Despite a slew of injuries last season, the Denver Nuggets found a way to win their first division title in 19 seasons before being ousted—again—in the first round of the playoffs.
With a healthy lineup, the Nuggets open their season Thursday at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers in a rematch of their Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Denver hit an immediate obstacle three minutes into last season, when forward-center Nene suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Starting forward Kenyon Martin was limited to 56 games as he recovered from microfracture surgery on his left knee, and a hamstring injury to oft-injured center Marcus Camby also restricted him to 56 games. Nuggets coach George Karl patched together 21 different starting lineups.
“Last year had a lot of pain to it,” Karl said. “But last year, I want you to know, was good, was very, very good. I mean, some of the things that we’ll be this year is because of what we went through last year—resiliency, perseverance, toughness.
“There’s a lot of things we learned last year. Unfortunately, you learn things in tough situations.”
Forward Carmelo Anthony only missed two games and had a breakout season, averaging a career-high 26.5 points while leading Denver to a 44-38 record and its first division crown since 1987-88.
Since being selected third overall by the Nuggets in 2003 after leading Syracuse to its only NCAA tournament title, Anthony has led them to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, but they’ve failed to advance past the first round each time.
In four regular-season games against the Clippers last season, Anthony shot 45.8 percent from the field and averaged 25.0 points. In the postseason, though, those numbers dipped to 33.3 percent shooting and 21.0 points.
Anthony should benefit from having Nene, Martin and Camby back in the lineup, but Martin will be key to Denver’s success this season.
“He has to get back to where he was before he hurt his knee,” said Camby, who averaged 12.8 points and a career-high 11.9 rebounds last season. “He was a big piece of the puzzle that we missed last year.”
Martin’s blowout with Karl over his lack of playing time in the postseason led to his suspension from the team, but didn’t result in a trade.
“Every conversation that I’ve had with Kenyon since the incident and even through the drudgery of the season, Kenyon cares about basketball and cares about his team,” Karl said. “It’s just two guys that probably are (more) similar than unlike butting heads a little bit.”
In fact, Denver’s only major roster change was the addition of shooting guard J.R. Smith, who averaged 14.4 points with New Orleans, but also butted heads with Hornets coach Byron Scott and was traded to Chicago. Less than a week later, the Bulls shipped him to Denver.
Smith shot 39.2 percent from 3-point range in eight preseason games, and should help the Nuggets improve on their league-worst 32.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Against the Clippers in the postseason, that percentage dropped to 22.1.
Los Angeles opened its season Wednesday with a 112-104 loss at Phoenix.
The Clippers shot just 42.7 percent from the floor, and couldn’t keep up with the Suns, who shot 53.2 percent while efficiently running their up-tempo offense.
“We missed some shots, and when you miss shots, that kind of fuels them,” said Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley, who scored 17 points.
Coming off an MVP-caliber season, Elton Brand led Los Angeles with 28 points on 13-of-22 shooting to go with 13 rebounds. Brand averaged 24.7 points on 52.7 percent shooting and 10 rebounds last season, but struggled against the Nuggets in the playoffs, averaging just 17.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting.
Sam Cassell added 17 points Wednesday, and averaged 19.0 points in four regular-season games against Denver last season.
Los Angeles hasn’t started 0-2 since 2003-04.