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End Zone: Nuggets worth preserving 

As the Denver Nuggets finished off their biggest win in franchise history Monday night, dismantling the Los Angeles Lakers to turn the Western Conference Finals into a best-of-three climax, a different thought came to mind.

It had nothing to do with strategy, effort or attitude. Nothing to do with weaknesses or missing links, a common lament for a team this close to a championship.

This feeling was something that happens only rarely in the National Basketball Association, sometimes not even for teams that rule the league. Denver's front office, starting with owner Stan Kroenke, has to keep this group together, as much as possible, no matter how far this Denver Dream goes now.

That conclusion was inescapable on a night when the Nuggets officially proved they could topple the mighty Lakers in this series, a night when they won even as their marquee star, Carmelo Anthony, battled stomach flu and took an IV at halftime.

Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, Nené and Dahntay Jones simply stepped up the energy and aggressiveness. And Denver's other not-so-secret weapon — the bench, led by J.R. Smith and Chris "Birdman" Andersen, but with Linas Kleiza also a big factor — wore down the Lakers and guaranteed a Game 6 on Friday night back in Pepsi Center.

Even though the Nuggets came up short in Game 5 on Wednesday, leaving them with the daunting challenge of winning Friday and Sunday to topple the Lakers this time, it's clear now that Denver has the right mixture of players (along with head coach George Karl) to make another run next season.

This is how it was for the Broncos after they lost unexpectedly in the 1996 playoffs, before their two consecutive Super Bowl wins. Same for the Colorado Avalanche after winning the Stanley Cup in its first season (1995-96) at Denver.

When you're lucky enough to have so many of the right ingredients in place, you don't want to mess with anything.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to bring back the entire 13-man roster, if only because of the NBA's salary limitations and the Nuggets already in danger of having to pay a substantial "luxury tax" next season.

The good news: Anthony, Billups, Martin, Nené and Smith already are locked up for 2009-10 and for 2010-11. Andersen and Jones are free agents. The rejuvenated Birdman could command about $3 million a year, but with all the emotion and shot-blocking he brings, the Nuggets would suffer a noticeable loss if they let him go. Jones likely would stay for minimal money, but he could be replaced.

Kleiza is another wild card because of his inconsistency. At times during the postseason, he has looked worthy of being re-signed. Denver certainly could use him for inside depth over the long regular season, and he's capable of elevating his game even more. If Kleiza could improve to the point of producing regularly as he did in Game 4 against the Lakers (10 points, 2-of-3 from 3-point range and no turnovers in 13 minutes), it would be a no-brainer to keep him. The salary-cap reality, though, is that Denver might have to choose between Birdman and Kleiza. That's a difficult but clear-cut choice for Andersen, unless another team wants to pay him something outrageous.

There's also the matter of who will back up Billups at point guard. Anthony Carter has that job now, but he's an unrestricted free agent. Denver also could use its one draft pick (No. 34, early in the second round) for somebody like UCLA's Darren Collison or St. Mary's Patrick Mills. Carter's age (33) probably limits his marketability, so he could return for minimal money if the draft doesn't help.

Something else worth mentioning: As close as Denver already is to the NBA title, some veterans in their mid-30s might offer their services to the Nuggets for the minimum, just to have a shot at a ring. Grant Hill comes to mind, along with ex-Nugget Bobby Jackson, another point guard.

In other words, the Nuggets' fascinating story won't end when their postseason does.

First, though, let's see if Denver and/or Orlando can ruin the NBA's fantasy matchup of L.A.'s Kobe Bryant vs. Cleveland's LeBron James. It could happen. Now, and perhaps again next year.

routon@csindy.com

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