Coach: George Karl
2008-09 Record: 54-28
Pythagorean Record for 08-09: 50-32
Offensive Rating: 110.4 (7th in the league)
Defensive Rating: 106.8 (8th)
Possessions per 48: 94.3 (5th)
|Offensive||51.2 (7th)||.142 (24th)||.275 (15th)||.290 (1st)|
|Defensive||48.5 (5th)||.141 (8th)||.717 (23th)||.259 (25th)|
Roster (Red indicates new acquisition, Blue indicates rookie) Click to enlarge
Chauncey Billups turned in yet another year of efficient production, much as he has for the last eight years, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change this year. Billups is perennially one of the most efficient players in the game because he does two things really well: shoot threes and draw fouls. He’s a great three-point shooter, and that allows him to use pump fakes and hesitations to draw a ton of fouls. He’s also probably the best post-up point guard in the league. He’s strong enough to back most opposing guards down, and once he gets in the post he can kill you with turnaround jumpers. Defensively, Billups has always been a bit overrated, and he’s definitely not as quick as he once was, so he struggles to match up with quick guards. That said, he’s still a solid defender, who can also cross-match onto shooting guards.
Seemingly no one noticed the fact that last year was Carmelo Anthony’s worst offensive season in the last four years. That was mostly the result of a huge decline in his shooting percentage on close shots. After shooting 62%, 64.1% and 65.2% on shots around the rim the previous three years, Melo shot only 56.3% last season. I’m inclined to think that the drop off was a fluke, and there’s no real reason why he shouldn’t bounce back to his normal this season. That’s the negative. The positive is that Melo really improved his game in a lot of other areas. Both his assist rate and his rebound rate (particularly his defensive rebounding) rose last year, and his three-point percentage was the highest of his career. Most importantly, his defense was markedly improved. He’s no ace defender, but he definitely put in more effort on that end of the court, and for the first time in his career the team wasn’t worse defensively with him on the floor. With the improvements in other areas of his game, if Melo’s finishing ability returns, he could have a career year.
It’s hard to overstate just how valuable Chris Andersen was for the Nuggets last year. For a salary of less than $1 mil, he was by far the league’s best shotblocker, and a tremendous rebounder for a team desperately in need of it. With his absurd length and leaping ability, he’s able to get a piece of almost anything that goes up around the rim. He can be abused some by bigger, more physical centers, but he eats face-up guys alive with his quickness and wingspan. Offensively, his only real value is throwing down lobs and grabbing offensive rebounds, which he is very good at. As long as he’s just focused on crashing the boards and not playing outside of his ability, he’s an asset on offense because he’s a threat to soar in and throw down a putback slam at any time. Realistically, last year was probably a career year. It’s unlikely that he’ll shoot 55% from the field and 72% from the line again, and his block rate will probably fall, since it was just absurd last year. However, he’ll still be a more than serviceable back-up big man, and he brings a dimension to the Nuggets that their other two bigs just don’t bring.
Speaking of those other two bigs, it was really a breakout season for Nene last year. After struggling with injuries, inconsistency, conditioning, and more injuries, Nene finally starting living up to that $10 mil a year contract of his. He missed only 5 games, was in good enough shape to play 32.6 minutes a game, and was second in the league in field goal percentage at 60.4%. Nene is very unique in the fact that he’s a really big, strong guy, but he also has very quick feet. That allows him to be equally effective denying post position and defending face-up players or the pick and roll. He’s not much of a shot-blocker, so he offers little weakside help, but he’s an excellent on-ball defender. That quickness and strength also make him a tough cover when he catches the ball down low, and more often than not he finishes or draws a foul. The one big downside with Nene, other than his history of injury, is that he’s just not a very good rebounder. His 13.8% rebound rate last year was, frankly, pathetic for a center with his athleticism. If he can stay healthy and focus on improving on the glass, Denver could eventually have an All-Star caliber center.
Frankly, I don’t think the ridiculousness of Kenyon Martin’s contract gets brought up enough. The Nuggets are paying $32 mil over the next two years for a power forward whose only real value comes from his defense. He’s not an abysmal, Ben Wallace-caliber offensive player, but he’s definitely below average. Despite his rep as a high flier, 49% of Martin’s shots last year were jumpers, and, this just in, Kenyon Martin is not a good jump shooter. While he is not an abysmal offensive player, he IS an abysmal rebounder. Even by his poor career standards, last year was a bad rebounding year. His 10.9% rebound rate was one of the worst marks of any big man in the league. To put that number in perspective, Eddy Curry’s career rebound rate is 12%. That’s right, Kenyon Martin was sub-Eddy Curry in regards to rebounding last year. It’s a good thing for Martin and the Nuggets that he’s a terrific post defender. I don’t think anyone in the league is as good at poking the ball away when a guy is backing them down, and it’s remarkable that Martin doesn’t get more fouls called on him given how active his hands are. He also, like Nene, has the foot speed to switch out on picks and guard quicker players, and it gives the Nuggets one of the most versatile defensive frontcourts in the league.
X-Factor: J.R. Smith – After three years spent lighting it up off the bench for Denver, Smith should finally get his chance to start this season. The question with Smith is never about talent, it’s about focus. He has great physical tools, and one of the purest jump shots in the league. It’s what makes him a threat to score 30 every time he steps on the court. However, Smith’s problem is that the other areas of his game can suffer because of his focus on scoring. He has the tools to be a good defender, and has shown flashes of potential there, but too often, he wanders or simply doesn’t put in the effort required. It’s the small mental lapses that have had Smith in and out of George Karl’s doghouse over the years, and part of the reason why he hasn’t been a starter until now. A flaky offensive specialist is fine coming off the bench, but if he’s asked to play 32-35 minutes as a starter, he’s going to have to do better. Whether or not he shows a more consistent effort will go a long way towards deciding where Denver will finish this year.
Denver is still a dangerous team, but they played over their heads last year, and got pretty lucky to do as well as they did. By point differential (which is a stronger indicator of future success than W-L record), they were only the 5th best team in the West last year. Not only that, but Martin and Nene, both of whom have had injury problems in the past, missed only 21 games combined. I’m not trying to bash the Nuggets, they had a tremendous season last year, but that was kind of like catching lightning in a bottle, and we shouldn’t expect the same thing again this year. Even though they return almost all of their roster (don’t overlook the loss of Linas Kleiza though), they’ll likely fall back just because so many things went right for them last year, and that’s unlikely to happen again. They’re still one of the better teams in the West, but don’t expect them to be second in the conference again.