offensive firepower to beat anybody on a given night
Defense is an issue, and losing Marcus Camby only exacerbates the problem
Allen Iverson's future in Denver is uncertain, and George Karl's might be, too
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Nuggets at a glance
Last season: 50-32
Notable additions: Renaldo Balkman (trade with Knicks), Chris Andersen (FA), Sonny Weems (R), Dahntay Jones (FA)
Notable losses: Marcus Camby (trade with Clippers), Eduardo Najera (signed with Nets)
Coach: George Karl (171-115 in 3˝ seasons with Nuggets; 879-614 overall in 20 NBA seasons)
Reasons for hope
1. You really can outscore some people. Denver averaged 110.7 points last season, second only to Golden State's 111.0. The Nuggets ranked sixth in field-goal percentage and were third in assists. They topped 100 points in 63 games and won 29 times by a margin of 10 points or more. Nobody had a 1-2 scoring punch like Carmelo Anthony (26.4 ppg) and Allen Iverson (25.7) -- their 52.1 points per game dwarfed the league's next-best tandem (43.9 by New Jersey's Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter). There's more firepower after those two, too. J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza are offense-first types, capable of playing and scoring at a pace that (especially at home) can leave opponents gasping.
2. 'Melo takes a giant step. Look, he's made it to the All-Star Game. He has won an Olympic gold medal. He gets paid top scale and receives the full NBA superstar treatment. So maybe now Anthony can settle in and, oh, win a playoff series for once in his budding career. The small forward's individual game improved last season (7.4 rebounds and a 49.2 shooting percentage, including 35.4 percent of his three-pointers). Now it's time for Anthony to drag along his teammates, and that means giving the defensive effort -- and getting the results, even when he's matched against bigger guys -- that this team will need to absorb the loss of two dedicated defenders, Camby and Najera. Dwyane Wade has a ring already, LeBron James has been to the Finals; the least Anthony can do is beat Toronto's Chris Bosh from the Class of 2003 to the second round.
3. Nenę overcomes. Nenę has been hampered by injuries, playing just 55 games in 2004-05 and then 81 in the three years since. (He was sidelined nearly three months last season while recovering from testicular cancer.) The 6-foot-11 Brazilian center was supposed to have been a mainstay of the Nuggets' attack by now, showing in spurts enough terrific play to qualify as a Venti-sized tease. Camby's exit from the middle would be a lot more tolerable if Nenę could step in now, keeping Steven Hunter and Andersen as backups splitting limited minutes.
Reasons for worry
1. Defense is the opposite of offense. Not just literally -- it requires a one-for-all rather than a one-on-one mentality, a cohesiveness that Denver's band of scorers really doesn't need when they're the ones with the ball. Karl spent the first two weeks of the preseason hammering on this concept, but it's going to be hard to repeat as the NBA's leader in both blocked shots (6.72) and steals (9.17), given how hard and focused Camby and Najera played defensively. Balkman is a dervish on defense, but he's a wing player less capable of holding the middle.
2. Winning isn't the only thing. It might, in fact, rank behind penny-pinching these days in the franchise's corporate suites. And if that thinking filters down to the Nuggets' locker room, things could get ugly. Essentially giving away Camby and not bidding to keep Najera was Cost-Cutting 101, a sign that owner Stan Kroenke was sick of paying the luxury tax (more than $13 million last year, added to the team's payroll of $81 million) only to shut down by May. Even in this world of multimillionaires, the least little sign of stinginess during the season will be seen as a lack of commitment, providing an easy excuse for players to mentally bail.
3. They have a "Bye, George'' moment. Karl isn't exactly Billy Martin, but he does have a track record like the late Yankees manager, that knack for taking over a team and getting big results, only to grate and chafe and gradually wear out his welcome. The life cycle tends to get accelerated for guys like that, so after Karl's stints in Seattle (seven seasons) and Milwaukee (five), it's no surprise that over/under pools on his departure date from Denver have emerged, with plenty of guesses in this, his fifth season. Usually, Karl seems as ready for a change as his teams do.
Keep an eye on ...
Iverson's contentment. Nobody ever questions Iverson's heart. Some question his character, some question his past lifestyle choices, some question his ball-dominating value to a winning team, some even question how much longer -- at age 33 -- the NBA's pound-for-pound best player can continue to play at his elite level. But Iverson wanted, and didn't get, a contract extension from the Nuggets, which might be taken as another sign of management's budget concerns or anticipation of rebuilding. And his $20.8 million salary makes him expiring-contract trade bait.
Camby last season led the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots per 48 minutes of clutch time (five-point game in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime).
Rarely has a 50-victory playoff team faced as many questions, or been the object of such unbridled pessimism, as these Nuggets. But shedding Camby -- at a point when he had conquered injuries and brought leadership and spine to this group -- was a move made for the numbers that align with dollar signs, not the W-L mark in the standings. Denver figured to have enough trouble with Utah and the youth movements underway elsewhere in the Northwest. It didn't need to create its own problems.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.