Nuggets can't waste time 

End Zone

This week the pro basketball world has its focus on the NBA Finals, starting Thursday night with a best-of-seven match made in heaven for the largest-possible TV audience.

Boston vs. Los Angeles. Celtics against the Lakers, 2008 champs vs. 2009 champs. Paul Pierce vs. Kobe Bryant, the past two Finals' most valuable players. Strong supporting cast vs. strong supporting cast.

And meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets sit in their living rooms, remembering a year ago when they came so close. How they stood up to the Lakers in the conference finals, winning Game 2 in Los Angeles and pushing that series to six games.

Last June, hoops fans should recall, the Lakers had an easier time with Orlando in the championship series, dispatching the Magic in five games and wrapping up the title with two wins at Orlando.

That outcome left the Nuggets feeling they were on the cusp of history. All they needed was to break through against the Lakers, and the rest would fall into place.

Twelve months later, the view has changed. Denver, after making minimal offseason changes, faced its biggest obstacle when head coach George Karl missed considerable time in his battle with throat and neck cancer. Though the Nuggets pulled out another division title, they lost the cohesion and selflessness that made them so stout in the 2009 postseason.

They exited this year's playoffs in the first round, meekly falling to an inferior Utah team. So, even with Karl talking optimistically of a comeback, that doesn't mean the Nuggets should try to hang on with their current roster for one more run next season.

It's certainly not about making a splash in the upcoming draft. Denver has zero selections in the June 24 pick-fest of top prospects. Perhaps the Nuggets would trade a future draft choice for something this year, but that likely wouldn't happen in the first round. It's a deep enough draft (with talent, not necessarily recognizable names) that Denver might look in the second round for a shooter and/or somebody physical who might help inside.

What the front office surely will do in the weeks ahead is make a few tough personnel decisions, then plug the weaknesses still standing in the way of the Nuggets perhaps knocking off the Lakers.

Nene, the 6-foot-11 Brazilian center who has tantalized Denver with his unrealized potential for eight seasons, should be traded. This isn't news to Nuggets followers, many of whom have been saying the same thing. But he's still just 27, and nobody questions his personality, so he should be marketable if another team will swallow his $11.4 million salary.

J.R. Smith, the enigmatic guard whose poor behavior and inconsistency have overshadowed his awesome shooting ability, also should go, along with his $6 million salary (and just one year left on his contract). The market will be brimming with possible replacements.

Anthony Carter, who never would start at point guard for a title contender, has no place as the backup after Ty Lawson showed so much promise as a rookie.

Obviously, with so much money already tied up in the team's nucleus — Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups — you won't see the Nuggets bidding for marquee free agents such as LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh. But other free agents at the second and third levels would jump at the chance to join the likes of Carmelo and Billups. One possibility would be Leon Powe of Cleveland, a big body who helped Boston win the 2008 title.

Also, Denver was trying a year ago to trade for another inside player, 6-foot-10 Tyrus Thomas, who was dealt from Chicago to Charlotte during the past season. Watch for him as a possible pickup.

The guess here is that the Nuggets will give another chance to Chris "Birdman" Andersen, who was so useful a year ago, then injury-prone in 2009-10.

But Denver truly needs one more vital contributor, somebody who could help provide more offensive spark, somebody who could give the Nuggets a chance to be playing next June.

Can they find that one missing link? The search starts now.



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