The Denver Nuggets have the honor of being the
only second 50 win team in the history of the NBA to be swept in the first round of the playoffs (since the best of seven format began). Here’s what went wrong:
> Bad defensive habits.
The much-maligned Nuggets defense improved in the last year, but not enough to overcome their chronic lack of focus. The Nuggets spent just as much time this season playing bad defense as they did playing good defense. They often played to the level of their competition – like beating a tough San Antonio team twice in Denver, then losing a “must win” game to a young Seattle team during the last week of the season.
> Melo’s lack of maturity.
Carmelo is a tremendous scorer, and he’s becoming an excellent passer and a solid rebounder. Unfortunately, he’s yet to develop into a leader. His meltdown after game 3 in the Lakers-Nuggets series underscored his biggest problem – his lack of maturity. He doesn’t understand that his individual defensive efforts would translate to better team defense. Not to mention his DUI that came the week before the playoffs. He’s the best player – he needs to set the tone.
It’s clear from comments made by players and coaches this year that the Nuggets lack chemistry. From George Karl’s lack of emotion (he looks like a man that just doesn’t care anymore), to Allen Iverson’s veiled threat to opt-out last October, to Melo’s obvious disdane for his team following game 3 of the playoffs, it’s easy to see this group hasn’t clicked. Only a major change can fix this problem.
Here’s what the Nuggets have to look forward to:
> More time with George Karl
Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke has a tendency to drag out tough decisions. Even if Kroenke is confident it’s time to let Karl go (and it probably is), he’ll find a way to drag it out well into next season. Besides, Karl’s got two more years of contract left. Kroenke doesn’t like to buy out coaches.
> A difficult negotiation with J.R. Smith.
Don’t be shocked if Denver looses J.R. Smith during the off-season. Granted, he played extremely well in the second half of the season, but he’s not going to be worth much more than Sasha Pavlovic money – $4 to $5 million a year. That puts him squarely within many team’s mid-level exception. J.R. is enough of an ego maniac to kill the goose that laid the golden egg (a la Anderson Varejao), so he’s likely to turn down whatever offer the Nuggets produce. For all I know, J.R. might be thinking he’s a max contract type of guy (yes – he’s that delusional).
> Saying goodbye to Eduardo Najera
Based on how the Nuggets season ended, it would have been wise to trade Najera when they had the chance (if only I had a time machine). Najera is a tremendously popular in Dallas, and the Mavericks would gladly bring him on board for the spark he provides off the bench. Even if the Mavs pass on his services, San Antonio, Cleveland, Boston, and Detroit would pay him as much as $3 million a year for his defense and hustle. Najera is as good as gone.
> Trading Marcus Camby, Nene, and/or K-Mart
Denver needs to make a change – someone has got to go. The team needs new blood, and a big off-season trade always has the benefit of changing the dynamics in the locker room. Denver also needs to find a way to bring in some new players without paying out any more money, and that means trades. Aside from Iverson and Carmelo, Denver’s biggest salaries and most trade able pieces are (in order of most valuable trade bait to least valuable) Camby, Nene, and K-Mart. Dumping K-Mart’s contract would be a miracle, so that means Nene and Camby are most likely to be traded. Camby provides defense and rebounding to a team that’s trying to get to the next level, and Nene offers youth and potential to a team that’s looking to rebuild. I would like to see Nene and K-Mart traded for Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal provides defense, scoring, and size, and taking on his contract is no worse than sticking with K-Mart’s contract.
A front court of Camby, O’Neal, and Carmelo would be as formidable as any in the league. Here’s to hoping…