by Thomas Tallarino - 02/10/2006
The Denver Nuggets were the best team in the league the second half of last season, going 32-8 after Head Coach George Karl took the reins. This season they had an entire training camp to get a better grasp of Karl's potent offense and high-pressure defense. And they have a roster of young talent, led by the resurgent Carmelo Anthony, apparently ready to make the leap into the upper echelon of the NBA.
In some circles they were even looked upon as the major challenger to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference. Yet, as the midway point of the season passes by, the Nuggets are one only game above .500 at 26-25 and playing their worst basketball of the season. Currently careening out of control, they have six outright losses in their last seven tries, starting with two consecutive blowout losses to the Los Angeles Clippers in a rare home-and-home series ten days ago. For the year they're only 23-28 against the spread, and a dismal 11-14 ATS at home hading into tonight's game against the red-hot Dallas Mavericks.
At first glance, when a team underachieves everybody points to the injuries. Sure, center Marcus Camby has missed some action again this season. But that can't be a big surprise. The next season Camby plays in 80 games will be the first. Power forward Kenyon Martin has lost eight games to injury, and losing Nene to a knee injury on opening night surely hurt the Nuggets' chances of acquiring Ron Artest in a trade.
But the biggest problem facing the Nuggets might be fickle, indecisive General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who has assembled a team he seemingly doesn't want. His entire roster is up for grabs with the exception of Anthony, Camby, and Earl Boykins. How can a front office cool so quickly on their big-ticket free agents? They've been trying to dump Martin almost from the moment they signed him three seasons ago. They've never loved point guard Andre Miller whom they took off the Clippers hands two years ago. And if the Knicks agree to take on Martin's contract and recently benched shooting guard Voshon Lenard, this season's free agent gem Earl Watson will have a shorter Rocky Mountain romance than Lyle Lovett had with Julia Roberts.
The question has to be echoing throughout the Pepsi Center, "Why sign these guys if you don't want them?" Signing a high priced free agent seems like simple math. Pay a guy like Martin $14 million a year and you must love his game, right? You must be at least attracted to his defensive toughness, the way he attacks the basket and his playoff experience. But that mathematical equation isn't working out for the Nuggets and Martin, who is averaging 13.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per night. While those are not bad numbers, they are slightly lower than his days with the Nets, when he put up 16.7 points and 9.5 rebounds his last season in New Jersey. But the Nuggets want to unload their power forward so badly they've done everything short of calling in former Dukie Jay Williams to give Kenyon motorcycle lessons.
Backup point guard Earl Watson, who is averaging 7.7 points and 3.7 assists per night, has been mentioned in countless trade scenarios for the last two months. It was curious when the Nuggets signed him so late in the summer but you have to believe nobody was holding a gun to Vandeweghe's head when he offered the career backup a five-year deal for $29 million. The only question remaining in Denver is when are the imminent trades coming through? Is Vandeweghe holding Watson back until someone offers up T.R. Dunn and Billy Hanzlik, a couple of former Vandeweghe teammates, in a deal?
This isn't a trade cloud hanging over the team it's a grade-five tornado cloud looming over the Rocky Mountain city. Any wonder why Denver has dropped nine straight ATS? Further proof the players are expecting new teammates soon is the fact they're giving up nearly 108 points per game during the last seven. How can Martin, the team's attitude enforcer, get on teammates for lackadaisical play when he expects to be on the next flight back to the Eastern Conference? The collective psyche of this young team is teetering perilously close to destruction. In fact, if Karl doesn't get it turned around quickly, look for Denver to barely hang on in the Northwest Division and make a quick exit out of the playoffs. Which will then give Vandeweghe more time to scour the NBA landscape for more free agents that he'll surely soon grow tired of.