We’re counting down the days till the start of the new season, and it’s about time for everyone to be making predictions. This year, instead of just doing one prediction, I decided to go out and interview one blogger for every NBA team.
The bloggers whose opinions we will be graced with over the next few weeks are the best of the best, as all of them have featured in Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie basketball blog’s Blog Association, where Kelly Dwyer has been profiling the best team-centric NBA blogs out there. If you have any inclination of increasing your knowledge about the NBA, these are the blogs you need to read and subscribe to. (I know I will be!)
Today, we are honored to interview Jeremy from Pickaxe and Roll, in my opinion the top Nuggets blog on the Web. Jeremy was good enough to make time to answer some questions on the Lakers and the Nuggets for us.
Jonny: Out on a limb, although backing it up with solid reasoning would be cool too, what do you think the ball park for the Nuggets’ 08-09 regular season record will be, and where do you feel they will place in the Northwest Division/West?
Jeremy: The answer to this question revolves around three variables. First of all, are the players going to give it their all? After the Marcus Camby trade I am a little concerned about where the team’s collective psyche is. Are they going to fight and claw for every victory they can earn or will they go into the season believing that management pulled the rug out from under them and just go through the motions?
Variable number two is Nene’s health. Nene is a much better player than Marcus Camby. Most fans, and media members for that matter, believe Camby to be the superior player due to his stats and also because they have not seen what Nene can do game in and game out. If Nene can stay healthy the Nuggets will be able to weather the loss of Camby much more easily than most outside observers expect. The primary problem with depending on Nene is his health as he has played a total of 81 games combined over the previous three regular seasons. However, there is hope that he can stay healthy this season and part of the reason for that hope is most of the games he missed last season were due to the flukish and well chronicled battle he had with testicular cancer. I believe Nene can stay healthy and play in 70 plus games this season, but there is no guarantee that will happen.
The third, and biggest variable is a potential Allen Iverson trade sometime before the February trade deadline. The Nuggets let go of Marcus Camby to shed salary and if owner Stan Kronke is determined to cut costs further the only way they can do that during the season would be to trade AI in exchange for a package that would bring back the minimum allowable salary under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Denver could drop an additional $4 million in salary obligations by trading Iverson as long as they find another team who is willing to play ball.
So, how many games will they win? In order to answer this question I am going to assume the team as presently constructed will be the team that finishes out the season. I believe they will be battling Portland for second place in the Northwest Division (well behind Utah) and those two teams will be battling with Dallas for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the west. I believe they end up in the playoffs with a total of 46 wins, but if Iverson is dealt away in another cost cutting move all bets are off as this team will check out quicker than any self respecting man forced to watch Beaches.
Jonny: Again, out on the said limb, what do you think the ball park for the Laker’s 08-09 regular season record will be, and where do you feel they will place in the Pacific Division/West?
Jeremy: I know that Lakers fans are a confident bunch and I can understand why. I believe the only team that can challenge the Lakers for the top seed in the Western Conference is New Orleans. I believe the Spurs, Suns and Mavericks are in for disappointing seasons and will fall (ever so slightly) from the upper ranks of the Western Conference.
The Lakers have a very nice mix of players and should Andrew Bynum come back healthy he and Pau Gasol will complement each other exceptionally well and I think Kobe has confidence in his teammates that will lead him to play his best basketball again next season.
I am sure some Laker fans are out there proclaiming this team can win 65-70 games, but I believe they will top out at a maximum of 60 wins with another 57 or 58 win season being likely. The Lakers will be better with Bynum back on the court, but the lower class of the west is much improved this season and it will not be so easy to stockpile wins against the Timberwolves, Thunder, Kings and Clippers as it was last season,
Jonny: How do you feel the Nuggets match up with the Lakers over a 7-game series?
Jeremy: The one team I did not want the Nuggets to play in the playoffs last season was the Lakers and I will probably share the same opinion at the end of the 2008-2009 season. The Nuggets are too talented to be swept by anyone, but their inability to win at home (a 2-8 record at home in the playoffs over their last five appearances which I need not tell you is inexcusable) has killed them. Also, George Karl did a disservice to the team by strategizing to have the power forward to cover Kobe (it was not just Kenyon Martin, there were times when Eduardo Najera was guarding Kobe by [boneheaded] design) and I do not think he makes that same mistake again. Then again, maybe he will to avoid admitting he was wrong the first time.
I still think the Lakers would beat the Nuggets in four or five games if they played again right now or if they face each other in 2009, which I think just might happen, but the Nuggets will make the individual games more competitive, which unfortunately won’t make it any more enjoyable for Nuggets fans.
Jonny: Lakers fans are split down the middle on Odom; some love his versatility, others hate his inconsistency. As an opposing fan, how do you rate Odom?
Jeremy: I have loved Odom’s talent ever since he was at Rhode Island and I was expecting great things from him in the NBA. He has certainly shown us what he is capable of, but he has just never learned how to apply all he can do game in and game out. The word that comes to mind when watching him play is intimidated. I do not know if he is intimidated at letting a player of Kobe’s caliber down, if he is intimidated of failing on a large stage or if it is just a matter of being afraid to give it his all and come up short. The fact that he has played his best basketball with the Clippers and Heat when the pressure was at its lowest is concerning.
It just seems to me like something is missing and I cannot put my finger on what it is.
Odom is still a very talented player and he puts up impressive numbers, but I do not know how excited I would be if I found out that he had just been traded to the Nuggets. Ultimately, if he is the third or fourth best player on your team you can be sure of two things. One, you have a very talented team and two, if he was playing to his full ability there is no way he would only be the third or fourth best player on any team.
Jonny: What do you think of Kobe’s decisions to put-off surgery on his injured pinky?
Jeremy: I was surprised that he did not have the procedure done after the Olympics, but to me it shows how competitive he is. He wanted to play in the Olympics and win the gold medal bad enough to put off the surgery so that he could play in Beijing. Then he put if off again because he did not want to miss any of the regular season and take a chance on hurting the Lakers chances of earning the top seed.
I commend him on his competitive drive, that a player like Carmelo Anthony clearly lacks, but if I were a Laker fan I would be very worried that something might happen to injure it further making surgery during the season a necessity.
Jonny: What is your perception on Bynum? Lakers fans have him pegged as the next *insert hall-of-fame center*, yet the rest of the league doesn’t seem to hold him in such a high regard.
Jeremy: I was impressed with Bynum from the day they drafted him and thought it was a very good pick. I thought his hands and coordination made him almost a sure thing. However, I am not quite sure how high his ceiling is at this point in his career. I think he certainly has the ability to be one of the top rebounders in the NBA and defensively he can have a major impact in the lane. On the other hand, I have questions about how well he can score. He will get points on put backs and off of drive and dish plays, but If he is on the block and has to get a hoop, right now I would not be very comfortable. The good news is with the offensive talent he has around him he does not need to be a scorer and he can take his time and really work on developing a post game so that in three or four years, maybe he has an all-star caliber offensive game to go along with his considerable defensive abilities.
I do not think he is going to be a Hall of Famer, but I can only think of a handful of centers in the league I would rather have other than Bynum.
Jonny: The Marcus Camby trade. do you feel it was a good/necessary move? who is going to play Center on this Nuggets team? on a related note, do you think the Nuggets will use the trade exception the trade netted them, or was it a pure salary dump?
Jeremy: The Marcus Camby trade was certainly a shock, but I believe it was a very good deal for the Nuggets. I will not go into great detail here, but I will say I believe Marcus Camby is one of the most overrated players in the NBA (for more click here and here). He gets a lot of credit for blocking shots and rebounding, but he is never criticized for his poor on the ball defense and shameful offense. He is the only starting center in the NBA who has absolutely no back to the basket game, none whatsoever. In fact, the Golden State Warriors guarded him with Mickael Pietrus last season during one game and Marcus never strayed closer than the top of the circle against him. Embarrassing.
I was very fearful that the Nuggets management was going to simply bring back the same team for another year of failure this season. The Camby deal showed that they acknowledged that the roster was broken and that they were willing to not only admit it to themselves, but do something about it.
This trade was absolutely a salary dump, bur for this season only. I believe the Nuggets are going to use the trade exception to bring in another player after this season to add to their talented young core of Melo, J.R. Smith, Nene and Linas Kleiza (also do not forget that Kenyon Martin is only 30).
As I alluded to earlier, the greatest danger in the deal is destroying the already fragile locker room atmosphere (some of the quotes George Karl has made over the previous couple of seasons makes it sound like he is living in a zombie movie and he is just trying to get through the whole ordeal without being eaten). Camby was great in the community and was respected by his teammates, but he was never a leader on the court. While I do worry about the impact his departure may have on the team’s mentality this season, they are not losing anything that is irreplaceable. This team is still talented enough to contend for a playoff spot as long as the players do their jobs.
Nene will finally get his chance to be the starting center for the Nuggets and I believe that people around the league will see that (a healthy) Nene is a much better player than Marcus Camby. Nene is not a shot blocker, but he can guard the Shaqs and Tim Duncans of the world and that is something Camby could never do. Offensively, Nene can score on the block and is a player who can play the pick and roll game which are two other things Camby was incapable of doing.
The Nuggets took a big gamble when they brought in Allen Iverson and I believe it was a risk worth taking. It has become clear that it did not work out and over the next year they will have a chance to remake the team on the fly and the Camby trade was the first step on the road to remaking the roster.
[Editor’s Note:] Jeremy has just published a good article about Camby vs Nene on the defensive end, accompanied by video evidence, that can be read here
Jonny: How do you feel about Iverson’s contract? are you okay with him leaving the team after this season as an expiring contract, or would you like to see him extended? if so, then for how long, and for how much?
Jeremy: I believe the Nuggets have come to the realization that the AI trade did not work and instead of trying to drag things on, they are going to part ways either during the season via trade or after the season by allowing AI to leave via free agency.
I have been a fan of Iverson’s since his days at Georgetown, but his style of play is completely predicated on him having to do all the work. He never adjusted his game to play alongside Carmelo Anthony. After watching AI play game after game for a year and a half I am convinced that it is nearly impossible to run an organized and flowing half court offense as long as Iverson is on the floor (see video in the above link). He does not realize how much easier he can have it if he relies on his teammates to get him open shots. He is not a good defender and when his supposed strengths lead to a dysfunctional offense, I believe the Nuggets and AI need to part ways.
One of my rules to run a team by is to never get nothing for something and letting AI walk would seem to be doing just that. However, the salary that they would be able to clear off the books by letting AI’s contract expire (over $20 million) will allow them to utilize the trade exception they acquired from the Clippers to help remake the roster and stay under the luxury tax line.
Should AI’s contract expire, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent next offseason, it will be very interesting to see who goes after him and what kind of contracts he is offered. He is going to want to go to a contender, but what contender would be interested in adding a player who needs to dominate the ball to be effective?
I would be remiss if I did not mention that, as unthinkable as it is, there is the possibility I am misreading the Nuggets attitude towards Iverson and they may very well offer him a contract in the three year, $30 million range after the season and let the trade exception expire. Believe it or not I have been wrong before. Should that happen I will be shocked and disappointed.
Jonny: What are your thoughts on the “player exodus” from the NBA to Europe? do you think a Kobe or a Lebron would ever seriously consider leaving the NBA?
Jeremy: I will let this one go as I am getting a little too verbose, which is a problem I tend to have when talking about the Nuggets.
Jonny: J.R. Smith. There is a lot of information/misinformation out there about him, even just as a basketball player. What do you feel he brings to the team, and what do you think his best case/worst case role on the team is?
Jeremy: J.R. Smith is another player who I was a big fan of from the time he came into the league. I remember watching him in summer league and marveling at his offensive talents (a lot of fans completely dismiss summer league, but when someone knows how to play it is apparent despite the diluted competition). He could shoot, get to the rim and was a very good passer as well. Those talents kind of disappeared during his first three seasons in the league as he turned into a long range chucker with little desire to play defense.
Before last season the majority of Nuggets fans were calling for him to be traded after he was benched by George Karl in the playoff series against the Spurs the previous year for insulting the game of basketball. He started out the season playing much the same way he always had, then due to injuries to Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins, Karl put him in at point guard and Smith experienced an epiphany. He seemed to remember that he could handle the ball, get to the rim, set up teammates and still hit open shots when they were available.
With this reemergence of his offensive game, he also began to exert more and more effort on defense. He began to dig in and try to stay in front of his man instead of just playing the passing lanes. The results were mixed, but it was a marked improvement.
As the season went on, he became one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. He was making threes at a 40% clip. He was getting to the rim and finishing in traffic. He also has added a nasty pull up/step back mid range jumper to his impressive repertoire.
Last season J.R. Smith ended up the number seven scorer in the NBA in points per minute behind only LeBron, Amare, Kobe, Melo, Dirk and Kevin Martin and ahead of players like Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady and even Allen Iverson.
Add in the fact that all of that talent has been placed in the prototypical shooting guard body with elite athleticism and Nuggets fans should be absolutely ecstatic that he is a Nugget.
J.R. still has a long way to go defensively, but he has all the physical tools to be a very good defender. Once he learns positioning and some of the finer tactics of playing defense in the NBA, he will be an all-star quality player. He also has some growing up to do as evidenced by the trash talking he was caught up in with Kobe during one of the Nuggets embarrassing losses in the playoffs last season, but if there is a positive in that episode it is that he is supremely confident and if he needs to take a big shot, he knows it is going in.
I really believe J.R. needs to be the starting shooting guard for the Nuggets this season with AI playing the point. That will not only get J.R. the time he needs to continue his development, but it will help AI play a more controlled role on offense by carrying the having the responsibility of running an “offense” assuming the Nuggets have one. Plus it puts the five best players on the floor for most of the game and keeps players like Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins on the bench.
Jonny: What do you think Isiah Smith’s love child? (AKA Renaldo Balkman) does he replace Eduardo Najera adequately?
I am glad you recognize the correlation between Najera and Balkman. You will not believe how many people characterize Balkman as a small forward/shooting guard and do not realize he will be filling Najera’s role.
I thought this was another very good trade by the Nuggets. I was one of the many mocking Isaiah Thomas when he drafted Balkman in the first round, but the joke has been on us. Balkman is the same type of player as Najera only he is younger, more athletic and cheaper (which is equally as important for the Nuggets this season as younger and more athletic).
There are two areas where the Nuggets will miss Najera. One, believe it or not, is his three point shooting. He was a very effective from downtown and even though he went through a slump in the middle of the season, he still shot over 36% from down town good for second on the team.
The other area where Najera’s loss might really hurt the Nuggets is in their 2-3 zone defense. Sometimes they would put Najera in the middle against teams who did not have an offensive post presence and he would roam the middle of the floor from baseline to the three point line. Balkman has the athleticism to fill that role, but does he have the intelligence?
I believe when compared to one another Balkman’s ball handling ability (you will see him leading the break from time to time and he almost always makes the right decision) and athleticism will trump Najera’s guile and three point shot and the Nuggets will be a better team in both the short term and long term thanks to acquiring Balkman.
That brings us to one last point. I am pleased with the direction the Nuggets have gone with their bench adding energy players like Balkman, Chris Andersen and even Sonny Weems (although I would have rather landed Chris Douglas-Roberts instead of Weems). I hope it is a sign that as they rebuild the roster over the next year or so that they are recognizing the necessity for having role players and not just stars on the team.
Thanks again to Jeremy for his time and Insights… Please DO NOT troll Pickaxe and Roll, even if you think his ideas are totally off base (which you shouldn’t). Remember, on the Internet, you and I represent Lakers fans everywhere. Lets try to give ourselves a good name.