[Note: Originally Posted 12-13-2008 at 05:16 AM by DenButsu]
For the Denver Nuggets, nothing has quite gone as expected this season, which I guess in a way is itself to be expected.
Some players have exceeded expectations, while others have fallen short. Among the leading players, Nene, Kenyon Martin and (to the most acclaim) Chauncey Billups have all met and surpassed the level of performance that could reasonably have been expected of them. And while Carmelo Anthony’s shooting got off to a cold start, he has impressed with a new look all-around game that emphasizes defense, rebounding and ball sharing to a greater extent than ever before in his career. And if his recent 45 point game (which included the astonishing feat of tying the NBA’s single quarter scoring record with 33 points) is any indication, he has reclaimed his scoring touch.
Turning to the bench, Renaldo Balkman has proven to be a great pickup for Denver as their new all-purpose utility player and Energizer Bunny (hopping around included). Also bringing sparks – and hops – off the bench are the Birdman Chris Andersen, who is doing a fine job of filling one of Marcus Camby’s rebounding and blocking shoes (playing about half his minutes), and Dahntay Jones who, although he quite frankly has no business being on any starting lineup in the NBA, especially not on a team as talented as the Nuggets, is more than earning his keep with his feisty, harassing defense and his sheer athleticism (he has engineered some truly spectacular blocks this season). With these three players’ salaries adding up to a total that nearly exactly matches Eduardo Najera’s $3,250,000 with the Nets, the Nuggets front office has done a fantastic job of not only replacing Eddie, but doing so in a 3-for-1 package that represents more flexibility and minutes on the court.
But as great as that situation is for Denver, and as important as it is to their new defensively-oriented style of play to have some respectable role players, none of these three can deliver the scoring punch that the Nuggets need off the bench. This task is the domain of J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza. And while both of them had fairly disappointing, shaky starts to the season, Smitty has found his way to rediscovering the stunning game he developed in the latter half of last season. In his last seven games he has, in 23 minutes, averaged 15 points on .506 shooting (.472 from beyond the arc), with 2.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds. He has also not only continued his defensive improvement this season, but is learning to move better without the ball and to do a better job of swinging the ball around to his teammates.
Kleiza, on the other hand, has not only gone flat this season, but he almost seems to have regressed. One surprising aspect of this is that he had some stellar performances in last summer’s Olympics for Lithuania, which gave Nuggets fans some hope that the 23-year-old would continue on a curve of improvement in his young career. But if that kind of progress were meant to be, it as yet is nowhere in sight.
Today’s Rocky Mountain News carries a story about coach George Karl’s concerns:
I wish I could be as confident of LK getting his groove back on the Denver Nuggets as Karl seems to be, but I simply am not. After watching the new incarnation of the team this season, with a slower-paced, more defensive game which looks on offense to execute in the halfcourt more than get out on fast breaks, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Kleiza, who truly can be productive and put up good scoring numbers, sees his effectiveness maximized in a run-and-gun setting. LK is young and he still has the potential to grow and thrive in the NBA, but I believe that the Nuggets no longer provide the right setting for facilitating that process. He is at his finest when his team is frenetically running up and down the court. He’s best at driving to the basket in the flow of a fast moving offense, and he seems to more naturally find a good 3-point shooting rhythm – and he can be deadly when he gets going – when the pace is ratcheted up to fast and furious. He would do much better on the league’s fastest teams, New York or Golden State. But Denver’s train has left that station for a new destination, and he’s still standing on the platform wondering why he’s not going anyplace.
It would be mutually beneficial for both the Nuggets organization and Kleiza himself to part ways at this juncture. Denver, loaded with mid-sized swingmen, would really benefit by acquiring a larger forward or center who could provide additional rebounding and some frontcourt scoring when K-Mart and Nene come off the court. And LK would benefit from going to a team with a faster flow, where perhaps his style of play would have a chance to flourish and develop again.