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After eight years of sub-.500 win totals that looked like one long lock combination, the Nuggets finally gained entrance to the playoffs last season. The excitement of winning 43 games and the eighth seed in the West was short-lived, however, when Denver was bullied by a more physical Minnesota team and ousted in four games.
Enter Kenyon Martin. Acquired in a sign-and-trade from the Nets during the summer, the All-Star power forward got the contract he wanted (seven years, $92.5 million), and the Nuggets got the enforcer and all-around badass they needed to go toe-to-toe with the big bruisers in their conference. "We want to be the nastiest, meanest, best-conditioned, most unselfish team in the league," says coach Jeff Bzdelik. " Kenyon Martin gives us all of those things."
It didn't take Martin long to make an impression on his new teammates--a scuffle with former starter Nen� during an informal workout resulted in a puffy red eye for the Brazilian forward--and it shouldn't take him long to make an impact on the Denver season either. After three years of playing run-and-gun with the Nets and Jason Kidd, Martin landed on a team with a similar wide-open style. The Nuggets led the league in fast-break points last season, scoring 19.9 per game.
With Martin joining veteran center Marcus Camby and second-year forward Carmelo Anthony, an All-Star in the making, the Nuggets boast one of the most formidable frontcourts in the NBA. "I'm a guy who knows what it takes to win," says Martin, who went to the Finals twice during his four seasons in New Jersey. "With all the young guys we have here, if I can bring some leadership, some toughness, I'll have done my job." --C.M.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Nuggets
They made their big jump last year--from 17 wins to 43--by improving their talent, but the jump they're trying to make this year is the tough one: Can they get into the conference semifinals? Not unless they get better defensively and smarter offensively.... It's going to be hard for them to show improvement offensively because they failed to add a half-court scorer. If Voshon Lenard isn't making jump shots, then Carmelo Anthony is their only threat.... Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin will score by cleaning up the missed shots of their perimeter players, and at the other end it's going to be tough for teams to get a shot over the two of them. Camby and Nen� are important because Martin struggles against the bigger power forwards.... Martin is going to miss Jason Kidd, who was always looking to go for the home run pass on the break; Andre Miller is more conservative with his passing. If you take away Martin's dunks, I'll bet his shooting percentage was in the 30s. Teams don't even bother guarding him until he gets in the block.... Anthony is a great guy to build around, but can he raise the play of his teammates? It's a rare trait, but you'll know he's headed in that direction if he has more assists, takes better shots and--most important--becomes a leader defensively.... You have to prepare for 5'5" Earl Boykins because he can change the pace of the game. But I don't like it when he and Miller are in the backcourt together, because neither one shoots well and both struggle to guard their positions.... Coach Jeff Bzdelik is in the final year of his contract, and if his players refuse to do the hard work to reach the next level, he is going to be the fall guy.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003-04 statistics