Merger Mania

The Nugs strive to prove that their Melo-Kmart blend is the ticket to glory.

Most Nuggets fans can't read tea leaves, but they're pretty good with injury reports. Either way, universal health care will be critical to the immediate fortunes of a team that leaped into the season full of newfound hopes and dreams but quickly found its baby-blue ass in a 2-5 sling as the boobirds crowed.

But their current, happily timed homestand -- nine of ten at the Pepsi Center before setting out on a grueling seven-game tour of assorted eastern metropoli, has begun well, with wins over Toronto, Chicago and Dallas, while big men Marcus Camby and Nene are coming back (albeit tentatively) from matching hamstring injuries and amazing Earl Boykins has recovered from a dislocated left bird-flipping finger. Last weekend, blue-ribbon free agent Kenyon Martin was still nursing a sore knee, but he's already providing the fierce spirit and brute force the Nuggets have long sought.

Alas, the Nuggets' only reliable shooting guard, Voshon Lenard, was lost for the season before he scarcely broke a sweat. In an opening-night loss to the Shaqless Los Angeles Lakers, Lenard went down in a gruesome heap with an Achilles-tendon tear. Here we go again, local manic-depressives said. Vo's woes left a club that owns a long, long history of bad luck and questionable bench strength, with an expensive clot of tough guys duking it out in the paint. Only the 5'5" Boykins, who has the heart of a mountain lion but looks like he should be riding in the Preakness, remained upright to score from afar. That he must do it from well beneath the treeline is not lost on opponents. Is reserve Greg Buckner (28 points versus Dallas) a viable alternative? Time will tell.

Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony are the Nuggets' 
foundation.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony are the Nuggets' foundation.

One player injury, now contentedly healed, affected not body, but soul. When airport officials found a small stash of pot in second-year phenom Carmelo Anthony's carry-on bag, tongues wagged. But the stuff was left there by a friend; the investigation was closed, and Melo quickly regained his cred.

Even that didn't comprise all the early trouble, of course. Just a week into the Nuggets' misfire, more dark rumblings could be heard about the future of head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who has all the job security of a loudmouthed Democrat in the CIA, but who faces questions about his impending doom with deadpan grace. He's lost the team, some said. They quit on him against Seattle, others moaned. Look at that body language; they can't stand the man, psychologists high up in the $20 seats observed. Brass tacks: Buzz may go yet, but don't expect the guy who gave the Nugs their work ethic to bark about it. Consider Anne Boleyn: Mounting the scaffold, she assured Henry's imported French hatchet-man that her neck was slender.

Back home in the 21st century, Kmart merged with Sears last week, giving grateful consumers two places to buy Joe Boxer shorts and Martha Stewart license plates. Nuggets fans were, of course, more interested in the merger of Kmart and Melo, which seemed to finally happen on the evening of November 17, when the two forwards combined to score 54 points in a 112-106 win over the visiting Toronto Raptors. In the absence of a legitimate outside threat -- Michael Adams and Fat Lever are retired, and (whoops!) crucial spare part Jon Barry was traded to Atlanta -- Denver must now rely more than ever on the big men. That was to be the strength of this Nuggets team, of course, which brandished the deepest, most talented, most bruising interior rotation (Martin, Camby, Nene) in the Western Conference. That trio is augmented by small forward Anthony, who averaged 21 points per game last year and lost out in rookie-of-the-year honors only because fellow teenager LeBron James had such a great year in Cleveland.

Kmart's acquisition from New Jersey was, most agree, the deal of the summer -- Shaquille O'Neal's move to Miami notwithstanding. Martin was expensive (seven years, $92.5 million) but general manager Kiki Vandeweghe got the tough, fiery veteran of back-to-back NBA Finals teams without giving up a single player from the Nuggets roster, and a lot of hoop nuts predicted that the Nuggets' power-packed front court would now dominate the low post as well as anyone, save the world-champion Detroit Pistons, and prevail even against top-of-the-line Western rivals like the Minnesota Timberwolves and the San Antonio Spurs.

Still...

When Vandeweghe failed to keep shooting guard Barry and, despite the talk last summer, did not actively pursue outside shooter Trenton Hassell up in Minneapolis or Darius Miles in Portland, he may have exposed Denver's -- hate to say it -- Achilles' heel. With outside scorer Lenard gone for the year, the Nuggets may turn out to be top-heavy in the middle -- redundant, even. No less vocal a dissenter than Charles Barkley, now a basketball commentator on the boob tube, proclaims that Vandeweghe has miscalculated wildly and that the Nuggets will be the bust of this NBA season -- unable to score because opponents can clog up their strong middle without worrying about the outside jumper. Andre Miller is no Vo Lenard. So far, fast-break points have told the tale of the young Nuggets' season as much as injuries have. Bzdelik coaches speed and more speed, but his track stars have not always been up to the task: When the Nugs score twenty or more points on fast breaks, they win; less than twenty, they lose. As it is, they gave up 100 or more points in six straight early-season games, a mark unequaled since the brutal 1996-97 season, when they went 21-62.

Bzdelik's $1.5 million job may be in jeopardy, all right. But if Denver doesn't improve on last year's encouraging 43-39 season and earn another trip to the playoffs, Vandeweghe may turn out to be the real fall guy -- despite the fact that a pre-season survey of NBA general managers found the Nuggets "the most fun team to watch."

Meanwhile, they must contend in the new Northwest Division with powerhouse Minnesota, 7-3 Utah and surprising young Seattle, which tops the charts at 9-2.

Back at Altitude -- yes, thanks to an eleventh-hour deal between Kroenke and Comcast, you can now watch the games on cable TV, with good-guy Bill Hanzlik, a reminder of some sorry Nuggets teams past, doing the commentary -- it looks like the Nuggets' season will make or break in the front court, unless Jason Kidd drops in from heaven or Boykins has a sudden growth spurt. The injuries are healing, the chemistry experiment is going better, and for the moment, Buzz has his boys in renewal mode. Bottom line: The Nuggets are a 5-5 team with a terrible road history and a swing through Washington, Toronto, New York, Philly, Boston, Miami and Orlando in the offing. If the Melo-Marts can get through that nightmare with their heads attached and their hearts still beating, go ahead and print up the playoff tickets.

Believe it: The shape of a season can be determined before Santa even scolds the elves.

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