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Game two of hell-weak continues, with the rejuvenated Nuggets rolling into town, holding a slim half-game lead for 8th in the West. This game couldn’t showcase two more fundamentally different teams: the up-tempo Nuggets, and the half-court Raptors.

It occurred to me that the Nuggets are one of those teams that have thoroughly dominated the Raptors over the years; you have to go back to March 23, 2007 for the last time the Raptors won a game against them. For those who are counting, that’s a 1-10 record over the last five years against this team.

After speaking with the guys from Roundball Mining Company, the loss of Masai Ujiri from the Raptors front-office is really weighing on me. I’m sure he provided value during his tenure here, but the only contribution he made, that I can recall, was drafting Solo in the 2nd round. People spoke highly of him, but I could never figure out why:

The Nuggets made quite the surprising splash at the deadline shipping newly signed Nene to the Wizards for McGee. While I thought Nene got overpaid for his production, I was stunned they made that move. What was the reasoning behind the trade; had to have been the money, right?
Kalen Deremo: Strictly money. You can’t tell me a guy who’s been with the organization his entire career and was heavily cajoled to return this offseason was dumped solely because of his production, which wasn’t even bad. The Nuggets overpaid Nene and clearly weren’t comfortable with it. Also, Kenneth Faried probably had a little something to do with it.
Charlie Yao: The trade was definitely financially motivated, as the Nuggets exchanged almost $60 million in future salary commitments for just under $7 million (I loved how Hollinger described it as basically amnestying Nene while grabbing McGee’s rights). Beyond all of the future flexibility it opens up, which made it easier to sign Wilson Chandler long term, I believe there were a number of other reasons that caused the Nuggets to ask for a refund on their highest paid player. Ever since the franchise stepped out of Carmelo Anthony’s shadow, I think they had high hopes for Nene as a guy who would step up and become even more valuable as a focal point of the Nuggets’ new identity. They may have been a little hurt after seeing Nene turn down an extension, opt out and sign such a huge deal only to coast through the start of the season and look like a fragile player on the decline more than a rising star.

As you know, Masai Ujiri was part of the Raptors front office before taking the reigns of the Nuggets; how do you rate him as an NBA executive?
Kalen: The Nene trade was the only thing that hasn’t sat well with me, otherwise Ujiri has exceeded most fans’ expectations and then some. I’d say he’s a top five general manager already, maybe even top three. It’s really too bad the Raptors couldn’t see what was right beneath their nose because they truly had something special.
Charlie: Masai has been fantastic as part of the youngest executive team in the league alongside 31 year-old President and Owner Josh Kroenke. At times, I think they’re inexperience and eagerness has hurt them in terms of negotiating finances with the young players they badly want on the team. However, Masai has definitely proven to be a shrewd, calculating manager who isn’t afraid to hurt feelings and hold people accountable. I think he’s exactly the guy this franchise needed to guide them into the next era of Nuggets basketball.

Looks like you got a keeper in Kenneth Faried; how polished is the rookie, and how big a beneficiary will he be in the low post with Nene gone and McGee apt to run amok at any given moment?
Kalen: Faried has a long way to go. He’s better offensively than people give him credit for but he still doesn’t understand many aspects of the NBA game. He will improve in time and once he does the rest of the league will be in trouble. His motor is unreal. He has the ability to be Rodmanesque one day.
Charlie: Faried is far from a finished product, but he’s clearly Denver’s best draft pick since Melo and a guy they can feel comfortable building around as pillar for future success. His biggest problem right now is guarding the perimeter and learning how to make himself a legitimate option in the half court offense. Kenneth Faried just finds his way into so many hustle plays I think he’s one of the funnest guys to watch in the NBA and one of the more slept-on rookies thanks to the fact it took George Karl twenty-some games to start playing him.

How good is this Nuggets team? Can they make a deep playoff, if in fact they do make the playoffs (currently 9th) run given the strength of the West?
Kalen:  That’s the million-dollar question right there. If you ask me, this Nuggets team has the talent to be Top 4 in the West; too bad it doesn’t have the drive. George Karl hasn’t had his best year of coaching and it’s really too bad, because if this team gets healthy and has home-court advantage come May, it could do some damage in the Playoffs. I truly believe that when healthy and when Karl is actually motivated, this is the third best team in the West behind the Thunder and Spurs.
Charlie:  I keep having to remind myself this team has been re-invented several times since the Melo trade and is still in the early stages of developing a winner’s mentality. I would say this is a good team, albeit way too inconsistent to be considered close to a serious contender. The strange thing about this lockout-shortened year is that outside of the Thunder, the West is the most wide-open it’s been in about a decade. They are definitely on the same level as the six or seven other teams fighting for playoff spots and I could see them winning a first round series with a favorable matchup.

The Nuggets have won 10 of the last 11 against the Raptors dating back to March 23, 2007 (seriously); that’s six years of sheer dominance over Toronto. What will the Raptors have to do to win this game, and if you were a betting man, call it.
Kalen: If I was a betting man I wouldn’t get near this one. Who knows which Nuggets team is going to show up any given night. It could be the one who trounced the Heat or the one who got blown out by Timberwolves. Truth is the Nuggets are three-quarters through the season and still searching for an identity. That said, if I had to bet I’d take the Nuggets, just because they are coming off an impressive win against Chicago and are an overall better team than Toronto.
Charlie:  Toronto has always been a team more than happy to oblige the Nuggets free and easy, up and down style of play. I think they’ll need to force a half court game and beat the Nuggets inside in order to win, as Denver’s just too good in the open court. If I were a betting man, I’d go with the Nuggets to win a close one, but nothing would surprise me as Denver has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on since the All-Star break and remains a a vulnerable team.

I went back at Kalen about being stunned by his assessment of Ujiri; I always considered the Melo trade more of James Dolan acting a fool and getting in over his head than a masterful coup d’état, but it seemed to be the tip of the iceberg:

Kalen: Yeah, top three. This team has talent. It’s so deep too. When Gallinari is healthy, the Nuggets really are a threat. He’s a game-changer for sure. That’s why this season has been so frustrating. Gallo has been injured most of it, and outside of Oklahoma City the West is as mediocre as we’ve seen in quite some time. Most fans either want the team to start going young to get a higher draft pick in what looks like a great draft, or get it together and make a strong push toward the playoffs. Right now, the Nuggets are doing neither and it’s difficult to swallow.

As for Ujiri, dude, the guy knows what he’s doing. The Solomon Alabi thing… I’ll tell you what, I think he’s got too much of a soft spot for African prospects. He traded for Chukwudiebere Maduabum (who!?!?) in this last year’s draft despite guys like Julyan Stone (who the Nuggets later signed) and Isaiah Thomas still on the board. Outside of that idiosyncrasy, Ujiri is a iron-balled assassin when it comes to running a basketball team. What he did in the Melo trade was mind-boggling. He killed it in last year’s draft, somehow managed to convince Nene — who was dead set on leaving — to return and re-signed Afflalo, Gallinari and Chandler, all of whom could easily have gone to a different destination. To be real candid, I didn’t like the way he disposed of Chauncey or Nene — two franchise pillars and important parts of the Denver community — but I can’t sit here and tell you they were bad basketball moves because they weren’t.

The reason I said it was unfortunate Toronto couldn’t retain him is because he would be the perfect guy for the Raptors right now. You give him high lottery picks and he’ll give you as a title-contender. I firmly believe that.

I highly recommend you check their blog out, these guys are on the ball, and have a lot of interesting things to say; also, sorry for the 1500 words of conversation before any real pre-game action.

The loss of Bayless for the rest of the season is a big blow to this team; Calderon can’t play 35+ minutes, night-after-night, and be expected to perform optimally. The Raptors have gone out and signed D-Leaguer in Alan Anderson (2nd 10-day contract), and Ben Uzoh. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter since these are deep bench guys, at best, unless we have a Lin on our hands. DeRozan is day-to-day, but expected to play, which helps the backcourt, shifting Forbes back to the bench; he can provide relief running the 2nd unit. Either way, if DeRozan plays, both he and Calderon will log heavy minutes.

Keys to the Game

  • The Nuggets are rebounding beasts; putting in a full team effort crashing the boards. They are 3rd in the league in rebounding rate, pulling down 51.8% of available missed shots. This is key as they are 2nd in the league in pace, and 1st in assist. These guys get out on the break, share the ball, and score at will. The Raptors can’t play that game, and need big showings from Amir, Davis and Bargnani on the glass, especially on the offensive boards.
  • This goes to the last point, but the Raptors can’t into an an up-and-down game with the Nuggets; this is plays right in to their strengths of ball movement between athletic guys. Ty Lawson especially; the kid is lightning fast an can abuse the Raptors transition defense if given the space to operate.
  • Also going back to the 1st point, the Raptors need to move the ball around, and take smart shots. The last thing they need is to take a contested shot, not get the rebound and be on their heals in transition; bad things will happen.
  • Bargnani needs to find his groove, again. There is nobody on this Nuggets team that can hang with him if he regains his early season form. Fortunately, he’ll be afforded the opportunity to get into an offensive groove with the weak Nuggets defense in the front-court.
  • Forbes is playing for next season, and the third game in a row where he’ll get big minutes will go a long way in adding zero’s onto his next contract. This whole game will be a sort of heat-check for the guard, after posting two straight impressive games in DeRozan’s absence.

The Line

The Nuggets are 5.5 point favourites; couple that with a loss to Minnesota and a win against the Bulls…I have no idea what to expect. The Raptors play of late (forget the Orlando game, the Nuggets don’t have a dominant player like Dwight to run a train on the Raptors) has me hopeful that this will be a tight game. Ultimately, it comes down to the whole sum-of-the-parts thing with them. At some point, Bargnani needs to step-up and produce; there’s only so much hustle and determination can do for you when your franchise player isn’t carrying his load.

For those of you who care.

Photo Credit: Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images