Nuggets need to be re-energized
The Denver Nuggets were one of the surprise teams early this season, and at 31-23 at the All-Star break, they seemed comfortably ensconced in a playoff position in the fiercely competitive Western Conference. General manager Kiki Vandeweghe and coach Jeff Bzdelik were receiving praise for turning around a young team that tied Cleveland last season for the league's worst record (17-65).
Led by the exciting rookie Carmelo Anthony (19.4 points, 6.2 rebounds), the Nuggets played hard-nosed defense and up-tempo offense (97.1 points a game). They pressured opponents into turnovers (17.2 a game) and converted the mistakes into fastbreak scores.
Bzdelik employed a tight rotation of players which fit that style. Marcus Camby, relatively healthy for one of the few times in his NBA career, patrolled the defensive basket area, blocked and intimidated opposing shots and averaged double-digit rebounds.
Free agents Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard, Earl Boykins and Jon Barry -- signed by Vandeweghe to fill backcourt soft spots -- gave Bzdelik experienced players who thrived at the team's quick pace in the mile-high atmosphere; and Nene Hilario, now known as just Nene, had improved his scoring around the hoop and board work (11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game). That group formed the core of Bzdelik's team.
But the Nuggets' schedule was front-loaded with home games and evened out in the finishing segment of the season. Since the All-Star Game, the Nuggets have won only seven of 21 games, and their record going into Tuesday's home game with Seattle stands at 38-37 with seven games remaining. Denver is in a dogfight with Utah (38-36) and Portland (37-36) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
The Nuggets haven't run completely out of gas, but the fuel indicator on their dashboard is flashing red. Bzdelik's game plan -- full-energy defense and fastbreak offense -- is sound and offers his team its best chance for success. But that style of play requires the availability of the team's best players and becomes less effective when injuries force the coach to go deeper into a shallow bench.
Only Anthony, Miller and Boykins have played in the Nuggets' full complement of games. Now Lenard, the team's No. 3 scorer (14.6), is likely to miss his third game in a row with a bruised rib cage.
Since the All-Star break, most of the positive statistical indicators have declined. Opponents' points scored and field-goal shooting percentage have edged upward, and the Nuggets' forced turnovers have declined a tad. Signs of fatigue manifest in the team's offense by an increase in turnovers and low field-goal percentage, and Denver's 39 turnovers and 39 percent shooting in its last two games indicate a tired club. Point guard Miller had an especially woeful game (1 for 15 from the field, seven turnovers) in the Nuggets' two-point loss at Utah last Friday, while Anthony was only 6-for-21 with seven turnovers in Saturday's loss at Seattle. In both games, the Nuggets had early leads but suffered late lapses that led to their defeat.
Bzdelik must find a way to get his team back to its high-energy, productive style if the Nuggets hope to make the playoffs. Denver needs to play its most intense defense that enables it to force turnovers (currently 17.0 per game, second best in the NBA) and to push the ball on offense. Anthony in the open court, Lenard at the perimeter and Nene and Camby in the paint are tough matchups for most opponents.
A rested, healthy roster and a favorable home schedule would benefit the Nuggets the most in their quest. Usually, that doesn't happen for NBA teams, but in this case, it might occur for Denver. Of its seven remaining games, four are at home. After Tuesday's home game with Seattle, the Nuggets have two days off before facing Houston at home, then have four days for rest and practice before playing at Phoenix. Those are all winnable games for a revived Denver team.
Another factor in the Nuggets' favor: They won the season series with both Utah (3-1) and Portland (3-0, with one game remaining at Denver). That means they own the eighth spot in the event they finish tied with either team. For Vandeweghe, Bzdelik and the young Nuggets, that would be a fitting reward.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.