Archive for the ‘Denver Nuggets’ Category

Ringleader of the Tormentors

May 14, 2009

There is no way even the most prescient of fortune tellers, looking into their most reliable crystal balls, would have forsaw at the starting of the season the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. The Nuggets were a ruddlerless group of outcasts and misfits. The front office gave the word “inept” a bad name. Case in point – after coach George Karl decided the team would have to be better defensively heading into this season, the team shipped off defensive stud Marcus Camby in a salary dump.

Then Allen Iverson came to the rescue. Except, it wasn’t on the court. As exciting a player as Iverson is, he hasn’t been real great at helping teams win many games (YES, I know he got Philly to a Finals, but winning the Eastern Conference is like winning an Emmy to the Western Conference’s Oscar). No, Iverson’s biggest contribution to the Nuggets was the day he left town and Chauncey Billups rode in to save the day.

What the Nuggets were lacking all along was a ringleader for their group of misfits. And make no mistake about it, the Nuggets are misfits. A former junkie who spikes his hair and thinks he’s a bird (man) every game. A center with one name, coming off knee and cancer surgery. A heavily tatted guard coming off the bench whose next ink job should say “mercurial”. An underappreciated and underperforming superstar. A power forward with the League’s largest “swagger to actual skills” differential. Billups is what this team was missing. While Iverson was just another misfit, Billups is their ringmaster. The one who can bring all the misfits together and make them one.
Now the team actually plays defense, even without Camby. Now Melo doesn’t have to worry about being a leader and can just punish opponents with his unorthodox game. Now J.R. Smith can just come off the bench and bomb. Now George Karl can look like a good coach.

What is forgotten in all this is that Billups is a misfit himself. After going third overall in the draft, he played on four different teams within his first four years in the League. He really didn’t establish himself until his sixth season in the L, and his fifth team, Detroit. Then he goes and wins a Finals MVP, even before he becomes an All-Star? Things like this don’t happen. Draft lottery busts don’t go on to become MVPs and All-Stars and potential Hall-of-Famers after burning through five teams.

While Denver is sure to be underdogs the rest of the way through the playoffs, the way they’re playing they very well could win it all. Its all due to the fact that they got their math correct finally: Billups > Iverson.

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The Glimmer Twins

May 7, 2009

The NBA has a rich history of players being inextricably linked together – Wilt & Russell, Bird & Magic, Shaq & Kobe, Deron & Chris. Normally there is a logical reason for the coupling, either a team rivalry, a battle for positional supremacy or just good old fashioned pure hatred. However, the pairing of J.R. Smith and Josh Smith don’t fall into any of these categories. One guard, one forward. Teams aren’t rivals. Players aren’t rivals.

Nonetheless, both Smiths have been linked since they both got selected in the 2004 NBA draft (selected back-to-back, naturally). Other than the last name, they also share other characteristics too. Both were born a few months apart in 1985. Both bolted directly from high school to the NBA. Both had/have “character issues”. Both are crazy athletic. Both have the requisite tats, headbands and swagger. Both got punked by a girl in a dunk contest.

And, lo and behold, both are enjoying a career renaissance of sorts, at the ripe old age of 23. It is not as if Josh and J.R. have really changed too much – if you check the stats what they did this regular season is pretty much what they have always done. The thing that has changed is that they are now doing it on a winning team. Not only are their teams winning, but they are winning when it counts – in the playoffs. And the Smiths aren’t just along for the ride – they are key cogs in the machine. Anyone can put up big numbers on a crappy team. People notice if you do it on a winner.

J.R. seems to have settled into the perfect role for his skill set (and emotional state) – come in off the bench and tear it up. No trying to make him a ball-handler or defensive stopper or anything else. Just give him the ball and get out of the way. Let him jack up threes, dunk on guys, create havoc. Every team needs a spark plug off the bench, and that is what Smith is. Yes, he still makes bonehead plays and takes questionable shots, but with him playing limited minutes off the bench that doesn’t matter as much. He is reaching his full potential because conventional goals aren’t being thrust upon him – if he has a big game off the bench it is a bonus for the Nuggets, not something that is a necessity.

Josh, on the other hand, is a whole other kettle of fish. A freakish athlete, with good size for a wing player, but no outside shot. Can get his slashing to the hoop but also can post up. Great shot blocker. Watching him do his work versus Cleveland in Game 1 made me think of how he could be another Amar’e. Sure, he’s a bit smaller and doesn’t have the jumper, but his athleticism disrupts the game just like STATs, except Smith’s carries over to the defensive end, where he is a shot-swatting machine. But, like J.R., he is also prone to boneheadedness.

Both J.R. and Josh are probably never going to be franchise player level guys. They are both too raw and prone to outrageousness. But that is what makes them who they are. To try to smooth out their rough edges would take away what makes them special players. Like a musician that doesn’t care if some bum notes make it onto his album because they’d rather it sound raw and real. Josh and J.R. are raw and real. And they’ve proved now, deep into the playoffs, that they can contribute to a winner, flaws and all. Eventually we all grow up and learn to become productive members of society.