- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Five games, four losses, all four by double digits.
In that short span, with those gory results, Denver has forced us to revise our predictions already.
The Nuggets still have time to come back by spring and be a top-four seed in the West, as a certain basketball scribe projected. They can still grow into a second-round playoff team, as Nuggets management believed when it put this roster together.
But . . .
The prediction that must be made now about the Nuggets is clear: Jeff Bzdelik will be the first coach fired in the new season.
A couple scouts who watched the Nuggets' Opening Night loss to the Lakers told me that the body language they saw from Bzdelik's players convinced them that the coach had lost the team before the season even started. Apart from a stirring second-half comeback against Denver's hated rivals from Minnesota, the body language and effort has steadily worsened.
Combine those woes with the fact that Bzdelik's offense has never looked more stagnant and the outcome is inevitable.
Carmelo Anthony is getting the bulk of the blame for Denver's 1-4 start, but that's too easy. There's no question Melo has been trying too hard -- whether to make us forget the Olympics, to get past the recent flap about his backpack, or whatever. There's likewise no doubt that lofty expectations have smothered Anthony and his teammates, who launched things with a nightmare against the Lakers in L.A. and haven't recovered. Yet you can't ignore the fact that Denver's offense is doing nothing to help Anthony.
Without a low-post presence offensively, and with the Nuggets' only stretch-the-defense threat (Voshon Lenard) lost for the season with an Achilles' tear, Denver needs to get more motion in its game. In the halfcourt, at present, all you see is a lot of standing around. The basic problem isn't that Melo is settling for jumpers; rather, he's taking so many because there's nowhere to go with the ball.
Worse, of course, is the fact Denver isn't stopping anybody, either, which might help create some easier offense. Defense, remember, was supposed to be a major Denver strength, after pairing Kenyon Martin with Marcus Camby. Nene's unavailability through injury is a definite blow, since he's the beefiest of Denver's bigs, but Anthony didn't disagree after Tuesday's 20-point home loss -- to a Seattle team that should be a lottery team, again -- when someone suggested that the Nuggets surrendered.
Which seals it for the coach.
Kiki Vandeweghe doesn't want to make a change five games into the season, with training camp gone. Yet it's also no secret that the Nuggets' general manager was reluctant to bring Bzdelik back this season, refusing to recommend an extension for Bzdelik.
Just as Bzdelik forced Denver to keep him with his successes -- getting supreme effort and passion from a 17-win team before Melo arrived, and then last season's jump to 43 victories -- the pace at which these Nuggets are unraveling will force a change, most likely the promotion of assistant coach Michael Cooper. Because the sad reality is, once a coach loses his guys, it's almost impossible to get them back.
Making the playoffs last season triggered a clause in Bzdelik's contract that guaranteed his $1.5 million salary for this season. So at least he'll get something out of the next 77 games, no matter how many of them he coaches.
Don't know if we'll be able to say the same about the Nuggets, if they wait much longer.
After Denver makes its coaching change, Lenny Wilkens moves up one (some would say from No. 2) on the Endangered Species List. By now you know our position on Lenny -- New York never should have hired him after Wilkens struggled to motivate or innovate in Toronto -- and Isiah Thomas' revised stance should be pretty evident after the force-out of longtime Wilkens aide Dick Helm.
Only two factors, it appears, are saving Wilkens. No. 1: It'd be a strike against Isiah to make a move so soon into the season, less than a year after bring Lenny in to replace Don Chaney. No. 2: There's no clear-cut successor, if Isiah maintains the stance that he's not returning to the bench.
As you heard from him Tuesday, Isiah is adamant about staying in the front office, no matter how many times we all write or say he's itching to coach again. Phil Jackson certainly intrigues Knicks ownership, but it's tough to see the Zenmeister (a) working for Isiah or (b) leaving retirement, at any price, to coach a club that's several sniffs away from championship contention.
Thus the leading contender to succeed Wilkens, if (when?) an in-season replacement is required, has to be Isiah's boyhood chum Mark Aguirre. Although Aguirre's specialty is one-on-one tutoring in the low post -- his low-box game is still better, at 44, than that of anyone on the Knicks' active roster -- he makes more sense than anyone in the organization not named Zeke.
Despite its own 0-3 start, which became a 1-3 start last night, Sacramento isn't as desperate as the Nuggets or Knicks. Questions certainly persist about the Kings' once-vaunted chemistry and Rick Adelman's future, but their brutal early schedule has to be a factor. You only need look at Utah for confirmation.
The Jazz, remember, were scheduled to play an exhibition game in Russia on Oct. 8. But with the country facing attacks from Chechen rebels, the league decided to cancel Andrei Kirilenko's homecoming. Which was like putting gas into Utah's tank, judging by its 4-0 launch.
The Kings, by contrast, accepted the league's invitation to go to China with Houston for two exhibition games . . . and were rewarded with five games on the road out of the first six in the regular season. Starting with a three-game tour of the Texas Triangle, no less. You really couldn't be terribly surprised to see them at 0-3 when you clicked to the standings Sunday morning.
"This might be the first time since Gavin and I have owned the team that we've lost three games in a row," Kings co-owner Joe Maloof said before Tuesday's home victory over Toronto, admitting disappointment with the defeats in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. "But we're not going to panic or anything like that.
"We're going to take the next month and look at everything, because that's our responsibility as owners. But no one's panicking."
In case you get curious while watching Sacramento and Seattle in the second game of ESPN's doubleheader Wednesday night, Chris Webber is third among active players with 18 career triple-doubles. His 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists against the Raptors accounted for the league's first triple-double of the season.
Worrisome as it was for the Mavericks to see Michael Finley turn his ankle Tuesday in Orlando, swingman's the one position where Dallas can take a hit or two.
Team insiders admit that Marquis Daniels' early ankle troubles might have actually contributed to the Mavericks to a 4-1 start, because Daniels' unavailability last month created playing time for Josh Howard, who has emerged as Dallas' defensive spark. If Finley, Daniels and Jerry Stackhouse (bothered by groin trouble in the preseason) were all healthy in October, chances are Howard wouldn't have had the opportunity to force his way into the lineup, which is exactly what he did.
Then again . . .
Stackhouse is suddenly the healthiest of the quarter. Finley left the O-rena on crutches Tuesday night, Daniels is still far from 100 percent and Howard also tweaked an ankle against the Magic.
NBA trainers are the guys who get bombarded with fix-it requests from NBA players. They rarely get a spare minute to ask for anything.
So when they do ask, how can you say no?
And what they're asking is that we call them athletic trainers. Reason being: NBA athletic trainers don't want to be confused with personal-fitness trainers, since they are trained to be health-care providers who can prevent, assess and treat injuries of all kinds and supervise the rehab of your favorite flying millionaires.
So I will endeavor to get it right from now on. It might seem like a small thing, but how can you say no to Golden State's Tom Abdenour, Dallas' Casey Smith, Gary Vitti of the L.A. Lakers and the rest of their underappreciated colleagues?
Athletic trainers, it is.
As the losses pile up for the Nuggets, Jeff Bzdelik's grip on his team continues to slip.