Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 9
What a difference a year makes – no major personnel change, no steep talent drop-off, no controversy within management, no nothing – and yet the result is so much different. In fact, between 2008 and 2009, the Nuggets actually added two important and valuable pieces, Arron Afflalo, who was maybe their best defender and toughest player, and Ty Lawson, a promising rookie who really deserved more minutes behind Chauncey Billups, but from pushing the Lakers in a testy 2008 Playoff series to bowing out timidly in a 6 game series against the Jazz, the Nuggets really lost it.
But that is what happens when you put together a team of high strung, energetic and pumped but also unpredictable players who are capable of putting together a 10-0 scoring run full of spectacular defense and thunderous dunks, or losing their cool and getting thrown out after starting a brawl and getting multiple technical fouls. So characterizes the volatility of Carmelo, Kenyon, Birdman, and especially JR Smith, all emotional and passionate players who, without a strong enough support system around them of leadership, can potentially derail a team’s season.
In 2009, with George Karl’s extended absence and the inability of Adrian Dantley to control the troops or instill a sense of leadership, the team crumbled and couldn’t keep their composure. They finished the season with a 7-7 record, stumbling into the Playoffs and not really putting up much of a fight in the process of losing to the Jazz in six games. Their failures also exposed the limitations of their floor leader, Chauncey Billups.
Conventional wisdom had always been that Billups was in control of the Nuggets. After all, before his arrival the team was talented but volatile, and their potential was often quashed by an inability to control their emotions, leading to earlier-than-expected Playoff eliminations, stretches of frustrating play, and a general lack of discipline. In 2008, when Billups was traded to the Nuggets, the team seemed to instantly fall into line, and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, nearly stunning the Lakers.
Contrastingly, Karl had always been viewed as a game manager with the new Nuggets more than a strict coach who called the shots; the thought was that he basically just rolled the ball out there and let Billups direct the show. With the Nuggets’ utter inability to find stability in the face of Karl’s absence, and it was clear that he was more integral than once thought, and also that Billups was not as in control as we all once believed. Last season’s struggle to get out of the first round and maintain a level of consistency showed that Billups might have been given more credit than he deserved.
But also, the loss to the Jazz, and the accumulation of the whole year, taught us that Billups really couldn’t keep up with elite point guards on defense like he once could and also called into question his self-proclaimed nickname of “Mr. Big Shot.” Against Deron Williams, one of the best young lead guards in the league, Billups was demolished. He didn’t put up terrible numbers himself, but Williams’ stats in the Playoff series of 26 points and 11 assists not only cemented his elite status but also signaled with certainty that Billups was a liability on defense. He couldn’t keep up with Williams and allowed him to operate in his comfort zone – and the damage could have been even worse considering Williams shot 49% from the field and 48% from the 3. Billups was thoroughly outplayed and it wasn’t pretty.
We also learned that Billups’ moniker of “Mr. Big Shot” was all just a big lie. Which isn’t a stretch considering it was a self-awarded nickname. Since his days in Detroit, after he had won the Finals MVP playing against an old and feeble Gary Payton and confident-lacking Derek Fisher, people had given Billups the benefit of the doubt as a clutch player. They assumed that, with the jewelry, the string of Conference Finals appearances, and the general leadership vibe that Billups gave off, he was a fearless player who didn’t necessarily shoot a great percentage normally but would turn it on down the stretch.
Billups is indeed a fearless player, but his production doesn’t justify any big shot status. Because he gave himself that nickname, we already know that he thinks highly of himself in crunch time – and so he was never shy about putting up shots in close games. But honestly, when was the last time he hit a big shot? His quick trigger in the clutch and unspectacular results only served to undermine the leadership role of Carmelo Anthony and challenge his position as the alpha dog, creating a power struggle within the team. Melo, one of the best clutch players in the league and one of the few real cornerstones, deserved to have the ball in his hands in the last two minutes of every game, but with Billups’ stubborn defiance his opportunities were cut short. Might that be one of the reasons Melo wants out?
Therefore, I see this season playing out disappointingly for the Nuggets. Already faced with uncertainty because of Melo’s reluctance to commit long term to the team and the multiple trade rumors which followed, the Nuggets are also faced with the prospects of the dam busting loose. They were once able to contain the loose cannons with strong coaching and management in place, but now Karl’s health issues and Melo’s commitment issues could spell a bad start to the season, making for more potential outbursts which could cripple the club.
I expect the team to play more like the team which concluded last season as opposed to the one that made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2008, and maybe even worse, considering that the issues with Melo will be distracting for a team already lacking in focus. They will be relying on Billups to handle most of the load, but a combination of his overrated skills and decline in ability due to age leaves him a shell of himself physically and yet with just as impressive of an ego.
And once the losses mount, all hell will break loose. Players like Smith won’t be able to handle coming off the bench, and the role players will no long have the motivation to buy into the system. Testiness will lead to anger and frustrations being vented during games, and now that we know Billups doesn’t have the manpower to keep everybody in line, the team might self-destruct. I see them winning something in the range of 45 games and being a 9th seed in the West, nothing terrible but a huge disappointment for a team once on the verge of the NBA Finals.