Great basketball teams often take on the personality of their star players. Without a dominant big man, the Dallas Mavericks are more of a perimeter shooting team keyed by Dirk Nowitzki. Steve Nash pushes the Phoenix Suns up and down the court. Tim Duncan leads the Spurs by playing solid D and scowling at the officials until he gets favorable calls.
So with two players starting the all-star game, why do the Nuggets still feel like they lack an identity?
They play a great transition game but look aimless in the half-court set. They have the reigning defensive player of the year (Marcus Camby) but the Nuggs' D can be charitably described at sporadic. And despite our all-star starters (Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson) they rarely blow any teams out, preferring instead to pull out tough victories down the stretch, like they did Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Put it this way: Through 41 games, the Nuggets were 25-16, the third best start in franchise history. So why does it still feel like the season could go either way?
A big part of the reason is the competitiveness of both the Western Conference and the Northwest division. Heading into Wednesday's game, the Nuggets were third in their division and ninth overall in the conference, leaving them out of the playoff picture. After the victory, they bounced back up to the seventh position and sit just a half-game back of Utah, currently the fourth seed.
But a January that was supposed to show us what the Nuggs were made of has left fans with more questions than answers. Denver was undefeated this month at home and with an overall 19-5 record at The Can, they’ve regained the home edge missing much of last season. They beat the Spurs at their own game by playing tremendous D in the clutch, stifled Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic and put the hurt on division rival Utah when Linas Kleiza, who has vastly improved this season, exploded for 41 points.
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Yet they were 2-7 on the road in January, suffering blowout losses to the playoff-contending Suns, Hornets and Lakers. A two-game swing through the Dirty Dirty was particularly embarrassing, with back-to-back losses against the undistinguished Atlanta Hawks and some team apparently calling itself the Charlotte Bobcats.
A huge part of the Nuggs inconsistency derives from perpetual injuries, a plague on the team for years now. Although expected back soon, Melo’s missed the last five games with a gimpy ankle; Chucky Atkins, our biggest free-agent acquisition, has sat out nearly all season with a groin injury; K-Mart, while contributing greatly on the defensive end, continues to miss games with downright bizarre maladies (a staph infection!?), and Nene is recovering from testicular cancer. Cancer, for fuck's sake.
Of course, being difficult to figure out has its upside – you never know what’s going to happen. This team could win or lose against any opponent, which makes every game a must-see. And it's a fun team to watch. Allen Iverson, the object of many a man-crush in our town, has been simply sensational; Marcus Camby is a shot-blocking and rebound-snatching machine (he had an utterly absurd11 blocks and 24 boards against the Jazz) and the bench has been stellar.
When a team is both brilliant and frustrating, it makes them compelling. But are the Nuggets for real? We’ll just have to wait and see. -- Mark Schiff