As the free agency period winds down in the NBA, some fans will begin to focus in on Major League Baseball's pennant races (specifically with the Rockies seven games back, at the time of this writing) or they will turn their attention to the beast known as the National Football League (especially in Denver with the recent signing of rookie Tim Tebow). But for diehard Nuggets fans, their attention never drifts far from the team ... a team that is facing plenty of questions as the 2010-11 season sits on the horizon.
The Top 5 on-the-court questions weighing on my mind ...
5. What will be Carmelo Anthony's motivation?
Nuggets fans are hoping to have this question answered by the time the season tips off in late October and hopefully this question will be outdated by that time. But on Denver Stiffs we've been talking about the possibility of Melo not signing an extension and what that could mean to the front office. The fear is that if Melo doesn't sign the extension that has been offered to him, he could be mentally checked out as a Denver Nugget and the front office may look to trade him during the season. If Melo signs, there will be an exhale in Nuggets Nation that will create a wind strong enough to blow Spike Lee over outside the front doors at Madison Square Garden.
There have been some grumblings as to LeBron James' and Chris Bosh's motivations with their former teams last season and questioning a guy's professionalism is never good. But in the new landscape that is forming in the NBA, the fear of stars abandoning ship before it sinks is very real.
4. Who is going to play power forward?
The incumbent power forward in Denver, Kenyon Martin, is expected to miss some time at the start of the season as he is rehabbing from yet another knee surgery. The Nuggets have not put a timetable on his return, but third-string point guard Anthony Carter told Chris Tomasson of Fanhouse that there is a chance K-Mart could be ready to go by the opener. Chris Andersen is an option to start at power forward, but George Karl has always preferred to play Birdman off the bench; Karl used to give starts to former center Johan Petro (sliding Nene to power forward) over Andersen when K-Mart was out with injury, so as to not disrupt Bird's role with the team. Andersen is also coming off a couple of surgeries this offseason, but Carter (in the same Fanhouse piece) said Bird should be ready to return to action during training camp.
The most likely candidate to start at power forward, if K-Mart is on the shelf, is the Nuggets' newest addition: Al Harrington. The former New York Knick is not an incredibly imposing phyical speciman at 6'9'' and 250 pounds, but the Melo and Martin mold Harrington will allow the Nuggets to do some different things on offense than we are used to. Take this stat, for example: Last season, Chauncey Billups went 157-407 (38.6 percent) from 3-point land, and Al Harrington went 140-409 (34.2 percent) from downtown. When Harrington is on the floor, teams will not be able to slide off of him like they did with K-Mart because he will make them pay.
Also, do not worry that Harrington is just a guy who hangs out on the perimeter. Playing in Mike D'Antoni's system in New York for 72 games in the 2009-10 season and 68 games in the 2008-09 as well as for Don Nelson in Golden State for 81 games in 2007-08, Harrington did put up 400+ attempts in each regular season from beyond the arc, but before that he never put up more than 273 bombs in a season. Sure, he will have to adjust a bit to Denver's style, but I expect Harrington to be an all-around player for the Nuggets. We'll see some long-range shooting, mid-range game, and plenty of interior play from the new No. 7. We also should also expect some increased rebounding and defense from Harrington. If and when K-Mart and Birdman come back, we will see a Nuggets frontline with something new ... some premier depth.
3. Is Ty Lawson's role going to increase?
Chauncey Billups is getting closer and closer to making Team USA's squad for the 2010 FIBA World Championship tournament that runs from August 28, 2010 to September 12, 2010. Billups is the ideal guy to have on that team as he provides a veteran voice and is clutch under pressure. I have no doubt that Billups will be fresh and ready to go for the FIBA tournament if he makes the final roster, but Nuggets fans have reason for concern. The 34-year-old point guard looked worn out at the tail end of last season, and I fear that we'll see him wear down again this season. I'm not totally sure how fair it is to say that this tournament will specifically wear him down for the Nuggets season because Billups, like other NBA players, probably plays in plenty of pick-up basketball during the offseason anyway, but that is a bit different than pushing yourself in actual games that you are obligated to play in.
For Billups' career, he has averaged 32.3 minutes per game, and last season, at age 33, he was asked to play an average of 34.1 minutes in 73 regular season games. Since the 2001-02 season (when Billups was in Minnesota), he has logged more than 2,327 minutes every season and has averaged 70 games or more in each of those seasons.
The Nuggets have a more-than-capable backup in Ty Lawson, who played in 65 games last season and averaged 20.2 minutes per game (1,316 minutes total in the regular season). I would love to see Lawson on the floor more and Billups on the floor less this year, especially if the game is out of hand. And I would also like to see less of Lawson and Billups on the floor together (something George Karl started to fall in love with) as J.R. Smith and Arron Afflalo can easily handle the minutes at shooting guard. Nobody can be sure how many games Lawson and Billups will play next season, but the closer the gap is in minutes played, the more it will benefit the Nuggets come playoff time as Billups should be more rested and Lawson will be more experienced.
2. How is this team going to get stops?
Former Nugget Joey Graham recently signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post caught up with him about his future and shared some key quotes from Graham last season. One such quote, after a loss to the Phoenix Suns, outlined how the Nuggets got in trouble as the gameplan dictated they switch every defensive screen instead of staying with their man and how the team struggled to properly rotate on double teams. The Nuggets struggled on defense when they did switch screens because they helped create mismatches and often got burned as a result. Too often we saw Steve Nash and other point guards exploit the Nuggets (who were switching on screens) by executing picks-and-rolls with said mismatches or with the guard just flat smoking Denver's big man. The other problem the Nuggets faced (and have been plagued by in recent years) is bad rotaions on double-teams. When the Nuggets double-teamed in the post with a weakside defender, the rotation to the open man was typically late and the result was usually a guy wide-open under the hoop who was soon enough hanging on the rim after an uncontested dunk.
The Nuggets will have new faces on the frontline with Harrington and Shelden Williams and I expect Williams to see some minutes early in the season as K-Mart and Birdman will be easing their way back onto the court. It'll be interesting to see not only how the new faces do, but what the Nuggets' defensive gameplan is this season. If Denver still switches most of the time and feels the need to double team, they are setting themselves up for failure. The key out West is one-on-one defense. Too many teams have too much size, and the more big men that are not near the hoop for a rebound ... the more your team will pay on the offensive glass. Harrington has vowed to be a defensive-minded player and Williams is known more for his defense than his offense, so despite all the talk about how many points Denver might score with Harrington in the mix, the key will still be how the Nuggets are able to get stops.
1. Will George Karl be on the bench all season?
There is no doubt that the Nuggets missed George Karl last season. The coach has been battling back from his bout with cancer and all lights are green as he is ready to head back to the Nuggets bench. Karl will probably be getting a loud ovation in the Nuggets' opener, whether the game is at home or on the road. I'm hoping the NBA schedule shakes out right so Karl's first game back is at Pepsi Center. You may want to wear earplugs if you are in the house for Karl's return.
The Nuggets need Karl's voice and his presense this season, for the entire season. I am interested to see if Karl has a new approach to coaching and what kinds of tweaks he will make. One tweak we already know about is former assistant coach Jamahl Mosley moving on to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Once upon a time Karl was paying Mosley out of his own pocket because he really wanted him on his staff. Karl has always coached with style and a certain flair. He used to be "Furious George" as he would get heated on the bench and wear his emotions on his sleeve. With the Nuggets, Karl has been a lot calmer in his approach, sometimes a bit too calm in the fans' view. The life changing events Karl has faced this past year have surely changed him personally and they might even be reflected in his coaching style.
I'm hoping some lessons from last season will stick with Karl, though, like the team getting worn down from the lack of more than an eight-man rotation for much of the season. We saw Johan Petro, Renaldo Balkman, Joey Graham, and Malik Allen put down roots on the bench and that can't happen this season. Denver must use their end-of-the-bench guys and keep the team fresh. Hopefully K-Mart, Birdman, Williams, and Harrington will all see regular minutes, and if another player is brought in to lend a hand, that'd be great. Renaldo Balkman has to figure out what he needs to do to get on the court. Balkman has proved to be of value when he plays, but practice has been his Achilles heel. Karl does not like to play guys who disrespect the game and waste their talents, and Balkman is a talented player who is getting a reputation of not taking practice seriously. In addition to his rotation, Karl must figure out the best defensive gameplan for his team and he must find a way to integrate Harrington into the mix. The Nuggets surely have a variety of player combinations and game styles at their disposal; Karl must tinker with them all.
The coach has a bunch of challenges ahead of him as the season approaches. There is still a lot of time to figure things out, but time flies when you're having fun and Karl views challenges on the court as fun problems to solve.
Can't wait for this season.