Nuggets could ease to playoffs

Oct 31, 2006 1:51 AM

Nothing can be taken for granted, but it would appear the Denver Nuggets again have the easiest road to the NBA playoffs.

Coach George Karl’s crew posted the worst record of any division winner last year (44-38), but it was plenty good enough to take first place and secure postseason action. Caesars Palace projects Denver for 43½ wins, or roughly the same record.

No other team in the NBA Northwest is projected higher. In fact, Portland, at 24½, is seen in Vegas books as the worst team in the league for the second straight year. The Blazers finished with just 21 wins a season ago, edging out New York (23) and Atlanta (26) for that dubious honor.

So, the Nuggets should be a loose bunch. Denver starts the season with just two games the first week — Thursday at the LA Clippers and Friday against Minnesota at the Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets have now become Carmelo Anthony’s team. The former Syracuse standout emerged from the shadow of his friend and contemporary LeBron James, averaging a career high 26.5 points in his third NBA season and joined the Cavs star on Team USA in the world championships.

Anthony has never averaged less than 20 in any season with the Nuggets, but last year he established himself as the team’s top clutch player and "go-to" guy when the team needed to make a key shot.

For Denver to advance in the playoff, a lot more will be needed than just Anthony. First, a healthy Marcus Camby is vital. Camby is one of the league’s top rebounders and shot-blockers and can provide more than decent scoring from both the paint and perimeter. But twice in his career Camby has played less than 30 games in a season. If that happens this year, the Nuggets will be an also-ran.

Another huge question mark is Nene Hilario, who missed the entire season a year ago with knee surgery. If Nene plays, the Nuggets will have good frontline depth and much pressure will be taken off Camby.

Andre Miller is a durable and steady guard, more of a scorer than a shotmaker and assist man, though he does both adequately. The Nuggets will also have to work on defense, which at times allowed opponents to run the transition game at will.

Projection: There’s not much in this division, so Denver becomes the favorite to win the Northwest again. The West is loaded again, leaving the Nuggets a probable first or second round loser in the playoffs.