In an effort to help you identify one particular NBA championship contender, let's enter some impressive clues.
OK, this team has a record of 12-2 against the seven (other) best teams in the league. It has a combined mark of 6-0 against the Los Angeles Lakers (2-0), Cleveland Cavaliers (2-0), Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. Its best player is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NBA and led his college team to the NCAA championship as a freshman.
The veteran point guard is a former Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals and the backup point guard led his team to the NCAA title last season. This team's power forward was the first overall selection when he entered the draft and the veteran coach has been known to make necessary changes that put his players in positions to succeed.
For the record, they have more tattoos in their lineup than a geriatric motorcycle gang, but the team in question is not the Phoenix Suns of Anarchy.
No, even with the previously listed variables on display, most of us still have difficulty embracing the 37-19 Denver Nuggets (ta-da!) as a leading threat to haul off the O'Brien Trophy. We have our reasons. Let's start with eight combined losses against the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks. A recent triumph over the Cavaliers in Cleveland was followed by a loss to the Wizards and another eye-opening victory against Boston.
What gives? How about an inconsistency in mental toughness? More on that later. Quite a few league watchdogs believe the Nuggets suffer the coach-slaying illness of playing to the level of their competition. That may not be too awful ... all of the playoff teams are pretty good, so the Nuggets should be relatively focused when the playoffs begin, right?
Anyway, the aforementioned Denver scoring ace is none other than Carmelo Anthony, generally regarded as a legitimate superstar and the third-best small forward (hello, Kevin Durant!) on the planet. His per-game average of 29 points is amassed through a dizzying variety of midrange and deep jumpers, drives to the hoop or post-up maneuvers against weaker threes. But despite a commitment to becoming a solid leader -- this resolve has been traced to his work on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team -- Anthony still suffers the lowered expectations of critics expecting a knucklehead incident or two when the chips are down.
Ah, there's that word so often lobbed in the Nuggets' direction ... knucklehead.
I've used it to define certain success-harpooning Nuggets employees who ultimately prevent this gifted team from being great. TNT analyst Charles Barkley has used it to describe Denver sixth man J.R. Smith, a skilled offensive player prone to silly flights of fancy on the court and (this season) off-court complaints about how he's being used. All you need to know is that Smith makes just 40 percent of his field-goal attempts, isn't shy about taking them and has yet to employ his physical gifts at a consistent level on defense.
Please note that Smith has had knucklehead company. The power forward referenced earlier is Kenyon Martin, a combustible sort who has nice ability, but also checks in with two DQs so far this season. In an emotionally accelerated playoff landscape, bumping heads with the same guys for several days could inspire someone with Martin's (let's call it) competitive zeal to bring more zeal to the game than is permitted. Unfortunately, the Nuggets were unable to land another bouncy big man during the trading deadline (goodbye, Tyrus Thomas), so losing K-Mart to suspension, for example, would put a target on Denver's back.
While most of us really like the hard work provided by center Nene and front-court sub Chris "Birdman" Andersen, the Nuggets are registered at 20th for success at defensive and offensive rebounding. In a Western Conference that features the big-time rebounding frontline of the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers and a fortified front in Dallas, such meager efforts on the glass can undermine coach George Karl's ability to steer Denver to a title.
Karl, whose name usually comes up a bit later when the sharpies begin discussing current coaching aces, has been pretty good at adapting style to fit talent in a world compromised by large salaries and even larger egos. George's best Seattle SuperSonics teams featured nasty defense and structured offense. Working in Denver, Karl even incorporated elements of the dribble-drive motion offense to better assist the talents of Anthony and former Nugget Allen Iverson.
Unable to outgun the enemy, George -- with Chauncey Billups replacing A.I. early in the 2008-09 season -- pushed for a stronger commitment to defense and many of his players responded. So, with Billups providing leadership and timely sniping last season, a more mature Anthony and his teammates were able to end a streak of five consecutive first-round elimination nightmares. They even reached the conference finals, where Kobe Bryant and a couple of lousy inbounds passes enabled the Lakers to survive and advance.
Let's get back to the mental toughness thing. OK, so when toughness is mentioned in any context, players and fans have a tendency to conjure images of strategically delivered elbows, chest-thumping celebrations and sneer-accentuated poses following a nasty dunk. But real toughness involves such issues as hustling back on defense after a turnover, setting a proper screen, blocking out before pursuing a rebound and remaining positive during times of adversity.
This is where Karl's previous Denver teams have struggled. Based on contracts and other calamities associated with the pro game, it's difficult for a coach to accrue enough currency to enforce requirements for mental toughness. But the Nuggets are getting better. I'm really hoping for much more than improvement in Karl's battle with cancer; his team certainly is capable of winning the NBA title and it would be great if his health allows him to enjoy the ride.
If you believe the knucklehead factor may be real in Denver, also remember that the Lakers (with newcomer) Ron Artest aren't exactly immune. The Celtics still employ Rasheed Wallace. Orlando's Dwight Howard isn't considered a card-carrying knucklehead, but questioning your coach's tactics may not demonstrate wisdom or leadership during a playoff run.
And sometimes the difference between a fatal lack of mental toughness and ultimate glory is nothing more than the flight of a basketball toward the hoop as the clock expires.