Thunder Echoes in the Distance

By Dave Bruning

It is the calm before the storm. We all know you can't have Thunder without lightning. Not everybody realizes you can have Lightning without thunder. For the sake of the lightning-fast Denver Nuggets, I hope there is a big lightning storm preparing to sweep the Oklahoma plains. It’s Denver vs. Oklahoma City as the NBA playoffs begin this weekend.

It has been a tumultuous season in Denver. The city’s loyal fans hung tough with Carmelo Anthony despite his desire to leave. Maybe we are na├»ve, maybe we are incredibly loyal or maybe we just weren’t sure. The Melo Drama finally ended with the trade to the New York Knicks. Whatever people think, Denver is a great sports town; sadly, I think Anthony will truly recognize this down the road when the New York media crawls up his Anthony one too many times.

When the trade with the Knicks went down, I was hopeful the Nuggets would be able to hold onto a playoff spot. Denver held the 7th playoff spot at the time of the trade. The Nuggets have impressively moved up to the 5th spot in the NBA’s Western Conference. They have exceeded my wildest optimistic hopes post-Melo. The Nuggets have morphed into an octopus, attacking teams offensively and defensively from all angles. Head coach George Karl deserves consideration for NBA coach of the year, plus an honorary degree in psychology for guiding Denver to a 32-25 record prior to the trade of Anthony.

I was hoping Denver could avoid a match up with Oklahoma City, at least in the first round. The Thunder are young, quick and very athletic. They negate many of the advantages the Nuggets would have against just about any other opponent. There is no question Kevin Durant is a supreme talent. He also draws fouls if you sneeze on him. It will be difficult for Denver to effectively defend Durant. Russell Westbrook is rapidly following in Derrick Rose’s footsteps as the best young point guard in the NBA. His size and quickness will also be difficult for Denver to defend. Finally, newly acquired Kendrick Perkins and fellow big man Serge Ibaka give the Thunder size and toughness. They are an impressive basketball team.

The Nuggets are also an impressive basketball team that is hungry for playoff success. Their revamped lineup is two-deep at every position. Let’s look at what I believe will be the keys to the Nuggets winning this series.

• Defense – Playoff basketball begins and ends with defense. The Nuggets have played tough, aggressive defense since the trade of Anthony. Aaron Afflalo and JR Smith will have their hands full guarding Westbrook. On the flip side, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton must push the pace constantly and make Westbrook accountable defensively. Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler will try to contain Durant. The team that plays better defense will win this series.

• Nene – Nene must show maturity and take his game to another level. In two late season games against the Thunder, Perkins was able to get under his skin and rattle him. The big Brazilian must stay composed and use his considerable quickness and low post moves to his advantage. A big series for Nene is vital.

• Injuries – The Nuggets are banged up but are not offering any excuses. They have several days to rest and will need a healthy squad to beat the Thunder.

• An offensive go-to player – The Nuggets have been successful on offense working as a committee. I do not believe they can have sustained playoff success without a couple of their players assuming a greater role on offense. The players with the best potential to fill this role are Afflalo, Smith, Wilson Chandler and Dino Gallinari. These players are the most gifted, natural scorers on the Denver roster. It’s time to step up.

• The weight of expectations – The Thunder are facing high expectations for the first time in their short history post-Seattle. They are the darling pick of the media. There are whispers Oklahoma City can win it all. It is easier to climb the mountain than defend the mountain. The Nuggets will be a stern opening test they may not pass.

• Coaching – This area parallels the weight of expectations. Denver head coach George Karl is savvy and has more experience than most great Grandmothers. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is a good coach but has not guided his team for very long. It will be interesting to see how Brooks adapts to the multiple lineups and adjustments Karl is sure to throw at him.

The Denver vs. Oklahoma City series will surely be a rugged, physical battle. Both teams reshaped their rosters during the regular season and seem to be better teams as a result. Playoff basketball is the ultimate test of a team’s mettle. It is very difficult to win a game 7 on the road. With that in mind, I am hedging my prediction for this series. It will either be Denver in six or Oklahoma City in seven.

Posted 4/14/2011

Denver Mellows out, Excels without Anthony

By Dave Bruning

Many Major League Baseball trades take about three years to fully gauge how the trade worked out for the participating teams. The NBA provides more immediate dividends. Three weeks after the mega-trade of Carmelo Anthony, the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks are moving in opposite directions. Good news for Denver; not so good for New York.

The Nuggets are 12-4 since the trade of Melo following the spirited come from behind victory last night against the NBA’s best team, the San Antonio Spurs. The new Nuggets are playing classic basketball. They are sharing the ball beautifully playing the up tempo style coach George Karl endorses. Their defense is second best in the league behind the Chicago Bulls since the trade. Even in my most optimistic view of the trade, I did not see this coming. I was hopeful Denver could hang on to a playoff spot. Instead, they are rapidly becoming the team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

The trade of Anthony has opened up the court for the Nuggets. Coincidentally, the Knicks wide open offense of coach Mike D’Antoni has slowed and become particularly ineffective in the 4th quarter with the acquisition of Melo. Let’s look at the Nuggets and how their key players have responded.

• Nene – Perhaps nobody has benefited more than Nene. He has always run the court well, has excellent low post moves and is extremely quick for a big man. All these skills are being allowed to flourish without Melo clogging the paint or hogging the ball. Nene’s contract is up at the end of the year. Both sides seem to desire an extension and I believe this will happen.

• JR Smith – Smith is also flourishing. This instant scorer and at times spectacular player is playing more relaxed knowing he will get his minutes. He has the ability to play point guard and seems to have embraced Denver’s new team-oriented approach. His contract is also up for renewal. The biggest question about Smith has been his maturity; he appears to be taking full advantage of this opportunity to secure his future and garner a nice new contract, if not from Denver, then as a free agent. It won’t be cheap, but I think Denver will resign Smith as well.

• Kenyon Martin – K-Mart has embraced the leadership role on the new Nuggets. He is a hard-nosed defensive enforcer. The Nuggets new style of play accentuates everything he does well. K-Mart’s deal is also in its final season. I think Denver would love him back, but he will have to take a significant pay cut from the approximately $17 million he is making this year.

• Ty Lawson/Raymond Felton – I love this duo. Hands down the fastest point guard combination in the league. With these two pushing the tempo at Denver’s Mile High altitude, the Nuggets will have a tremendous home court advantage for years to come. My only concern is they both deserve to start. Can their egos co-exist? It hasn’t been a problem so far. In fact, they have been very effective when paired together. They are under-sized, and this could be an issue come playoff time.

• Aaron Afflalo – Afflalo has not been affected all that much. I continue to love his toughness and effort on a night in/night out basis. His offensive game continues to blossom and he is not afraid to take the big shot. A true go-to scorer down the stretch of games is another concern of mine for the Nuggets. Afflalo is not the typical clutch player, but it is a role he appears to be well-suited for as he can create his own shot off of dribble penetration or pull up for a jumper. The Detroit Pistons certainly regret letting him get away, but they haven’t made a good decision since drafting Darko Milicic.

• Danilo Gallinari/Wilson Chandler – I am still learning about both these players. I like what they have shown so far. Both can score, shoot, rebound, and play defense. By the way, they are 22 and 23 years old and will only get better.

• Al Harrington – Harrington has struggled to find his game, but had a huge effort against San Antonio. His experience and scoring off the bench in the playoffs is a nice ace up the sleeve. He does have a big contract, and it would not surprise me if the Nuggets tried to move him in the offseason.

• George Karl – The trade has been like the end of chemotherapy for Karl; a chance to take a deep breath knowing the worst of the drama over. He has a young, athletic team that is two-deep at just about every position that is buying into his approach to playing basketball. The new contract extension he just reached with Denver bodes well for the future of basketball in Denver, a future that not too long ago was filled with Melo Drama.

The trade of Carmelo Anthony has breathed new life into the Denver Nuggets. The old team probably reached its peak when they lost in the Western Conference finals a couple years back to the Lakers. While the Knicks struggle to find their rhythm, the Nuggets seem to have struck gold.

posted 3/24/11

Unearthing New Denver Nuggets

By Dave Bruning

The long-awaited trade of Carmelo Anthony finally happened about a week ago. Despite all the speculation and posturing Melo ended up with the New York Knicks, as most thought he would. Yours truly was hoping for a deal with the New Jersey Nets. In retrospect, the deal Denver was able to pull off with New York is probably the better deal and as good as the Nuggets could have done.

I was very concerned the Nuggets would end up with the short end of the stick as they waited until almost the last hours before the trade deadline to pull the trigger on Melo. This actually played in their favor. As the deadline approached it became clear Anthony would not leave the $65 million extension unsigned. Unless the Knicks gave Denver everything they wanted, Melo would have signed the extension with the Nets or the Nuggets. Denver’s inexperienced front office of general manager Masai Ujiri and President Josh Kroenke showed some moxie. In the end the Knicks had to make the deal. It is a deal that is good for both teams.

The trade sent Anthony and local hero Chauncey Billups plus other salary cap pieces to New York for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, two other players, a 2014 1st round pick from the Knicks plus two other 2nd round picks. Billups is collateral damage as he did not want to leave Denver, but you have to give talent to get talent. There is an outside chance he could return next year if the Knicks buyout his remaining contract. The hidden nugget in this trade is the $24 million Denver will save in salary cap relief through the 2012 season. This gives them tremendous flexibility moving forward be it through free agency or draft picks.

Knicksmix.com writer Jared Dubin talked very favorably of the new Nuggets with me. Early returns indicate he was correct. The new Denver Nuggets are 4-1 without Melo. The only loss was a tough road defeat in OT to Portland, a game Denver should have won. There has been an emphasis on sharing the ball and playing better defense, two tenants of George Karl basketball. The rest of the season will be interesting and entertaining basketball to watch. Let’s take a brief look and the new Nuggets.

• Danilo Gallinari – Gallo is 22 years old and 6’10”. He is a wing player with an excellent shooting touch. He also shows the ability to get to the free throw line and shoots from the charity stripe like Chauncey Billups. He exploded for 30 points in his second game as a Nugget and his 3-pointer to win the game rattled in and out at the end of the Portland game. He injured his toe in that game and will miss 7-10 days. He has untapped potential galore and reminds me of a young Dirk Nowitzki.

• Wilson Chandler – Chandler is 23 years old and 6’8”. He is an athletic wing player who is also a good shooter. He has also shown the ability to put the ball on the floor and score in transition. I have been impressed with Chandler, who will be a restricted free agent at season’s end. Look for Denver to resign Chandler.

• Raymond Felton – Felton is the most experienced of the bunch at 26 years old. He and Ty Lawson combine to give Denver the fastest pair of point guards in the NBA. Neither player is a great shooter. Their roles are to push the tempo, penetrate the lane to create shots for themselves and their teammates and distribute the ball in general.

• Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov – These are two raw, unproven 7-footers. Big, athletic players are not easily found. Don’t expect much here initially but down the road either could develop into at least a solid role player.

The end of the Melo Drama has reshaped the Denver Nuggets. The trade has brought youth, athleticism and salary cap relief to the Nuggets. Balanced team play and ball movement will now define the Nuggets. It remains to be seen who will be their go to player down the stretch in close games. I personally like Aaron Afflalo. He is a good shooter who can create off the dribble. Player decisions on the future of Nene, JR Smith and Kenyon Martin are pending in the offseason. Ultimately, Denver gave up a very talented Nugget but may have struck gold in the process.

Posted 3/3/11

Is the Light at the End of the Tunnel New York or New Jersey?

By Dave Bruning

“Melo!” “Melo!” “Melo!”

This was a passionate chant from Denver Nuggets fans for the last 8 years after Carmelo Anthony would score a basket. It echoed with love throughout the Pepsi Center. Those echoes will have to reverberate in the minds of Nuggets fans because Melo is a goner. I have tremendously mixed feelings as I love Anthony as a basketball player and I am a fan of the Nuggets. Melo has earned his right to choose where to play as his contract expires, yet I believe he has held Denver hostage to an extent.

The long-rumored trade is on the cusp of consummation like a virgin saving herself for her wedding night. Anthony will be traded to either the New York Knicks or the New Jersey Nets as the NBA’s All Star weekend concludes. The trade deadline is February 24th. I don’t believe NBA commissioner David Stern wants the trade to occur over the All Star weekend. Look for this to happen late Sunday the 20th or Monday 21st.

All the back and forth between Denver, New York and New Jersey reminds me of a great joke a friend of mind used to tease me with because I am originally from New Jersey. This is the joke:

“Why do New Yorkers have no hope?”

“Because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey!”

The Knicks have long been Anthony’s preferred trade destination. The Nets have long been the Nuggets preferred trade partner because they possess the trade assets the Nuggets covet. Who will blink first, the Nets, Nuggets or Knicks?

I’m not going to break down the logistics of all the possible trade scenarios. That would take too much time and be too confusing. Common sense says the Knicks will panic and do whatever it takes to get Anthony. I think Denver has been counting on this all along. Common sense also dictates the Nets package of Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and four 1st round draft picks is the deal Denver wants to make.

The Nets trade is contingent on Anthony signing the contract extension Denver has had on the table for almost a year. As the trade deadline has approached the importance of Anthony signing his extension has been pushed to the forefront. Melo risks leaving upwards of $20-$40 million in lost salary on the table if he doesn’t sign the contract extension. Everyone knows he wants to play for the Knicks but the Nets are the easiest place to secure the extension.

Accepting a trade to New Jersey is what Anthony should do. He secures his money. He leads the New look New Jersey Nets into their New home in Brooklyn, Anthony’s birthplace. The legacy he craves to be a part of with the Knicks he will create with the Brooklyn Nets, for lack of a better name. I personally like the Brooklyn Spires, which creates a connection with the Brooklyn Bridge. Anthony won’t convert die hard Knick fans, but every young basketball fan beyond that will up for grabs and itching to embrace Melo and the Spires.

It’s time for the Melo Drama to be over. I hope the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey.

posted 2/19/20011

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