By: Travis Heath
The Denver Nuggets won 50 games last season. The Denver Nuggets were also eliminated for the fifth straight season in the first round and for the fourth straight season under the guidance of head coach George Karl. As a result, many expected Karl to be fired or possibly even resign. While that didn't happen, a major trade that sent Marcus Camby to the Los Angeles Clippers for the right to swap second round picks in 2010 and a $10.1 million trade exception shook the foundation of the organization.
The Nuggets are now the popular pick of both the fans and the media to implode this season. Given the team's history of struggles and some of the traditionally mercurial personalities on the team, it's hard to blame them.
"I like the idea that people are condescending and degrading our possibilities," explained head coach George Karl. "I just love amateur opinions in the offseason. I wouldn't want to predict any NBA seasons until I saw at least 20 or 30 games, but it will be the first year most people don't think we're going to be any good. Some people are predicting a total demise. I don't see that on our team."
What Karl did see was his starting center and favorite bench player leave the team this past summer all in the span of a couple of days.
"That week where Eddie (Najera) and Marcus go out the window we all were going, 'Wow, what's happening,' " Karl said.
"I don't know how we're going to fix the loss of Eddie," Karl continued. "I don't know how we're going to come off the bench with scoring, but we have some good pieces. We have some very good pieces. It's going to be different than last year, but I personally think the challenge is exciting.
"Marcus was tremendous in patrolling the paint, but he wasn't in to rotating on the perimeter. There's no question that Marcus' presence is going to be missed, but I think Nene in a different way can be as good or better than Marcus. That's his challenge and our challenge. After kind of a unique summer of rebuilding the psyche and spirit of our team, we're in a very good place. We're faster, deeper and quicker with athletes at every position than ever before since I've been here."
The change in personnel is just one challenge the Nuggets will face this season. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Karl and the Nuggets this season will be changing the culture of a team that was often lax on the defensive end and not always as disciplined as many fans might have preferred.
"How you teach the game as a coaching staff sometimes subconsciously allows the team that you're coaching to develop a mentality," Karl said. "Offense, I think in some ways, is softer than defense. I'm not saying we're soft, but I think at times last year we tried to outshoot, outscore and outrun. I think this year we're going to try to keep the good stuff of our offense and incorporate some of the toughness of defense. I think as a coaching staff that excites us.
"Over the last two years me and the coaching staff tried to coach the game with the mentality of scoring, playing fast, kind of the Phoenix Suns' mentality. Learning how to attack, attack, attack is how we taught the game, but we feel that we have to change our mindset to at least move in to the top-half of the defensive teams in basketball."
Karl also indicated the coaching staff studied their fair share of film in the offseason, which resulted in a different approach this week during training camp.
"Last year if I had to evaluate our defense after film studying this summer, a lot of our bad defense was created by our bad shot-selection. Our offensive personality has to have more responsibility. And the second thing is the commitment to run back and play transition defense."
Despite Denver's obvious problems on the defensive end last season, the team still won 50 games in the regular season and qualified for the postseason for the fourth consecutive year under Karl. While Karl & Co. have defended their regular season record in the past, the coach knows that playoff success now has to follow.
"We have some guys on this coaching staff that even though we can rationalize success in the regular season as being good, the truth of the matter is your judgment is based upon how you do in the playoffs. From Melo to Kenyon to A.I., there's a gut feeling of nausea. It's indigestion. We don't really want to talk about our regular seasons even though we try to defend that we play and have done a lot of good things."
This puts Karl and his staff in a tough position. Do they jump down the throats of a team that won 50 games or try to build off of past success?
"The hammer and how I lead the team with discipline and lead the team with changing mistakes and changing what I want and what the team needs to do I think will be -- as I said at the end of last season -- is going to be a little more hammer oriented than democracy oriented," Karl said. "Last year we probably talked our way through mistakes, talked our way through periods of momentum of bad basketball. This year I think you're going to see more of, 'Hey, this is what we want. If you don't give it, it's going to be playing time that is going to be changed.'
"I think our players know we've cut corners, cheated the commitment in some ways. It's frustrating as a coach. Sometimes when you win 50 games it's hard to challenge a team because they go 'Coach, we won 50 games.' The problem is we don't do the little things everyday, and those little things win playoff games."
In a candid moment, Karl admitted that he has made mistakes in the way in which he has handled his team in the past.
"The one frustration as a coach I've had is over the years is I know we've cheated the game, but we've had success. I don't know how to coach that. When you know you're not doing this and you know you're not that but you're still one of the top-ten teams in basketball and you're winning games.... how do you bring a hammer down on winning? It was difficult. I think I've made mistakes in that area. I think I've made... maybe drastic mistakes in that area."
The challenge becomes how far Karl pushes his players. If he pushes too hard, he could lose his team. The end result could be an implosion. On the other hand, if Karl and his staff don't hold the players accountable when they really need to be held accountable, the team will likely continue to be a team that won't advance any further than the first round of the playoffs.
"I have no desire to be liked," Karl said. "The game of basketball and coaching in the NBA is far from what you all think it is. There's more battles, confrontations and anger on a daily basis. There's more ego management and attitude adjustment on a daily basis than ever before.
"I don't know if they want me to like them or I want them to like me. I think those things just happen by the process of what transpires."
One thing Karl and all of the players seem to understand this season is heads are going to roll if the team continues to falter come playoff time. The response to that by his players, though, has been one which has left Karl feeling optimistic.
"This year's team has more George Karl personality to it than any team I've coached here in Denver. It has more son of a bitches. It has more I'll hit you. It has more guys that want to be mean and angry than cool and pretty. I think that's going to help us.
"Our players have a different spirit to them than we left here four or five months ago. I don't know if it's they know I'm a little bit angry, they know the organization is fed up with losing. I know the Marcus trade shook people in the direction like 'Wow, we're going to get better or something's going to happen.' "
Something is going to happen. That much is certain.
"There's a lot of differences to this team, but there's a challenge to take the differences and make it better," Karl said.
Either the Nuggets will step up to that challenge and prove the vast majority of the pundits wrong or the team will be enveloped by the pressure of the circumstances surrounding this season, which could quite possibly lead to an implosion.
Safe to say it won't be boring this season at Pepsi Center regardless of how this thing plays out.