IF KREIGH and Aubrie Warkentien were listing their favorite NBA players, Nuggets shooting guard J.R. Smith would be at the top—which matters because Kreigh's and Aubrie's father happens to be Mark Warkentien, Denver's vice president of basketball operations and the reigning Executive of the Year. "I like to evaluate people on how they interact with my kids," Warkentien said. "At my house, there's no one more popular than J.R. They adore the guy. Put him around your family and he's not good. He's perfect."
Smith's problems have come away from the Warkentien home. This summer he served 24 days in jail after pleading guilty to reckless driving, a charge stemming from a 2007 car crash that killed one of his best friends, Andre Bell. The Nuggets have become accustomed to inconsistencies in Smith's game as well as in his behavior. Last season, for instance, he scored 45 against the Kings, then five the next game against the Blazers. After reaching the Western finals for the first time since 1985, Denver knows that it won't go further until the 6'6" Smith gets steadier.
Even though he is entering his sixth season, it's easy to forget that Smith just turned 24. The Nuggets love Smith's energy and shooting touch, but he admits that he did not understand how to play D until point guard Chauncey Billups arrived from Detroit last November. With Billups in his ear for a full season, Smith had no choice but to learn. "Defense is the emphasis for me," Smith says. "Chauncey is teaching me a lot of tricks."
The Nuggets made just a few moves over the summer, adding rookie Ty Lawson out of North Carolina to back up Billups and acquiring Arron Afflalo to replace departed perimeter stopper Dahntay Jones. Warkentien values continuity. "It's like making a cake," he says. "We went through a lot of ingredients the last couple of years and found a mix that we like. We're going to let it bake."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G J.R. Smith, 15.2 PPG; C Chris Andersen, 2.46 BPG; F Renaldo Balkman, 5.0 PPG; G Ty Lawson (R), 16.6 PPG • New acquisition • (R) Rookie, college stats
COACH: George Karl (sixth season with Nuggets) • 2008--09 RECORD: 54--28 (first in Northwest)
POINTS SCORED: 104.3 (sixth in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 100.9 (tied for 18th in NBA)
Free throws made by the 2008--09 Nuggets—the same number they made in the previous season. In '07--08 that total led the league; last season Denver ranked second, by two, to the Warriors.
ENEMY LINES | A RIVAL SCOUT ON THE NUGGETS
Some teams say if you open up hard defensively on Carmelo Anthony and he gets off to a bad start, he'll press and worry about his numbers at the expense of other things. But he seems to understand more and more that it's an 82-game season and that he'll have big nights and lesser nights. His strength remains his ability to get to the line—it's just so easy for him.... Nen√™ was almost as effective rolling to the basket as Amar'e Stoudemire—catching it and finishing it every time. You can't just post him up and toss him the ball and watch him operate, but he's very active diving to the basket and finishing on his teammates' penetrations.... The most promising new bench player will be rookie point guard Ty Lawson, who has more potential to make more things happen than they're currently getting from Anthony Carter ....They can switch at almost every position if they need to. That's the way George Karl had it in Seattle when they were disrupting and taking you out of what you do.... They had a great year and everything worked out perfectly for them. But can you do that every year? My answer would be no.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
J.R. SMITH Can the streak shooter steady his game?
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH