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DENVER: The Denver Nuggets are stuck in an NBA franchise’s version of a “no man’s land”.
It is clear—the team is too good to land a top pick in a draft, but they aren’t good enough to win a championship ring.
In the last 5 years trades have welcomed—and departed— superstar names like Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, and Andre Iguodala. Each of those stars have managed to find their way out of the ‘Mile High City’, yet the team seems to maintain it’s presence within Western Conference contention.
The 2009 NBA season brought the fans of Denver their own early Christmas, as the Nuggets finally cracked their way out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The city was immersed with energy—the Nuggets serving as the city’s only hope in athletics.
Some, like myself, may argue that the Nuggets would have won the championship that year, only if Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter could find a way to pass it to anyone except Lakers forward Trevor Ariza. Whoever came out of the West was going to beat the Orlando Magic that year for a ring, and two sloppy late-game passes are what kept the Nuggets from their first championship.Other than the 2009 NBA playoffs, the Nuggets have found themselves cleaning their lockers out after the first round of the playoffs every season for the past 10 years.
The main reason I addressed the presence of Melo, Iverson and Iguodala earlier was because they were seemingly not-vital to the success of the Nuggets in the post-season.
Quiz time: (aside from Carmelo Anthony) who was the star of the Nuggets during their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals?
Answer: Chauncey Billups.
Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP from the Detroit Pistons, was the key role-player for the team that season. A player—replacing Allen Iverson—who was on an average sized contract and carried a strong basketball IQ. The Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals off of his ability to conduct the offense, while also providing a solid stat line. The Nuggets have found their best success in players that can play the game intelligently and effectively.
That is why this season may be one of Denver’s best basketball-seasons in recent memory. Sure, the flashiness and glamour of a high-flying team is always appealing to the average fan. However, the Nuggets are no longer a show team. Carmelo’s shooting antics are long gone, and JR Smith has took his inconsistency to New York as well.
The Nuggets of today are a changed team from that of the 2012-2013 Nuggets’ roster. Not only did the team lose a few fan-favorite names, but they also acquired some solid talent from free agency—talent that may be influential to the success of the team.
JJ Hickson was a steal for the Nuggets. Sure, many will argue that Nate Robinson was the “robbery-of-the-year” in the NBA, and the Nuggets got away with it. However, Hickson’s presence in the post is one that former head coach George Karl I’m sure is envious of. Karl didn’t run much of his offense through the 4 and 5. However, if he would have had a capable mid-range scorer like Hickson available to him last season, the Nuggets score spread may have been more stretched throughout the positions, and not just locked to the guards and small forward.
Hickson is leading the Nuggets in scoring right now. Yes, it is the pre-season. However, the Nuggets have a system under new head coach Brian Shaw that calls upon the 4 and 5 slots to play an active role in the offense. Faried is a great rebounder, and is a force on put-back baskets. However, his mid-range shot has been mediocre at best.
I had the chance to speak to both Faried and Hickson a few weeks past, one-on-one. Throughout the interview with Faried, he answered nearly every question by starting with “as a starter…”. He, rightfully so, was confident that he would win the battle with Hickson to serve as the Nuggets’ starting power forward. That was before the preseason, though.
Faried has been fighting injury recently, missing the Nuggets’ past two games. At the same time—even during Faried’s time on the court—Hickson led the team in scoring.
Don’t be surprised that—at some point in the season—you find a healthy Kenneth Faried on the bench, and JJ Hickson serving the minutes of a starter. I’m not saying that Faried is a bad player. Rumor around the NBA is that many teams are trying to acquire his talents to their squad. However, Hickson fits the ideal-image of a starting power forward in the Brian Shaw offensive scheme.
Role players—those that do not carry superstardom—are what will make Denver thrive this season. Don’t expect the team to meet their franchise-record win total last year of 57 wins. As Brian Shaw said at the Pepsi Center last month “many of the championship teams I played and coached for were 45 to 50 win teams”.
Brian Shaw isn’t setting expectations on this team, and it would be hard for anyone to. However, it is clear that he is looking to capitalize on solidified role-player talent like JJ Hickson, Anthony Randolph, Andre Miller, Nate Robinson, and Randy Foye to push his team to levels prior Nuggets’ squads haven’t seen.