DENVER ISN'T known for its D. The Nuggets averaged the second-most points last season (110.7) but also allowed the second-most (107.0). If they were going by the NBA book, priority No. 1 this off-season would have been upgrading that defense. Instead, after a fifth consecutive first-round flop they traded center Marcus Camby—the NBA's leading shot blocker and the 2006--07 Defensive Player of the Year—to the Clippers for two second-round draft picks so that they could get his remaining $28.9 million off their books. Then Denver allowed gritty forward Eduardo Nàjera to sign with the Nets as a free agent.
Coach George Karl at least says that he will make defense a priority, vowing to "use a bigger hammer" on his troops. "Our concepts are going to have to be stronger," he says, "and our commitment at every position is going to have to be better focused. What happened [with Camby] doesn't make basketball sense and never will."
The Nuggets are counting on veteran forwards Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony to energize the D. (After winning a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, Anthony pledged that he'll pay more attention to defensive detail.) Sliding into Camby's slot will be Nen√™, 26, a 6'11", 250-pound bruiser who missed 66 games last season while recovering from testicular cancer. Denver will also run some of the offense through him in the low post and use his athleticism on the perimeter in pick-and-rolls.
Still, after failing even to make the playoffs next spring, the Nuggets will need to turn to another NBA instructional: How to Rebuild a Franchise.
A rival scout on the NUGGETS: Not many people can shoot with range like Carmelo Anthony while being such a terrific post-up player, plus he can put the ball on the floor and be physical. In most cases you try to keep scorers out of the paint, but you force Anthony into the middle because that's where the help is. He just has to be reminded—like he was at the Olympics—that he's an important part of the team but not the only important part.... Allen Iverson still plays all-out every night, but as always he needs a lot of touches. I suspect there's a side to Iverson that might be willing to accept a lesser role to be on a winner. He'd be a tremendous complementary star.... If you go scout a game it doesn't look like George Karl is into coaching this team. He's not taking timeouts at key times, he's letting guys go, he's doing nothing with X's and O's at the defensive end.... If you think Nen√™ is a polished guy like Marcus Camby, you're nuts. And he's backed up by Steven Hunter and Chris Andersen. Talk about going from a sure thing to who-the-hell-knows....
Allen Iverson averaged 26.4 points last season, at age 32. Only two guards—Michael Jordan (who did it at 33, 34 and 35) and Jerry West—have had higher scoring averages at an older age.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: F Linas Kleiza, G J.R. Smith, F Renaldo Balkman*, G Chucky Atkins, F-C Chris Andersen*
Record: 50--32 (8th in East)
Points scored: 110.7 (2nd in NBA)
Points allowed: 107.0 (29th)
Coach: George Karl (fifth season with Nuggets)
GOLDEN NUGGET Anthony says the lessons he learned from his Olympic experience will help him on both ends of the floor.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
BART YOUNG/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
RON HOSKINS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES