Thursday November 1st, 2007

DENVER -- George Karl bounded into the Pepsi Center 2½ hours before Wednesday night's opener against the Seattle SuperSonics. Two years removed from prostate cancer surgery, Karl looked like a happy and healthy man.

"Of course I'm healthy," he said, patting his midsection. "Look at me. I'm fat."

He was also overjoyed that his son, Coby, himself a veteran of two cancer operations, had seen action in the backcourt the previous night for the Los Angeles Lakers in their season-opening loss to the Houston Rockets at the Staples Center.

"Thirty-seven seconds," said Karl, referring to Coby's playing time. "I didn't even know he had been activated."

Karl was even happier after the game, a 120-103 victory over the rebuilding Sonics that, according to the excessively optimistic blogging prognostications of star forward Carmelo Anthony, leaves the Nuggets with 59 more wins to go. Karl himself has set 55 as a goal, one more than the 1987-88 Nuggets, who hold the franchise's record in the NBA. Other more objective prognosticators also see a team that can challenge for a top spot in the loaded Western Conference, one capable of even making the Finals.

To be blunt, I'm not sure I agree.

The optimism about the Nugs is based on several factors, two in particular: the continued maturation of Anthony, who by the end of last summer had changed the minds of almost everyone associated with USA Basketball who had doubted his commitment, game and maturity; and the return of power forward Kenyon Martin from microfracture surgery on his right knee that cost him all but two games of the 2006-07 season (he also had the same surgery on his left knee in May 2005). It was Martin who welcomed the home crowd with these words: "We hope to bring you our first championship." Bounding around the court, hanging on the basket and pumping up the noise, Martin has always been All-Pregame, no doubt about that.

In my view, though, the question marks outweigh the optimistic exclamation points for this team, which finished 45-37 last year. Here are a few:

• For all the growth in Anthony's game, the concomitant decline of Allen Iverson's must be considered. He's still terrific, still one of the 10 or so players in the league you'd pay to see. (That is, if you're not a freeloading sports writer.) But at age 32 after what seems like a lifetime spent hitting the deck, he has clearly lost a step, which in his case is a major loss as his game is predicated on quickness. And if he loses a step, his ability to get calls on his freewheeling forays to the basket will also go down. That's what happened on a number of occasions against Seattle when he failed to get a whistle.

• Then, too, the chemistry between Iverson and Anthony has yet to be worked out. That doesn't mean they don't like or respect each other. I think they do. But Iverson has spent 11 seasons as the alpha dog, and it's going to be difficult to yield that role to Anthony, which he should do. That observation is not based solely on Wednesday night when Iverson got 25 points on 22 shots and 'Melo scored a seemingly effortless 32 on just 21. It's just a fact.

• The Nuggets' point-guard position remains unresolved. Iverson played virtually all of his 36 minutes there against the Sonics, but he is most effective when he's taken off the ball at regular intervals. That's going to be difficult with Chucky Atkins and Anthony Carter injured, and neither is a championship solution in any case.

• Power forward is another problematic position, with Martin and Nenê (calf) both coming off injuries. Nenê, in particular, looked tentative against the Sonics, missing a dunk and a one-footer. Karl plans to basically alternate them through December with Martin getting the starts and a few more minutes.

• Finally, the Nuggets have said all the right things about becoming a defensive-oriented team, but saying it and becoming it are two different things. Exhibit A: Seattle, a team struggling to find its offensive identity, put up 31 points against the Nugs in the first quarter. "There were some times, in spurts, we showed we could be a great defensive team," Anthony said, "especially toward the end of the third quarter and in the fourth quarter. Everybody got on the same page and buckled down." Some earlier and more consistent buckling will be needed against the West's elite, of which the Sonics are clearly not one.

Still, this is a deep team -- significant contributions were offered Wednesday by reserve forwards Linas Kleiza (five three-pointers) and Eduardo Najera, always a demon rebounder. And the Nuggets did finally start sharing the ball in the fourth quarter, and, as Iverson put it, "stopped all the one-on-one play." Some of that one-one-one play had come from him, and that's not because he's selfish -- it's his style and always has been his style. But whether Iverson can find that balance between being a significant contributor and yielding the floor to a younger superstar will go a long way to determining whether, five months from now, Karl is still smiling, and Anthony is still talking about 60 wins.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.