Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Denver Nuggets.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
A reason to cheer up? Well, the Nuggets appear to be rebuilding and winning at the same time. That's not exactly unprecedented in this league, but it is something to lean on while Denver counts the days until July 1st. The Nuggets will enter the 2012 offseason with about half of its salary cap space used up, depending on what it does between now and Christmas with Aaron Afflalo, and the entire fan base (to say nothing of curious NBA followers) is anxious to see what young GM Masai Ujiri does with well-earned flexibility.
Until then? Why not win?
The Nuggets certainly won't feature the enviable depth they fed off of following the Carmelo Anthony deal last season, but the team isn't that far off. Toss out some length, Timofey Mozgov and Nene will work, and someone to throw a bunch of lobs around (Andre Miller, who apparently will never die, much less age).
Wings? Al Harrington can score, little else, but scoring works. Afflalo's odd in-between game is functional, and Danilo Gallinari can be counted on to get to the line and close games out. Bring little speedster Ty Lawson in off the bench, procure extra possessions with Chris Andersen bounding around, and you could have 37 wins (the 66-game equivalent of 45) on hand. Also, George Karl knows how to coach.
The lingering worry is that Denver -- the front office, the fans, the coaching staff -- isn't explicitly in love with any of these players save for perhaps Nene, Gallinari, and Lawson. That's not a problem, though, with only six and a half months between now and the next offseason. And in the meantime team after team will skulk out of Denver trying to figure out exactly how it was that they lost to a team with no star.
No, there isn't much that you can put on a pocket schedule or website flash ad. The Nuggets are certainly devoid of star power and that lost its charm sometime last spring, following a frustrating playoff run. But this isn't rebuilding in the truest sense, as the team competes. And even if the group comes devoid of chemistry along with star power, well, fans only have half a year (or 117 percent of a lockout's time) to wait for the new rush.
I'd say that's a pretty cheerful place to be, considering.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Denver Nuggets
Now that Nene's back in the fold (and paaaaaaaid), I am prepared to say that, to my eyes, the Denver Nuggets have the most likable frontcourt rotation of any team in the league (that I'm not obligated by ancient familial bonds to support). A pretty nice collection of big bodies joins the broad-smiling Brazilian beast in anchoring Denver down low -- the always entertaining "Birdman" Chris Andersen, Memory Foam salesman and eternally confident shooter Danilo Gallinari, dance commander/reserve center Kosta Koufos, and a pair of dreadlocked defense-and-rebounding hustle beasts in rookie Kenneth Faried and DeMarre Carroll. But the one I'm most excited to watch is the least polished of the bunch.
Coach George Karl has said he plans to start 25-year-old Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound Russian who briefly impressed as a rookie with the New York Knicks last year, at center this season. The move will slide Nene down to the four, a decision likely made less because Mozgov's gifts compelled Karl to start him than because Denver needs a power forward with Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin in China, and the coach likes Al Harrington better when he comes off the bench. Still, it's a fantastic opportunity for Mozgov, though the move comes with some caveats.
For starters, the last time Nene played significant minutes at power forward and was more productive there than at center was the 2006-07 season, according to 82games.com; you wonder if making that adjustment after several years played predominantly at the five could have an effect on his efficiency. Plus, Mozgov has a lot to learn about how to play in the NBA, and it's been nearly 10 months since he saw consistent floor time, as he logged only 66 minutes for Denver after coming over in the Carmelo Anthony deal. He's shown flashes around the rim, but he's pretty much sashimi offensively, and he averaged 5.8 fouls per 36 minutes last year, which makes keeping shooters off the foul line difficult and keeping himself on the floor even more so.
That said, Mozgov's an active, committed defender with prototypical size and strength, plus the athleticism to run the floor and fill the lane, which should fit nicely in Denver's attacking offensive style. If he can curb his enthusiasm a bit, turn some of those hacks into non-contact contests and stay in the game, he could be a really nice piece in Denver. There's a lot there to love, and that's before we get into the giant-Irish-wolfhound-puppy quality that helped make him a Garden favorite in his too-brief time in New York, the fact that he "has a Camaro that is being souped-up," or that he sometimes says stuff ("I was paying attention to some guys who were making some money from playing basketball, and I realized that in this life, if I don't become a basketball player, then for certain I won't be successful in anything else") that seems like it came from the mouth of another Moz. More Timo = better for the world.
Jeff Van Gundy is not excited. (AP) I'm so worried for you!
With Nene locked up and restricted free agent Arron Afflalo sure sounding likely to re-sign, Denver looks to be well-stocked. The finally famous Afflalo playing off-guard alongside a quality point-guard tandem (though Ty Lawson needs to be freed soon, no?) with that frontcourt mix behind them certainly constitutes enough depth, balance and talent for the Nuggets to make their ninth-straight appearance in the playoffs.
But, um, what happens then?
A pretty similar iteration of this Nuggets team got blitzed out of the postseason in five games this spring -- yes, Denver fans, we remember the blown offensive interference call in Game 1 that changed everything, but still -- and I don't see how this year's model does much better. The "many hands make light work" approach that spreads scoring responsibility across the roster seems tailor-made to help Denver rack up regular-season wins, but a short series demands beasts that can draw blood.
With his contract secured, Nene will be expected to bare his fangs, and while I wouldn't necessarily bet against him doing so, his post-Game 1 performances last year lead me to want to see him actually get feral first. Likewise, improved versions of Afflalo or Gallinari or someone else we don't see coming could provide the sort of star turn that's typically needed to move from the first round to the second ... but I'm going to have to see it to believe it.
Of course, that Oklahoma City Thunder team would have been a tough first-round draw for anybody, styles make fights, matchups mean everything and crazy things can happen in the playoffs. But if I were a Denver fan, I'd worry that even given the gifts that Nene and Afflalo have for helping an offense go nova, my Nuggets are still short a star.
On its face, the Nuggets picking up Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from the cap-clearing Dallas Mavericks in exchange for a second-round pick seems like a complete heist. Adding depth on the wings to replace what you lost when Chandler and J.R. Smith signed to play in China, and doing so for the price of a measly pick likely to be in the high 50s? Masai Ujiri ought to be charged with larceny!
Except, y'know, what are Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer? I mean, I think I know why they're supposed to be good, but at this point, is that reputation warranted?
There's no question that Fernandez is talented; anyone who watched him play for Spain against the United States in the gold-medal game of the 2008 Summer Olympics, or saw him fill it up from long-range as a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers, knows that. But, as Jeremy Wagner of the Nuggets blog Roundball Mining Society noted, all of Rudy's shooting percentages of fallen off over the past two years, he took nearly two-thirds of his shots from 3-point land and converted less than one-third of them last year, and he doesn't get to the line. His gifts and his feel for the game are bona fide, but if Rudy's job is, as Ujiri said, to "give us scoring," and he doesn't really score anymore, then what does he give you?
Similarly, the book on Brewer is that, for all of his offensive struggles -- and outside of a 15-game blip for the 2008-09 Minnesota Timberwolves that saw him hit 41.7 percent of his long balls, those struggles are legion -- he's a legit defender, the kind of quick, long swingman who can swarm opposing wings, contest shots and harass scorers on the perimeter. To Wagner, though, that rep seems overblown:
His on ball technique is very poor. You can tell at some point he was told because of his length he can play back a bit and still recover to challenge the shot if his man rises up. As a result, he plays off his man and to make sure he can reach him if he shoots he hunches over at the waist. This completely throws his balance off and as a result he cannot react quickly to a dribble drive. ... After watching film on both Brewer and DeMarre Carroll I am convinced Carroll is the better defender and it is not even really that close.
Now, beauty's in the eye of the scout, to be sure, and taking a flier on two devalued assets in exchange for a probably-not-that-valuable second-rounder is definitely worth a shot. But if you're banking on getting a ton out of your offense-defense wing pairing, Nuggets fans, you might be wise to pump your brakes.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
DENVER NUGGETS: "Twin Peaks"
Last season's Nuggets were one of the only teams in history to improve after trading a superstar. Some will say that happened because Carmelo Anthony's effect on the team was overrated, and they wouldn't be entirely wrong. But, more than anything, the post-Melo Nuggets were effective because they had eight starter-quality players in a league where even the best teams struggle to find five. It carried them into the playoffs, and while they struggled against the Thunder in the first round, they still posed a threat in enough games to seem legitimate.
Unfortunately, Denver's depth has gone by the wayside this offseason with free agents J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, and Kenyon Martin in China, coveted restricted free agent Arron Afflalo still on the market, and a few other more minor players on the way out. The recent additions of Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer will help, but they represent downgrades over the players who are gone and will seem more redundant if Afflalo reups. What once looked like a powerful ensemble cast now looks lacking star power.
The same problem afflicted the legendary cult series "Twin Peaks," although not entirely because actors left the show. When the series premiered, it found success not just because of its uniquely offbeat tone and compelling mystery, but because a number of disparate plotlines had just enough of a connection to each other to ensure that viewer enjoyment didn't depend on any one character or relationship. Then, as many of those characters' stories began to get resolved, the series only really found consistent quality in the various investigations of Agent Dale Cooper. And, with all due respect to Kyle MacLachlan, that wasn't enough to keep the show compelling enough to make it a consistently amazing series for all time. It will forever be a show defined by its heights rather than the entire body of work.
The NBA is a league of stars, and teams who succeed without a particularly good one rely on depth and energy. If the Nuggets are going to make the playoffs this season, they'll have to figure out a way to share the load with fewer capable players in tow. If they don't, they could end up in go-nowhere Civil War reenactments and questionable trysts with wealthy housewives.
If that last bit makes no sense to you, then you probably stopped watching "Twin Peaks" around the 15th episode. Hopefully the Nuggets will give plenty of reasons to tune in.