Nuggets bring plenty of questions into offseason |

Nuggets bring plenty of questions into offseason

Benjamin Hochman
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado

The day after the knockout punch comes the sucker punch. For a moment, the sun is shining, the mountains are snowcapped . . . and then, all too suddenly for Nuggets fans, they realize that the season is indeed over.

Instead of looking forward to a Game 7 today against Utah, fans across Colorado on Saturday were coming to grips with the frustration of the Nuggets blowing Friday night’s Game 6 in Salt Lake City and with it a first-round playoff series in which they were heavily favored.

A season that seemed to offer so much promise ended with the Nuggets’ tempers boiling over in the final minutes.

“I thought overall we had a pretty good season,” Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups said. “I’m very disappointed – very, very disappointed – but all you can do is try to get better over the offseason.”

Better health would help. So would the return of coach George Karl. But for a team that has advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once since the 1993-94 season – last year’s drive to the Western Conference finals – there are as many questions as answers about the future.

“Right now, we have to kind of regroup – all of us are a little bit taken aback by ending the season so abruptly,” Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman said Saturday. “We definitely had higher aspirations. With George’s illness and some really key injuries, it was a lot to overcome. Before even speculating on what we’ll do this summer, we have to regroup and decide what direction we want to go. We have terrific players, and I think we have options with those guys. We love our team. But we want to try to win a championship, and I think (owner) Stan Kroenke has shown he’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”

A look at the major issues that will play out this summer:

The season began with Karl saying his team could win its first NBA championship. It ended with Karl in the hospital, spending Friday night there after more trouble with a blood clot in his leg. The 58-year-old Karl has been recuperating at home from treatment for neck and throat cancer while his team crumbled in the first round against a team missing two key players.

Karl is on blood-thinning medicine, said his life partner Kim Van Deraa, so the doctors are trying to figure out what is causing the clots. Karl’s absence from the Nuggets bench was an enormous loss for a team without an assistant to move over with NBA head coaching experience. Only after Karl was gone did the players seem to appreciate his value during games.

That said, players were careful not to blame interim coach Adrian Dantley.

“We’re the ones who were out there playing. You can’t blame everything on Coach A.D.,” guard Ty Lawson said. “He actually did a phenomenal job. The whole team takes the blame for this, not just him.”

One of the biggest offseason decisions is Karl’s, and whether he’ll return to the bench. He wants to but his first concern is his health, and there’s no certainty at all when he might feel good enough to resume a pressure-packed, high-profile job.

Because of the current roster makeup, and a potential work stoppage after next season, the Nuggets might well stay put with their current nucleus. All of the Nuggets’ big names are under contract for next season – Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen and Lawson. Having coming close to challenging the Lakers just one year ago, the temptation will be to stand pat and hope for Karl’s return, and better luck with injuries.

That could be a huge risk, however. One summer ago, the offseason centered around Denver’s need to bolster its frontcourt in order to match the Lakers. The Nuggets did so by locking up Andersen, the fan favorite “Birdman.”

Andersen, however, played through an assortment of injuries this season, Martin missed 24 games with various injuries and was not 100 percent in the playoffs, and Nene suffered a knee injury in Game 5.

And Nene, who turns 28 in September, is the youngest of the group and should fully recover. By next season, however, Andersen will be 32, Martin will be 33 and the Nuggets’ management will be under pressure to add help.

Denver tried desperately to trade for Tyrus Thomas in February, and the Bobcat could possibly be acquired this summer. But the Nuggets have about $73 million tied up in salaries next season, which would put them about $5 million over the luxury tax. One possible move to free salary cap space would be moving Smith, who is due $6 million next season.

His poor play and on-court antics during the postseason, and off-court behavior – tweeting about the team’s selfish play – leave the Nuggets another huge decision. Will they bring Smith, who averaged 15.4 points per game, back and continue to wait for him to mature? Or do they cut their ties and move him for draft picks or a more stable, dependable veteran? Kroenke said after the Game 6 loss that his team needs to play smarter.

Many observers believe the majority of NBA moves this offseason will wait until the big names – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – declare their intentions.

Any team with all-stars Anthony and Billups on its roster should have optimism. Melo played arguably his most complete regular season and was superb in the postseason until the Game 6 loss. Billups appears to have lost a step but at age 33 remains one of the league’s most clutch players. He was poised in the Game 5 win and kept the team afloat with 30 points in Game 6, though he did have a late technical when the team unraveled.

Lawson, a point guard, offers hope after making an impact as a rookie and playing well in the postseason.

When the emotions of their disappointing playoff loss dissipate, it appears the Nuggets will tinker around the edges for one last run at a title with their current nucleus of veterans.

“The next chance to improve the roster is the draft, and just like last year, we’ll be looking to improve our roster that day,” said Denver vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien, whose team traded for Lawson on draft night 2009. “We don’t have a pick this year, but we’ll be looking for opportunities to get in. We’ll be looking for a hand to play.

“You prepare for it exactly the same way as if you have a pick, because you don’t know what’s going to happen when the phone breaks.”

Support Local Journalism