October 21, 2009
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Denver Nuggets
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Nuggets

They didn't improve their team, and losing Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones will hurt them in the regular season and could affect their seeding for the playoffs -- which could be a big deal because the home-court advantage is so important to them. Jones was a starter and Kleiza would come in when they went to their shooting lineup, and he was able to open things up, especially when he went to power forward. I don't think they'll be missed so much in the playoffs when the rotation tightens, but they may be noticed during the season.

Maybe Carmelo Anthony didn't have the year he was expected to have, but the results were obviously there for his team and he was a key element of that success. Some teams would say if you start on him hard defensively and he gets off to a bad start, he'll start to press and worry about his numbers at the expense of other things. But each year he seems to understand more and more that it's an 82-game season and he'll have big nights and lesser nights. He has learned over the years to give it up quicker when the defensive help comes. I remember early in his career the coaches there could see he was a good passer, and they couldn't understand why he wouldn't pass the ball so much. But I see now that he's giving it up and that's a good thing, because he sees the right plays. And he's going to get better and better as he sees the same things happening and he learns to hit the teammate diving from the key or he skips the ball across to the other side of the floor.

Carmelo's strength remains his ability to get to the free-throw line; it's just so easy for him. He understands how to put the pressure on the defense and create space because they don't want to foul out, and that's probably his most valuable contribution. It's no coincidence that he's improving while benefiting from better teammates like Chauncey Billups or a healthy Nene. The one thing I still don't see from him is real pride in the defensive effort. Anthony isn't slacking off there, but I don't see him becoming a stopper either. On the other hand, he is becoming one of those guys who makes his teammates better at the offensive end.

Billups provided Anthony with some guidance, freeing him up to do his job without having to worry if or when he would get the ball. With Billups running the pick-and-roll with Anthony, they were much better than when Allen Iverson or anybody else used to do it. Chauncey is 33, but I don't see any signs of age affecting him. The biggest thing with him is the stabilizing presence he offers to a team that has some unstable players -- guys who can fly off the handle like J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin. Thanks to Chauncey, their style went from being "my turn, your turn," to focusing more on the pick-and-roll. Plus, he gave them a very good three-point shooter, which had been a weakness for this team. One thing he probably shouldn't get a lot of credit for is his defense. He's a strong guy defensively, and George Karl's system of switching on defense helps him because he's strong enough to hold a big guy down just long enough until someone else can come over. But he has a problem against the younger, explosive point guards because he's average in terms of foot speed and quickness.

Smith was much more consistent last year with fewer antics on and off the court. He's very important for them because he spaces the floor and in the open court he can take it right to the rim. If he makes a couple in a row, he becomes a really dangerous shooter from the three-point line. They've reined him in a bit to understand when they need him to be superaggressive. At home especially he brings a lot of energy, to the point that you may feel like you have to call a quick timeout before he really gets himself going. They should be proud of the progression he's made in that he showed a lot defensively in the playoffs. Before last season he was not even interested in defending, but last postseason he stuck to the scheme rather than try to leak out on the break the way he used to. But with him they can't be sure that he'll pick up where he left off last year. He's a guy they'll probably have to continue to monitor closely.

Martin has made quite a comeback from his knee surgeries, but I don't think he's all the way recovered. I don't see him being the finisher he used to be when he was running the floor for New Jersey in front of Jason Kidd. I don't think we'll ever see that again from him. Defensively, he's still mobile, though again you don't see him coming from the weak side to block a shot out of nowhere and making that scowl as it goes out of bounds. But you still see movement in terms of getting back and recovering.

Martin and Nene seem to have a pretty good relationship on the court. It's not like they're getting in each other's way; they look like they're communicating with each other at the back end of the defense. Offensively, Nene is going to get more touches in the post, while Martin has shown a better ability to knock down face-up shots -- though you still want Martin to shoot it if you're defending the Nuggets.

Between Nene and Chris Andersen at center, they played more than well enough to make you forget about the trade that sent Marcus Camby to the Clippers. The thing about Nene is that he was finishing so well last year. He finished second to Shaquille O'Neal in field goal percentage [60.4] and he was almost as effective rolling to the basket as Amar'e Stoudemire used to be for Phoenix -- just catching it and finishing it every time. Chauncey helped him, obviously, and so did having guys like Smith and Kleiza to create space for Nene inside. He isn't a focal point that you can post him up and toss him the ball and watch him operate down there, but he's very active diving to the basket and finishing on his teammates' penetrations. Plus, he gives them some toughness as a big guy who uses his body on defense.

Andersen's role is to be as disruptive as possible defensively and cover as much area as he can. He isn't going to block every shot, but he tries to change every shot. I don't know if he would be as effective with other teams. He does seem like he's going crazy all over the place and leaving guys under the basket, but that's what they want in Denver with their switching defenses. He's always been good athletically, but he was more valuable last season because the opportunity was there for him and he has the ability to stay out of foul trouble while still being aggressive. Offensively, he basically finishes plays at the basket. He'll run the floor fast and force you to get back with him.

Their other big man off the bench will probably be Johan Petro. I figure he'll play a bigger role than Malik Allen because of Petro's length and his ability to control the paint a bit more. They might also play Carmelo some at power forward.

Renaldo Balkman is a non-skilled athlete who will be disruptive defensively but won't provide much at the other end. They might get some shooting from Arron Afflalo. But the most promising new bench player will be rookie point guard Ty Lawson. He has the potential to make more things happen than they're currently getting from Anthony Carter, who is a very good defender and a stable backup.

As a team defensively they made huge strides last year in their intensity, and especially during the playoffs when their mobile big men -- Nene, Martin and Andersen -- were aggressive in the pick-and-roll coverages in terms of stepping out and showing hard on the ball-handler and then getting back to their position inside. They turned that up a notch in the playoffs, but I don't think that style of aggressive "showing" can be done throughout all 82 games. You might do it in the last six minutes of a game when teams go to the high or wing pick-and-roll repeatedly. But that defensive coverage will wear you out over the season.

It helped last year that they had such a good, deep rotation of players that they could shuttle in and out to keep everyone fresh. I expect to see the same approach this year. They can switch at almost every position if they need to, whether it's Carmelo switching to a big man on a cross pick or pick-and-roll, or Billups holding onto the switch for a second until they can hand off. Andersen, Martin and Nene are all quick enough to switch off a big guy and onto the perimeter. That's the way Karl had it in Seattle when they were switching everything and disrupting and taking you out of what you do, though in Seattle they created even more havoc.

It seems to me that Karl is doing a great job as far as his demeanor with this team and holding his emotions in. I don't know how he's managing things in the locker room, but out on the floor he looks calm. He's always got his hands in his pockets while leaning against the scorer's table.

I don't think they can recreate their recent success because they got the most that they could out of last year's team. They had a great year and everything worked out perfectly for them in every way, which is what you need to have those kinds of results. But can you do that every year? My answer would be no. I don't think everything is going to happen just right, and if it is going bad they have some personalities that are going to have to be watched closely to keep them on board.


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