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Denver is an Unhappy Family

The first line of Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina' says "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  The ultimate goal of an NBA team remains to compete for a championship (I won't say win, because all you can do is build a team that is good enough to win - whether you actually get the ring depends on a million other factors).  By that standard, your team either needs to be at that level, or have a reasonable chance of getting there in the foreseeable future.  Happy NBA teams are in the hunt - everyone else is unhappy.

The Clippers are certainly an unhappy family right now, but in their own way.  (Let's face it, they've always been an unhappy family, and are as close to happy today as they have been in any off-season in the team's California history other than two years ago.  But they still have problems.)  They may be deluding themselves, but the Clippers believe they have a roster capable of competing, but that they were forced into the lottery by injuries.  We'll see.

Some lottery teams have hope in the form of young, developing talent.  Some have hope in the form of loads of room under the salary cap.  Some have both.  And some lottery teams have no hope at all - like the Knicks.

And then there are the playoff teams, who in some cases are even worse off.  The lottery teams have hit bottom - they don't have to worry about hanging onto anything, because they have nothing.  High draft picks are their reason to hope, and merely competing for a playoff spot (infinitely easier than competing for a ring) will likely appease their fans for a while. 

The Mavericks were eliminated in 5 games by the Hornets.  And although New Orleans had the second best record in the Western Conference, it still FEELS like an insult to the once-mighty Mavs.  With 3 wins in their last 15 playoff games, the Mavs fired their coach, who only a couple of seasons ago was the NBA Coach of the Year and still ranks near the top in career winning percentage.

The Suns may soon part ways with their own former COY, and now their window for winning a championship has been hermetically sealed - Nash is 34 and Shaq is 35, and against the Spurs they looked their age and then some.

But of the 16 playoff teams, none is in a worse position than the Denver Nuggets.  There's the simple fact that they're the only team to have been swept in this season's playoffs.  But it goes beyond that.  You could argue that they have more of a chance to compete next season than the Suns - after all, Iverson (32) and Camby (34) played like relative spring chickens compared to Nash and Shaq while Carmelo Anthony hasn't even entered his prime yet.  But Denver has other issues.

Like the salary cap.  The Nuggets have the third highest payroll in basketball, and unlike the Mavs, an owner who has no interest in paying the luxury tax indefinitely.  Stan Kroenke accepted the tab for the Allen Iverson trade on the assumption that he was buying a LOT of playoff wins.  Instead, he got one win followed by 8 straight losses.  With Allen Iverson scheduled to make close to $22M next season, and four other players (Anthony, Martin, Camby and Nene) in contracts that each average over $10M per, the Nuggets have nowhere to go.  Because none of those contracts are particularly trade friendly.  To be specific - Anthony could be traded, but they won't do that.  Martin and Nene are the definition of untradeable.  No one is going to take 32 year old Allen Iverson for $22M for one year.  And I'm not sure that anyone is particularly interested in 34 year old Marcus Camby for $22M for two years.

Like public relations.  J.R. Smith was the driver in a crash that resulted in the death of his friend last June.  Carmelo Anthony, after incidents involving marijuana in his backpack and in his car, not to mention the whole 'stop snitching' fiasco, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence a few weeks ago.  (I remember quotes from Anthony about being a 'leader' and a 'mentor' to Smith at the time of Smith's ordeal, and thinking he'd have to do some growing up of his own.)  Allen Iverson and Kenyon Martin are anything but choir boys.  And of course there was the fight with the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last season.  If Portland put together the Jail-blazers, doesn't this team deserve a similar moniker?  Call them the Denver-tentiary Nuggets.  Their on-court behavior (7 technical fouls in 4 games against the Lakers) only re-enforces the negative image.

Like underachieving.  Yes, the Nuggets won 50 games this season.  But right or wrong, with two All Star game starters, the defending defensive player of the year, and all those big contracts, the expectations are pretty high. 

The Nuggets have a decision to make about Allen Iverson this summer.  Do they extend him?  Do they re-sign him if he exercises his early termination option?  Smith is a restricted free agent, and that decision will be even tougher.  And they still don't have a viable solution at point guard, nor do they have the ability to sign one without going back above the luxury tax.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the Mile High City this summer.