Had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy from Nuggets blog Pick Axe and Roll, who provided some very in depth answers concerning both the Blazers and their division rivals. Our thanks to Jeremy, who has posted our side of the interview on his blog here. Be warned, as SJ would say, this interview is lightweight epic.
And now, the answers:
Your thoughts on the Blazers this year? How do you see your matchup with them playing out?
I am not quite as high on the Blazers chances this season as a lot of people. Before you all begin to round up a posse to have me lynched hear me out. First of all, the Blazers played over their heads a bit last season. While they finished 41-41 they had the scoring differential of a team who would be expected to win 37 games. I think the base they are building from is not quite as high as most Blazer fans would like to think. We have also seen that historically it is more difficult to jump from 41 to 50 wins than it is to jump from 32 to 41 wins, which is what Portland accomplished last season.
I think there will be some growing pains for Greg Oden. He will have to learn to score in ways other than dunking, although he will definitely score plenty of points just off of vicious dunks. There will be plenty of games where he will be watching the game after the first few minutes due to foul trouble.
As far as the other rookies on the team, Rudy Fernandez should be able to mesh pretty well with the team, but I am not as sold on Jerryd Bayless. Bayless is certainly very talented, but I am not sold on how well his style will fit in with the Blazers.
Another change which will affect all the teams in the west is the bottom of the conference will be better. A team like Minnesota who both the Blazers and Nuggets swept last season is going to be much improved. The Clippers will be better. The Thunder will be better though how much I am not sure. I think there will be fewer easy wins to be had at the expense of the weaker teams of the west.
Now, all that being said, I do think the Blazers will be a force in the NBA for years to come. We may very well be on the verge of a Trailblazer Dynasty. I just think this season will be one of slow growth for Portland instead of a huge explosion like some people foresee.
As far as the competition between the Nuggets and Blazers I think it will make for hotly contested games every time they meet. I was very impressed with the intensity that was displayed by both teams in the final meeting last season where it appeared the Blazers might be in the playoff chase all season long and a Blazer win would have clinched the season tiebreaker against Denver. This season I see Denver and Portland battling for the seventh seed in the west (along with Dallas) and I believe all three teams will have win totals in the mid to high 40s.
If you could grade your team’s off-season what would you give it? Do you agree with the pundits who are saying Marcus Camby was overrated?
I actually believe the Nuggets have made some sound decisions this off-season. Many Nugget fans are calling owner Stan Kronke cheap and blame him for not keeping Camby and using their 2008 draft pick (which was traded to Charlotte for a future first rounder). In my mind Kronke would have been insane to pay $100 million in salary and luxury tax payments to keep a team together that has flamed out in five straight first round series. In fact part of me was relieved that they did make a move to shake up the roster.
When the opportunity to dump Camby’s salary arose, they jumped at it. The common notion held by most Nugget fans was they traded Camby for nothing. The truth is they landed a potentially valuable $10 million trade exception. Another thing to keep in mind is most teams who are making a salary dump trade have to include picks for the other team. (Remember last summer Phoenix had to include two first round picks in order to have the then Seattle Supersonics take Kurt Thomas off their hands.)
As far as the seemingly recent movement to brand Camby as overrated. I have been leading that charge for more than a year now. I have documented his poor one on one defense, poor pick and roll defense and poor perimeter defense. Add in his completely vacant post game and inexplicable love for the 18 foot jumper on offense and I have stated that he is one of the most overrated players in the NBA. People look at the rebounding totals and shot block totals and assume he is a dedicated defender. As selfish as some Nugget players are on offense, Camby is a selfish defensive player who has committed himself to blocking as many shots as possible. Throw in his age and history of injuries, although he has been pretty durable the last three seasons and I thought the deal was a very good one.
The one quarrel I have with the Nuggets this off-season was the trading of their draft pick which could have been used to acquire a player like Mario Chalmers who could have given them an option for the future at point guard, but I understand the financial reasons for making that trade.
I also give the Nuggets credit for not extending Iverson’s contract and shooting down the Jamaal Tinsley trade.
As far as a grade I give the Nuggets a B-. They have created the potential for some financial flexibility in the future, which is difficult to do when you are paying Kenyon martin $15 million a season, Nene $10 million a season and Melo another $14 million and they have assets like the trade exception and Bobcats future first rounder.
Is this still George Karl’s team or has he lost the players?
This is a very tough question to answer. While Karl has been much maligned by many fans, including myself, and has acted like he is just trying to get through his tenure as Nuggets coach without getting shivved in the yard I think he can still rally this team.
Karl commanded a great deal of respect when he first arrived (he would get a standing ovation from the crowd every time he walked out of the locker room back in 2005 when he took over the reins during the season). He was not afraid to bench anyone if they were not playing the way he wanted them to. Carmelo sat our a few close fourth quarters and he took a big step forward as a player that season because of it. Karl has certainly gotten away from that disciplinarian mentality and seemed to adopt a survival mentality. I questioned why he did not revert to implementing his aggressive defensive style that he used in Seattle.
At this point in his career he does not take away playing time for major mistakes. He dose not get on the refs. He does not try to fire up the team from the sideline. He pretty much just plants himself in his chair or against the scorers table and that has turned fans against him. Against the Lakers in the playoffs last season there was a bit of scandal when Carmelo yelled at him to not just sit there, but do something.
It did not make sense to me why Karl would want to stay on as coach after he was so clearly frustrated by the team so frequently. On the other hand, I was at a loss for what coach I would want to replace him that was available.
The one thing he has working in his favor is I believe the players want to prove that they were not the team that was so easily swept aside by the Lakers last season and both the Denver Post and R
ocky Mountain News have posted articles in the last 24 hours where Karl has proclaimed that he has never been so happy with a team at this point in the preseason.
On the other hand, I think if this team gets off to a slow start and AI trade rumors start to stir the pot the team might go in the tank and Karl will be helpless to stop it. Ultimately the players decide if they want to buy in to the coach or not and I think right now the players know if they are going to make a statement this season they have to do it with Karl. I am not sure to what extent he still has the respect of the players, but both he and the players know that they are stuck with each other for at least one more season. That means they will give him one more chance.
Nene has been a “high-potential” player for some time now, and, though he’s been derailed by obvious, unavoidable reasons, could he still be your answer at C?
Nene can absolutely be the answer at center for the Nuggets. Most NBA fans either do not know or have forgotten what Nene is capable of. Going back to the 2007 playoffs when the Nuggets faced the Spurs Nene averaged 15.2 points and 7.8 rebounds and played very tough post defense against Tim Duncan. He may be more of a natural power forward, but he can certainly defend centers and score from the block, a task only Carmelo has been able to handle on a consistent bases. (By the way, click here for an analysis of Nene’s defensive abilities contrasted with Camby’s defensive prowess.)
Obviously the big question with Nene is can he stay healthy and I believe the answer is yes. He has missed a lot of games, over two thirds of the games over the previous three seasons. The thing in his favor is that none of his injuries are debilitating and he has been more a victim of bad luck than injury proneness. I certainly doubt he will have to battle cancer again this season so he has that going for him, which is nice.
I believe Nene will be a big player in the Most Improved Player race this season because we all know it is just a factor of increased playing time more so than an actual increase in ability.
Realistically, where would you put the Nuggets’ ceiling, high and low?
There may not be a team in the NBA who has a more diverse range between their ceiling and floor this season. I can see the Nuggets deciding they are fed up with the first round playoff exits and truly applying themselves game after game this season and winning 55 games. Is that likely? No, but with the talent on this team I believe they can do it.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a good chance management will deal Iverson to further reduce salary. Under the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement they could reduce their payroll between four and five million dollars by trading him for the minimum salary they could possibly take back (even after the Camby salary dump the Nuggets are set up to owe about $6 million in luxury taxes this season). This team can bounce back form the Camby trade, but if AI is shipped out too, they will pull the plug on the season. At that point it is just a matter of when Iverson is dealt that will determine their win total, but I could see them ending up with 35 wins in that scenario.
However, as long as the team remains intact as it is today, I do not see their floor dropping below 42 wins.
One thing that worries you about the team? Is your Championship window closing? Was it ever fully open?
The one thing that worries me more than anything else is the mental fragility of this team. They say all the right things to the p
ress, but they can fold like a lawn chair in a tornado if things are not going as smoothly as they had hoped. That is why the start they get off to will be so important. If they have a successful first month of the season they will continue to do the things that they need to in order to be successful. On the other hand a slow start will only compound their problems and ultimately result in a trade of Iverson effectively ending the competitive portion of their season.
As far as having any kind of championship window I do not think that window was ever open. As talented as this team is I believe their style is detrimental to their playoff chances. Almost all of my readers disagree with me, but I truly believe in order to be a championship caliber team you have to be able to defend, score in the half court and shoot. Denver has been weak in all three areas and part of the reason is the roster has been built to run and take advantage of the mile high air in Denver, which I do not believe is that much of an advantage anymore.
If there was one move you could make what would it be? Just for fun, would you trade Melo for Brandon Roy straight up? Or for LaMarcus Aldridge?
This is a great question. Right now I would not trade Carmelo for Brandon Roy. I still want to see how he reacts this season after the playoff humiliation from last season. So far reports are that Melo is taking charge in practice and pushing his teammates. If Melo can take that next mental step in his development, he will be a top ten player in the NBA, if not higher. The way most team defenses have to adjust and focus on him is a tremendous advantage for the Nuggets. Roy is a very, very good player and has proven he can be a deal closer down the stretch, but right now I think Melo is a tougher matchup for defenses and I would hate to trade him and watch him “get it” for another team.
If we get the same old Carmelo Anthony again this season, ask me again in six months.
I would definitely not swap Melo for LeMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge is a nice player and I think he will blossom playing along side a potentially dominant post player like Greg Oden, but I still see him as a fringe all-star at best. He can carry his team for quarters at a time, but not for game after game like Carmelo can.
What do you see as your keys to the Nuggets’ success? Are they built to win in the playoffs?
I see one singular key that can push the Nuggets from a good team to a great team and that is simply playing like a team. On both ends of the floor they tend to play selfish individualistic basketball. Offensively they were the number two team in points per game at 110.7, but that was entirely a product of their league leading pace of 103.2 possessions per game. They actually ranked eleventh in offensive efficiency and the reason was far too much one on one play. They have so much offensive talent if they would just move without the ball and pass more than once or twice per possession, they could be unguardable.
Defensively, they do not play solid help team defense. They overplay the passing lanes, and lead the league in steals because of it, but when they would play a team like the Lakers or Utah who played unselfish enough to make the extra pass they would get demolished because they would be out of position and unable to help each other.
They have the talent to play with great efficiency on both ends of the floor, but their collective mindset prevents it from happening.
Any sleepers on the roster?
The closest player to a sleeper has to be J.R. Smith. Most people believe J.R. is an immature player with a horrible shot selection and a complete disregard for defense. Well, that used to be true, but he made some very impressive advances last season. Not only did he expand his offensive game beyond threes and dunks, but he began to put forth effort on defense and proved he could even fill in at point guard when necessary.
J.R. had an excellent second half of the season and actually ended the year as the seventh best point producer per minute in the league ahead of stars like Allen Iverson and Manu Ginobili.
Last season he averaged less than 20 minutes a game. If that total rises to 30 or 35 minutes, he could be a top ten scorer in the NBA.
What was the single best moment to be a Nuggets fan in your lifetime?
Well, that is kind of an embarrassing question to answer because the Nuggets have been one of the most pathetic franchises in the entire NBA during my youth and adult life. After all, last season was the first time they had won 50 games in 20 years! There have not been a lot of significant jump up and down moments for Nugget fans.
Nevertheless, I do have a top three moments that come to mind, one from my youth, one from my college years and one from my adult life.
If you go back to the year 1988 when Chevy Chase was funny and the Nuggets had yet to become a disaster they were in the middle of a battle for the Midwest Division title with the Dallas Mavericks. Game 79 was a home game against Dallas and my dad was able to get tickets. The game was not only important because of the fight between the Mavs and Nuggets to win the division, but it was also during Michael Adams’ league record run of consecutive games with a made three point shot (a record since broken by the incomparable Dana Barros). It was a very close game and in the last couple of minutes and Adams had yet to make a three pointer. Both the streak and the Nuggets chances to win the Midwest hung in the balance. Wouldn’t you know, Adams took a three pointer and made it, to not only extend his streak, but to put the game out of reach. The crowd went absolutely nuts and a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life was cemented and the fact that it was with my dad made it all the better.
The next memory is one most everyone could predict. It was the eighth seeded Nuggets defeat of the top seeded Seattle Supersonics in the 1994 playoffs. After losing the first two games in Seattle Denver won the next two at home forcing game five in Seattle. I was a sophomore in college in Indiana of all places and I remember there was a large gathering in my dorm watching the game and cheering for the upset. I had an old Nuggets rainbow color scheme jersey and we got it out and hung it on my bunk directly facing the TV. We made sure that there was always a clear path between it and the television as whenever someone stood in front of it something bad seemed to happen. Thanks to some wild college students who were jubilantly jumping up with every big play and some special magic from an old Nuggets jersey they pulled out the upset. Today my six year old daughter likes to wear that old rainbow themed jersey around and I think she looks absolutely adorable. (One thing most people forget about that Nuggets team is they dropped the first three games in the semifinals to Utah and then won the next three forcing a deciding in that series as well.)
The most recent best memory was at the expense of your Portland Trailblazers. In 2004, Carmelo’s rookie season, the Nuggets were fighting with the Blazers for the last playoff spot. Game 80 was a matchup against the Nuggets and Blazers in Denver with the winner most likely claiming the eig
hth playoff spot. The Nuggets were down two and had one last possession. Carmelo hit a big jumper with a hand in his face, one of several last second shots he drilled his rookie season, to tie the game and send it to overtime. The crowd went crazy and in overtime the Nuggets took control and won the game. That may not sound like such a big deal, but the Nuggets had missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons and it was a big deal for us to once again ten years after the defeat of the Sonics to have a young, up and coming team to cheer for. To make things even better I was there with my teenage son and hopefully he will have a good memory of that game as I do the Mavericks game I got to watch with my dad.