In order to win a championship, an NBA team needs:
- 2 or more superstar caliber players
- A solid point guard
- A quality scoring big man
- Multiple reliable outside shooters
- A deep bench
- Great rebounding
- Great defense
- Great team chemistry
- Great coaching
Here’s how the Nuggets score in each of these areas: “A” means they lead the league, a “C” is average, and an “F” is poor:
1) At least 2 superstars
The Nuggets are in the best shape of anyone in the league in this department — A.I. is easily the best man 6′ or less to ever play the game. Melo has proven he’s the most complete scorer playing in the league — and he’s only 24! Finally, don’t short-change Nene. He’s still a little raw, but he’s strong, big, and powerful with his back to the basket and he can knock down a 15 footer. As he matures (he’s coming up on 25), look for him to become a force in the league. A+
2) A solid point guard.
Chucky Atkins backed up by Anthony Carter. Atkins provides veteran leadership and some muscle, but he is undersized. The Nuggets PG situation is at best average, so they get a C- on this one.
3) A quality scoring big man.
What does that mean exactly? It means that when your cutters and slashers are stuck, this guy still gives your team a legitimate chance to score. Nene plays this role in Denver, and he does so very well. However, Nene’s history of injury exposes the Nugget’s lack of depth here. None of their other big men can be counted on to score in the paint in a half-court set. Camby prefers to drive or shoot jumpers. Reggie Evans has bad hands, can’t pass, and lacks post moves. Najera isn’t big enough to be considered a “big man”. That only leaves K-Mart. Kenyon’s game isn’t really back to the basket prowess, but he hustles and he’s powerful. So, if K-Mart is healthy, they have a serviceable backup. But that’s also assuming Nene is healthy enough to start. Considering the injury history involved, the Nuggets earn a B-.
4) Multiple reliable outside shooters
Every championship team has at least one guy that you can’t leave open, and usually two. Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc. Michael Finley and Brent Barry. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, etc. The Nuggets are weak here. Atkins might be the only person on the roster most would consider an outside shooter (37% 3pt shooting). Melo’s skills here are improving, but his career 3pt shooting average is less than 30%. AI’s 3pt shooting is only a little better. That leaves the Nuggets with the immature JR Smith, whose shooting is excellent (44% from behind the line last season), and Linas Kleiza, a SF getting minutes at the SG spot. JR Smith is a great shooter, but he’s a terrible defender and he makes a lot of poor decisions. He also had trouble making 3s in the playoffs. Smith’s biggest problem rests between his ears — maybe his tragic summer will serve as a wake-up call. In any case, Smith was a huge liability on the court last season. Unless he magically transforms, he’s not the answer. In my opinion, Kleiza is about to become one of the league’s leading candidates for the 6th man award. He hustles on D, he has an inside game, he’s athletic, he rebounds, and he’s a spark. He’s even got some 3pt shooting skills (37% last season). But, just like Smith, he struggled to make 3s in the playoffs. The Nuggets need all of their shooters to improve and mature if they want to be complete here, but I think that’s too much to ask for in such a short amount of time. Grade: D
5) A deep bench
Having a “deep bench” means that your back-ups are good enough to start on other teams in the league. Linas Kleiza, JR Smith, and Kenyon Martin (if he’s healthy) are the Nuggets premier bench players, and form a solid bench core. Compared to last year’s champion Spurs, or the Jazz, or even the Warriors, that’s not a very exciting bunch. They earn a “C“.
6) Great rebounding
The Nuggets are a great rebounding team, and that’s mostly because of Marcus Camby. The guy can go off for 20 rebounds a night. Nene’s no slouch here either, and Melo has been known to crash the boards too. The bench offers up great rebounders in K-Mart, Evans (until he’s traded), and Kleiza, and you’ll see the whole team work hard on the offensive boards so they can get their transition game going. In short, Denver’s rebounding is excellent — they ranked 3rd overall last season. A+
7) Great Defense
If there is one area where the Nuggets are sorely lacking, it’s defense. While Nene and Camby protect the paint fairly well, the Nuggets have zero perimeter defense. I love A.I., but he doesn’t do much more than guard the passing lanes. I love Melo, but his idea of defense is simply trying to stay in someone’s way. The Nuggets new acquisition Chucky Atkins is not much of a defender either. While a good portion of the bench guys can step it up defensively, this team gives up a lot of easy baskets. Good defense depends on team communication as much as anything, and if the Nuggets get to spend a whole season playing together (no suspensions or blockbuster trades), their defense would improve. Of course, it would have to — the Nuggets ranked 26th in the league in defense last year. They get a big fat F on this one.
8 ) Great Team Chemistry
Team chemistry can’t be measured, and unless you’re on the team, it really can’t be discussed intelligently. In any case, it’s pretty safe to assume the Nuggets chemistry last season could have been better. Melo’s big suspension, AI joining the team half-way thru the season, and JR Smith’s public humiliation by George Karl all indicate that the team’s mood needed improvement. Assuming everyone can play together most of the season, chemistry will undoubtedly improve. I’m going to give them an incomplete grade here.
9) Great Coaching
There are a lot of people who think George Karl is a choke artist. He has a history of failing to lead good teams past the second round of the playoffs. Watching him coach for the last couple of years, I think Karl is an excellent coach. But like all humans, he’s deeply flawed. He’s constantly battling with one or more of his players — usually in the press. It sends an awful message to a group of employees when the boss talks about them behind their backs — imagine how much worse that feeling is when the people he talks to are the national media. I like George Karl, I think he’s an above average coach, but his personality gets in the way sometimes. Unless he can find a happy place with this team, he’s going to cause problems in the locker room. While these types of coaches CAN lead a team to a championship (think Larry Brown), it’s usually a lot harder than it needs to be. They get a B here.
The Nuggets need a lot of things. They need George Karl to stop coaching thru the press. They need K-Mart to be healthy enough to be a decent backup. They need to play defense (I call them the Enver Nuggets — cause they ain’t go no “D”). But above all else, they need some 3pt shooting. If the team comes back this summer ready to play, and if JR Smith and Linas Kleiza continue to develop, they’ve got a decent chance of winning the division. Assuming they finish the season as the 3rd, 4th, or 5th seed, they’ve even got a chance to make it to the conference finals. But unless they dramatically improve on defense and outside shooting, the conference finals is as far as they can hope to go.