Thursday, May 14, 2009
Photo credits. AP Photo/ Jack Dempsey
The Denver Nuggets are the hottest team in the NBA playoffs right now. They aren’t the flavor of the month though; this squad has everything it takes to be a legitimate championship contender.
Denver is a great all-around team and it all starts with head coach George Karl.
A former NBA player himself, Karl is the 12th-winningest coach in NBA history. In 21 seasons, only three times has he not been in the playoffs (he was fired before the season’s completion twice in the 1980’s). Prior to this year’s playoff success, he took the Milwaukee Bucks to an Eastern Conference Finals, and took the Seattle SuperSonics to the Western Conference Finals twice, once advancing to the NBA Finals. Karl is a proven winner who gets the most out of his players.
A huge reason for the Nuggets’ recent success was the acquisition of Chauncey Billups. His impact on the Nuggets has been like Kevin Garnett’s on the Boston Celtics last year, absolutely changing the franchise for the better. Denver had lost in the first round of the playoffs the past five seasons and hadn’t reached the second round since the 1993-1994 season.
Conversely, Billups has been to the conference finals with the Detroit Pistons the past six consecutive seasons (now seven with Denver’s series win over Dallas), been to the NBA Finals twice, won the championship once, and was named the 2004 NBA Finals MVP.
Nicknamed Mr. Big Shot, Billups is one of the best clutch players in the NBA, and his veteran leadership has turned around the atmosphere in Denver.
In order to get Billups, the Nuggets had to trade the extremely talented, but controversial and malcontent superstar Allen Iverson. Iverson’s departure combined with what Billups has brought to the table has made the team chemistry skyrocket and players are finally realizing their potential.
Carmelo Anthony is one who has benefitted from the trade. He is one of the top offensive players in the NBA, but this season he’s finally developed into a team leader. His experience with the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team coupled with Billups’ arrival has matured Anthony.
One huge advantage, literally and figuratively, is how good the Nuggets frontcourt rotation is. Denver has three very good bigs, who all have a rare combination of being aggressive and physical as well as athletic.
Nene and Kenyon Martin are both extremely physical players, on offense and defense, that wear down the opposing post players. Martin has had a resurgence in his career as of late, realizing how effective he is as a role player whose strengths are defense and rebounding.
Chris Anderson is the third part of Denver’s frontcourt triumvirate. Another player who has seemed to mature as the season has gone on, “Birdman” is an incredible leaper with extremely long arms. He uses both to get up on offense and make exciting dunks, as well as alter shots on defense.
Continuing with the theme of maturity, sixth man J.R. Smith has put aside his selfish play and poor attitude (that has also led to him being suspended twice) to become instant offense off the bench and a regular and consistent contributor to the surging Nuggets.
While Denver’s offense can keep pace with the best of them, what makes them a complete team is their effort on the defensive end of the court.
While Nene, Martin, and Anderson are all good post defenders Denver also has good perimeter defenders as well. Dahntay Jones, once considered another Duke alum that could not be a contributor on the professional level, has become a starter for the Nuggets because of his exceptional perimeter defense. And although he is seldom used, Renaldo Balkman is an energetic defender who can come off the bench to help Jones. Backup point guard Anthony Carter has also been effective off the bench.
The Nuggets have everything a championship team needs: a good coach, a star offensive player, a player that thrives in clutch situations, a versatile and deep frontcourt, good defenders, and excellent contributions from the bench, not to mention they are playing their best basketball at the most important time of the year.
Denver is the perfect storm right now, and they have a real shot at winning their first championship in franchise history.