Benjamin - I'm a huge Nuggets fan, but I can't seem to believe the hype around the team right now. Are they anything more than mediocre?
-- Tom, Baltimore
Here's what I think, Tom. This Nuggets team is better than last year's team, and last year's team was close to cracking the top echelon in the Western Conference (except they dealt with the suspensions, which cost them some games). Now, I'm not saying this Nuggets team is in that echelon right now, but they have all the pieces to contend - it's just a matter of getting all those pieces healthy.
Beyond their two luminaries, they have THREE dominant post players. Most teams have one, maybe two. And the Nuggets have a fascinating backcourt because they have five guys who can contribute differently, which is a luxury for a coach like George Karl, who sets his rotation depending on the opponent. Chucky Atkins and Anthony Carter can pass well, run the point and play defense. Yakhouba Diawara isn't that great offensively, but he can be inserted to rattle a guy on defense. And J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza are 3-point weapons (though Kleiza is bigger, and will play more three and, sometimes, even some four).
Look - San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and even New Orleans (when healthy) can all say their lineups are just as dynamic. But the Nuggets are playing pretty well now without all their key cogs. Like George Karl said at Sunday's shootaround, "The personality of our team isn't going to be determined until we're healthy." So, I think the Nuggets are more than mediocre. How do they compare to the other top teams? We'll know better as the bench gets longer.
When is Chucky Atkins expected to return to the Nuggets' lineup? Has he been practicing at all? Thanks.
-- Andrew Fredenberg, Michigan
Hey, Andrew. Chucky said he is making good progress on his groin. He is running a little, working on cutting. He will gradually return to practice next week, and he said he'll probably return to action by mid-December.
I think he can really help this team. I think Chucky will play off Allen Iverson quite nicely, allowing A.I. to relax and play his game, without worrying about running the offense. Who knows just how great Chucky will be, but having him healthy gives coach Karl another weapon. And if Chucky is having a bad night, then they can just insert Anthony Carter, not much of a drop-off. And, really, with the way Carter is playing, there's going to be a fight for minutes as Iverson's running mate.
What is your favorite basketball card of all time?
-- David Altholz, Chicago
David - I was a big card nerd growing up, and my favorite card was, indisputably, 1990-91 SkyBox basketball cards. They were ahead of their time. These looked like the cards that Elroy Jetson would have collected. They had a shiny golden border, a cut-out photo of your favorite stars in short-shorts, which were placed on a colorful computerized background. These cards even made John Stockton look cool.
How's Nene progressing? Is he getting his body in shape now that it's just his finger that's hurt?
-- Rob Knight, Tranas, Sweden
Rob - Nene has been working hard in the gym to stay in shape, despite the cast on his thumb keeping him from playing on the court. I know the Nuggets have learned about Nene's fluctuating weight from previous times he was injured, and they are working hard to make sure he stays in game shape. I spoke to the strength coach and even the team chef, who both mentioned their meticulous preparation for keeping Nene in shape.
What is the difference between a "practice" and a "shootaround"?
-- Don N., Denver
Good question, Don. The Nuggets hold one-hour shootarounds at 10 a.m. on game mornings. These are light sessions where the coaches go over that night's opponent and then players literally shoot around, getting loose and accustomed to the main court (practices are on the Nuggets' practice court, on the second floor at Pepsi Center).
Practices are held on days when the team doesn't play. These are often intense sessions for a couple hours, where the coaches install plays and dissect upcoming opponents. There is often five-on-five scrimmaging, ideal for coaches to mix and match different players - and for the team to work on different plays. After the practices, some players will work with individual assistant coaches, going over shooting, dribbling and passing techniques. Other players will work on their half-court shots.