The San Antonio Spurs will receive their championship rings before the season opener against the Denver Nuggets. Coach George Karl believes his Nuggets have a chance to be the ones enjoying such a ceremony at this time next year.
“I think people respected what we did,” Karl said. “But, right now, everyone thinks they can win a world championship. Fortunately, we have the depth of talent that if we do some things right, we might be able to win a world championship.”
The Nuggets begin their quest for a title by facing the team that put an abrupt end to their playoff run last season, and went on to win it all, when they visit the Spurs.
Denver finished with an impressive 32-8 run last season after Karl took over. However, the Nuggets were ousted by the Spurs in five games in the first round of the playoffs, getting outscored 105-33 from behind the 3-point line.
“San Antonio is one of the best in basketball at taking the 3 away,” Karl said. “We’ll adopt some of San Antonio’s rules on defense because of the way they played the 3 on us.”
The Spurs have won three of the last seven NBA championships, and even if they hadn’t made any changes, they likely would have been favored to win another. Instead, this season’s roster appears to be even more talented with the offseason addition of veterans Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel.
Finley has averaged 19 points and shot 37 percent on 3-pointers in his career while Van Exel ranks sixth all-time in 3-pointers. Both players are hungry for their first NBA titles, and both former starters now will come off the bench behind Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili.
“My role will be off the bench and I have no problem with that,” said Finley, the former Dallas swingman who passed up bigger money elsewhere to sign with San Antonio. “They’ve been successful without me, so I’m just going to try to contribute.”
San Antonio’s success begins with three-time NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan. Duncan was the only player in the league last season to be named to both the All-NBA first team and All-Defensive first team.
Duncan sat out 16 games last season with an ankle injury and the Spurs went 8-8, including two losses to the Nuggets.
With Bowen joining Duncan on the All-Defensive first team, the Spurs allowed a league-low 88.4 points per game.
While the Spurs added two former All-Stars to their roster in the offseason, the Nuggets stayed relatively quiet.
“If we weren’t sure it was going to make us better, my philosophy is, don’t do it,” Karl said. “That’s the way most of the things that came over the table in the offseason looked to us.”
For the most part, the same players that went 25-4 to close the 2004-05 season are back.
Carmelo Anthony returns for his third season after averaging better than 20 points during his first two years in the league. Anthony is 10 pounds lighter and Karl hopes he can be more of a threat behind the 3-point arc.
After shooting 32 percent from 3-point range and connecting for 69 as a rookie, Anthony shot just 26 percent while making only 42 3-pointers last season.
Voshon Lenard’s return should help the team’s long-range shooting after he missed most of last season to injury. Lenard, a 38-percent 3-point shooter, tore his Achilles’ tendon in the season opener and played in only three games.
The Nuggets’ inside game is bolstered by a healthy Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby. Martin, whose left knee was surgically repaired over the summer, averaged 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds last season and Camby, named to the All-Defensive second team last season, averaged 10.3 points and 10 boards.
Denver will be without Karl in the season opener after he was suspended by the league for violating league rules prohibiting contact between NBA teams and players not yet eligible for the NBA draft. Assistant coach Scott Brooks will assume the head coaching role during Karl’s two-game suspension.
2004-05 STANDINGS: Nuggets - 2nd place, 3 GB, Northwest Division. Spurs - 1st place, Southwest Division.
2004-05 TEAM LEADERS: Nuggets - Anthony, 20.8 ppg; Camby, 10.0 rpg, Miller, 6.9 apg. Spurs - Duncan, 20.3 and 11.1 rpg; Parker, 6.1 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: 2-2.
LAST MEETING: April 1; Nuggets, 102-84. At Denver, Camby took advantage of Duncan sitting out with an ankle injury, finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Nuggets - 18-23 on the road; Spurs - 38-3 at home.