DENVER - Michael Finley seemed like the perfect fit. A two-time NBA All-Star and reliable outside shooter, Finley had newfound free-agent status. And the Denver Nuggets, a team on the cusp of joining the NBA’s elite, appeared only to lack reliable outside shooting. So when Finley, 32, signed with the San Antonio Spurs in the offseason, many considered Denver one of the losers in the transaction. Not Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin. As Denver opened training camp on Oct. 3, Martin insisted he had nothing against Finley, he just wasn’t crazy about seeing Finley in a Nuggets jersey. “Everybody was trying to make it seem like I didn’t like Michael Finley, or I’m badmouthing him,” Martin said. “I wasn’t bad-mouthing him – I just like the guys we have.” That could serve nicely as the 2005-06 slogan for the Nuggets: “I just like the guys we have.” The guys the Nuggets have will open the season tonight in San Antonio against the defending NBA champion Spurs – the team that defeated them in the first round of last season’s Western Conference playoffs. Denver looked at several free agents and even the possibility of some trades in the offseason. But Earl Watson, a backup guard who was signed as a free agent, and draft picks Julius Hodge and Linas Kleiza are the only new faces on the team. And instead of lamenting a quiet summer in free agency, the Nuggets are celebrating it. “If it ain’t broke, man, don’t fix it,” Martin said. “You keep your core guys, add a piece here and there and just work from there.” Coach George Karl and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe have said as much. Karl called the draft and free agency “overrated,” and added that “everybody thinks they’ve solved the problems of the world in the summer, and a lot of them haven’t.” Vandeweghe, meanwhile, pointed to his record as a general manager, noting he’s been active at trade deadlines and drafts, and insisted that he and Karl liked their core group. “We’re not afraid to pull the big deal, I like the activity,” Vandeweghe said. “But sometimes patience is the best thing.” There are several reasons to believe all this is more than spin — more than an excuse for failing to procure a highprofile talent like Finley. First, there’s the Karl factor. Hired mid-way through last season, with the Nuggets struggling at 17-25, Karl initiated a resurgence. Denver went 32-8 under Karl to reach the playoffs. (The Nuggets will begin the season without Karl, who will serve a twogame suspension for violating NBA rules on watching college-eligible players.) Now Karl has a full year to implement his own schemes and tweak the ones he inherited last year. “I’m going to add some things,” Karl said. “There’s going to be some defensive things that I want to do. And they’re going to understand why I want to do them because of training camp more so than if I would have tried to do them last year and just said, ‘Hey, do this.’” Second, Denver’s players — many of whom have been together for several years — seem to be developing valuable chemistry. Numerous players said that is undervalued in the quick-fix atmosphere that surrounds NBA teams. “It’s rare that teams keep together good players and a good nucleus,” center Marcus Camby said. “Usually guys will be together for a year or two and then management breaks up the team for salary cap reasons. I think management has done a good job of managing the salary cap and putting the pieces together that we really need. We just tweaked it a bit.” Both Martin and forward Carmelo Anthony pointed to the Spurs as a model franchise — San Antonio essentialhas kept its roster the same the last several seasons save for a few additions. Both think Denver is wise to build in a similar manner, and the Nuggets appear to be doing so. Six players on the roster have played two or more years in Denver, including four of the projected starters and sixthman Earl Boykins. “That trust and that love you develop playing games together, I think we can have that, because I see it,” Martin said. “It’s the same thing we had in (New) Jersey. We played a lot of games together, so we had that connection. ’m looking forward to that this year).” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Nuggets are healthier this year. Martin had offseason surgery on a knee that he said hampered his play the last two seasons. And Voshon Lenard has returned from the Achilles’ tendon injury that sidelined him for all but three games last year. It is Lenard, as much as anyone, who will determine whether the Nuggets’ decision to keep their core group intact was a wise one. A deadly outside shooter, he could force opposing defenses to respect the Nuggets’ 3-point shooting ability and give Denver a reliable long-range option. And quiet the doubts about whether the Nuggets did enough in the offseason. “We really want to see what this team can do healthy before we change it,” Vandeweghe said. “Change isn’t always the best strategy for improvement. . . . We believe we’re a good team.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0365 or email@example.com
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