| Can J.R. Smith steady his game?|
|John W. McDonough/SI|
|1,891 Free throws made by the 2008-09 Nuggets -- the same number they made in the previous season. In '07-08 that total led the league; last season Denver ranked second, by two, to the Warriors.|
|Record: 54-28 (first in Northwest) |
Points scored: 104.3 (sixth in NBA)
Points allowed: 100.9 (tied for 18th in NBA)
This article appears in the October 26, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated
If Kreigh and Aubrie Warkentien were listing their favorite NBA players, Nuggets shooting guard J.R. Smith would be at the top -- which matters because Kreigh's and Aubrie's father happens to be Mark Warkentien, Denver's vice president of basketball operations and the reigning Executive of the Year. "I like to evaluate people on how they interact with my kids," Warkentien said. "At my house, there's no one more popular than J.R. They adore the guy. Put him around your family and he's not good. He's perfect."
Smith's problems have come away from the Warkentien home. This summer he served 24 days in jail after pleading guilty to reckless driving, a charge stemming from a 2007 car crash that killed one of his best friends, Andre Bell. The Nuggets have become accustomed to inconsistencies in Smith's game as well as in his behavior. Last season, for instance, he scored 45 against the Kings, then five the next game against the Blazers. After reaching the Western finals for the first time since 1985, Denver knows that it won't go further until the 6' 6" Smith gets steadier.
Even though he is entering his sixth season, it's easy to forget that Smith just turned 24. The Nuggets love Smith's energy and shooting touch, but he admits that he did not understand how to play D until point guard Chauncey Billups arrived from Detroit last November. With Billups in his ear for a full season, Smith had no choice but to learn. "Defense is the emphasis for me," Smith says. "Chauncey is teaching me a lot of tricks."
The Nuggets made just a few moves over the summer, adding rookie Ty Lawson out of North Carolina to back up Billups and acquiring Arron Afflalo to replace departed perimeter stopper Dahntay Jones. Warkentien values continuity. "It's like making a cake," he says. "We went through a lot of ingredients the last couple of years and found a mix that we like. We're going to let it bake."
-- Lee Jenkins