How do you even write a preview for this team? It's been impossible lately, what with the trade winds blowing fast and furious around Carmelo Anthony, and while it's a safe assumption that he won't be with this team by the time the regular season tips off, without knowing what comes back for him no one can make a meaningful appraisal of this squad.
At the time this preview was sent off, a four-team deal involving Denver, New Jersey, Utah and Charlotte had cooled significantly while rumours of solicitations from Philadelphia and Golden State were picking up steam. While Anthony has reportedly been steadfast in his desire to go to Chicago or New York, neither team has (or is wiling to give up) the pieces it would take to get Denver to bite. At this point, though, you'd have to figure Melo will take any trade just to get out of Denver, a team he feels is on too steep a decline to warrant sticking with for another year.
The situation basically boils down to the Nuggets proving that they simply do not have enough of the top-shelf talent available to them to make a serious go of it in today's NBA. Superstar teams like Boston, Los Angeles and now Miami have elevated the barrier of entry to contention to such dizzying heights that contention is now out of Denver's price range. Denver has only made it out of the first round of the Playoffs once in Anthony's seven years in the NBA, and last season was seen as a serious step back for the team after reaching the Conference Finals the season before. While the team no doubt possesses some talent, they do not have the caliber of talent it would take to seriously challenge the top teams in the NBA, hence Anthony's dissatisfaction. Whatever one believes about honoring contracts and not holding a team hostage (both are moral grey areas that have been discussed at length this summer and will continue to be discussed as the NBA and the NBAPA iron out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement), in pure basketball terms one can understand Melo's simmering discontent. After seven years in the NBA, he's no closer to a Championship ring than he was the day he was drafted in 2003.
The question is, what is Denver supposed to do now? Carmelo's ability to opt-out of his contract at the end of the season gives him some manner of power to push himself out of town, but at the end of the day Denver still has to be diligent in finding a trade that suits their needs as much as it suits Anthony's. Their wavering on a trade that would bring Derrick Favors, Andrei Kirilenko and two first round picks to Denver, though, makes one question how realistic they are in their demands for their disgruntled superstar. Attempting to wait out Chicago or the LA Clippers, hoping that they'll eventually offer up Joakim Noah or Blake Griffin is playing a very dangerous game of chicken since both have been unwavering in their refusal to give up those assets. Looking to Philly for Andre Iguodala just seems like a desperate attempt to keep pace with a slightly diminished star player, but if this team was an also-ran with Anthony, how can they expect to be anything more with Iguodala? Patience and diligence is key in situations like this, but so is practicality and decisiveness. Wait to long for the right offer to make itself known and you could be taking back Aaron Williams and Eric Williams, like the Raptors did when they finally traded Vince Carter months after his trade demands in 2004.
If and when Denver is suddenly thrust into an unexpected rebuilding mode they will be a much easier team to evaluate. Right now, they are just a team with some big decisions to make and as uncertain a future as any team in the NBA.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
While all the controversy that surrounds Carmelo plays itself out, the Nuggets other All-Star is forced to sit on the sidelines while his future is decided for him. Either the team trades Carmelo and insists on hanging on to Billups, leaving him as a pawn in a rebuilding project that he surely has no interest in participating in, or he becomes the next player traded to some other team, a process he'll have very little say in (although the team has said he and Ty Lawson are the club's only untouchables). Even at 34, Billups is still a top point guard in the league, he's coming off of a career-high 19.5 ppg average, and he'll have no shortage of suitors yearning for his services. We'll have to see if, in the wake of Carmelo's departure, Denver remains one of those clubs.
SG - AARON AFFLALO
When some thought that defensive ace Dahntay Jones would be a tough loss for the Nuggets to handle last season, they certainly didn't take the development of Afflalo very seriously. Afflalo, though, averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage and acted as just as effective a perimeter defender as Jones had. Of all of the things that derailed the end of last season for the Nuggets, Afflalo replacing Jones was not one of them.
SF - CARMELO ANTHONY
One of the side effects of informally demanding a trade is that your game and value gets scrutinized in a way that it probably otherwise wouldn't. Already this summer there have been articles and blogs written about the relative value of Carmelo, about whether or not he's a true superstar or just a top-tier volume shooter. Lately there have been discussions about whether or not Anthony, a three-time All-Star, is worth giving up on Joakim Noah for, or if Anthony is worth the price of Devin Harris and Derrick Favors. Plus, there is the added pressure of performing once a trade goes through. As Vince Carter can tell you, losing has a horrible way of ruining your reputation and career, but that is doubly true when you force your way out from a loyal franchise. There is no telling how Carmelo will emerge from this saga, but if he's going to put his game and his career under a most dispassionate microscope (which a trade demand always does), he's going to have to live with whatever it is that people find.
PF - KENYON MARTIN
Ever since Martin signed a 7-year, $93-million contract, he's been criticized for his inability to live up to the dollars he was being paid. However, after Anthony and Billups, it could be said that no player has been as instrumental in the successes and failures of the Nuggets as Martin has been, and surely that helps to at least justify part of his outrageous salary. Martin, for all his personality quirks, is a tremendously effective and unique player when healthy. He can guard four positions on the court, he's a strong rebounder, shot blocker and stealer, and he runs the floor as well as any big man in the NBA. He brings a look to the roster that no substitute can replicate, and when he becomes a free agent this summer there will be no shortage of teams looking to bring him in to fortify their roster. Maybe not for $90-million-plus, but – barring injury – he does not have to worry about his next contract in the NBA.
C - NENÊ
Nenê, like Martin, has spent the better part of his career as a victim of his paychecks. However, he's a tremendously useful player (he scored more points per 100 possessions than any other player in the NBA last season) that has seen his effectiveness soar in the last two years. Like Martin, he excels at stealing the ball, rare for a big man, he blocks shots and he shoots 59% from the floor and rarely takes bad shots. His only blemish is that he rebounds at a rather pedestrian rate (he was the 47th ranked center in rebound rate last year, behind Zaza Pachulia, Kwame Brown and Hasheem Thabeet) and that keeps Denver among the lower rungs of rebounding teams in the NBA (tied with Toronto and Houston at 21st in rebound rate last season). Still, if there is a fire sale in Denver after Anthony is shipped off, Nenê, like Billups and Martin, will have no trouble finding a second home.