David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Ty Lawson received a stream of text messages from his Denver Nuggets coach all summer asking the same thing: Are you leading right now?
Leading? The speedy point guard typically was sleeping, since George Karl fired off most of the messages in the middle of the night.
Still, Lawson understood his point. For the Nuggets to take another leap forward, Lawson has to step up and take charge.
So on Monday at media day, Lawson made sure no one would sleep on the Nuggets, pronouncing his team the one to beat in the Western Conference.
A rather bold statement for sure, given the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers picking up Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason.
“We’re so deep, so talented, so versatile,” said Lawson, who was donning the new gold alternate home jersey his team will wear this season. “You can’t just game plan for one person on this team.
“I think we’ll be No. 1 in the West.”
To even entertain such a notion, though, Karl first has to figure out what he’s got on the bench. The Nuggets didn’t just tinker with Karl’s team in the offseason – they overhauled it by shipping key contributors Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo to Orlando as part of the blockbuster deal that landed Howard in Los Angeles. In exchange, Denver wound up with All-Star Andre Iguodala, giving Karl the marquee player he’s been missing since Carmelo Anthony was sent to the Big Apple.
“Is he a bona fide star?” Karl jokingly said.
Sure, Iguodala qualifies – at least as a defensive stalwart.
“Well, cool,” Karl said. “I can’t deny that I’ve been an Iguodala fan for a long time. He’s not a flamboyant player as much as he’s a consistently solid, committed player at both ends of the court. He gives us another piece.”
That’s the thing: The Nuggets certainly have plenty of pieces.
And once again, Karl will try to meld together this collection of parts in an attempt to make the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season.
Karl relishes these kinds of projects. He’s been up at the Nuggets practice facility practically all summer, eager to get the ball rolling again after being eliminated from the playoffs last season by the Lakers in a thrilling seven-game series.
Those same Lakers got that much better with Nash and Howard joining Kobe Bryant & Co.
“I can’t deny that I just despise the Lakers,” Karl said. “I’ve been beaten by them too many times.”
Just recently, Iguodala watched Game 7 against Los Angeles, just to see what transpired. Down big in the second half, the Nuggets rallied late to throw a scare at the Lakers before falling, 96-87.
“You can see the fight and heart of the guys – they kept getting after it,” said Iguodala, who helped Team USA to a gold medal this summer at the London Olympics. “We could be down 20, and our intensity won’t go down.”
Iguodala isn’t sure precisely what his role will be with the Nuggets. The longtime Philadelphia 76ers guard/forward plans to assess the situation in training camp and mold himself to whatever the team needs.
“I’ll fit in just fine,” Iguodala said. “It shouldn’t be hard in this offense. I’m just trying not to press too much early on and not be too unselfish.”
Not be too unselfish?
“When you come into a new scene, you don’t want to give off the wrong impression early, like being this guy who doesn’t pass,” Iguodala explained. “But at the same time, you want to work in, kind of want to get your mojo going. ... Let the guys know I can make plays for them.”
They’re definitely counting on that.
“To have him on the defensive end and offensive end, it’s huge for us,” Lawson said.
So was locking up athletic big man JaVale McGee, who signed a four-year deal in July.
The 24-year-old 7-footer averaged 11.3 points and 2.16 blocked shots in 61 games last year for the Washington Wizards and the Nuggets, who acquired him in the Nenê deal in mid-March. McGee came on in the playoffs, showing his potential against the Lakers.
This offseason, McGee took his commitment up a notch as he traveled to Houston to hone his low-post moves under the watchful eye of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.
“He helped me with my confidence,” McGee said. “Taught me a bunch of moves I can use.”
About the only concern Karl has with his revamped Nuggets is their 3-point shooting. He’s hoping Danilo Gallinari or Corey Brewer can pick up the slack with two of his best long-distance shooters – Harrington and Afflalo – now in Orlando. Wilson Chandler could chip in, too, once he’s fully recovered from left hip surgery.
“We’re ready to go,” Karl said. “We’re stacked all over the place.”
Lawson couldn’t agree more. Asked if the Lakers and Thunder were really all that worried about Denver, Lawson just grinned.
“I’m 100 percent sure of it,” Lawson said. “I know the Thunder is; the Lakers, too. We took them to Game 7, and they upgraded a couple of positions, but I think they’re still definitely afraid of the Nuggets.”