Posted by Neil Paine on April 17, 2009
Regular Season: Expected by many (myself included) to be hurt by the loss of Marcus Camby, instead the Nuggets took off and outlasted the rest of the West's 2nd tier in a "Lord of the Flies"-esque battle for the second seed in the Conference. Of course, selling high on Allen Iverson and picking up Chauncey Billups a week into the season was probably the biggest key, as Billups added a ridiculous 121.2 offensive rating on 22.4% of their possessions, and the club improved at both ends with Billups in the fold all season.
Prime-Time Players: 1. Chauncey Billups. Not only was he Denver's leader in Win Shares, Billups brings an insane amount of postseason history to a club that has lacked any memory of playoff success. He's "Mr. Big Shot", remember? As the playoffs go on, Denver will rely more and more on Billups, and if the past is any indicator, he can handle that with aplomb.
2. Nenê. After several injury-riddled seasons that called into question what he could produce going forward, the Brazilian big man responded with a tremendous season, finishing 2nd on the club in Win Shares, leading the team in in +/-, and making the loss of Camby look relatively insignificant in the long run. Nenê doesn't have a long playoff history, but if he carries over the momentum from his great regular season, Denver will go places.
3. Chris Andersen. This is the Birdman's first real playoff taste, but I don't think he'll have any trouble with the intensity required to survive in the "second season". Andersen came back from a long drug-related suspension to be one of the best reserves in the entire league -- a 120 ORtg and some of the best board work and defense in the NBA will attest to that. Look for his raw hustle and amazing shot-blocking ability to give Denver a big spark in these playoffs.
But don't count on... Carmelo Anthony. 'Melo is one of the game's brightest talents, but he is coming off of a down regular season that saw him post the 2nd-lowest WS total of his career. Worse yet, Anthony is a guy whose performance always slips precipitously at this crucial time of year. In other words, Denver fans shouldn't exactly expect a banner postseason from Carmelo in 2009.
Why they can win: They're a balanced team with a strong leader at the point (Billups) who has a history of making big plays in the springtime, mega-talented scorers at SF (Anthony) & SG (J.R. Smith), and a host of good role players. The 2 seed gives them HCA until at least the Conference Finals.
Why they can't win: They haven't won any of the last 5 first-round series they've played in. They may own the second seed, but there's not a whole lot of difference between #2 and #8, talent-wise. They could either march to the WCF or flame out again in Round 1, it's really anybody's guess given the evenly-matched nature of the West's 2nd tier.
X-Factor: Anthony. If he steps his game up and plays to his potential, the Nuggs can certainly do as much damage as anyone this side of L.A. And if he turns in his usual playoff dud, the Nuggets will struggle to make it out of Round 1. It's up to him which scenario plays out.
|Nuggets vs.||Off.||Def.||Reb.||Coach||Exp.||The Skinny||Prediction|
|Dallas||X||X||Denver swept 4-game season series||Nuggets in 5|
|Houston||X||Houston too deep, too good defensively for Denver||Rockets in 6|
|Los Angeles||Nope, not happening||Lakers in 5|
|New Orleans||X||X||X||X||Chris Paul could steal this series||Nuggets in 7|
|Portland||X||X||Game 6 at home a must-win for Portland||Blazers in 6|
|San Antonio||X||For the first time in a decade, they can win this one||Nuggets in 6|
|Utah||X||X||Home-court decides tightly-contested series||Nuggets in 7|
(Key: "X" = Advantage; blank = disadvantage)