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Youthful Nuggets Among The Top Contenders In West

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Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets grabs a rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 10, 2012 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets grabs a rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 10, 2012 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

DENVER (AP) – George Karl just doesn’t get the sudden infatuation with his young team.

The Denver Nuggets have turned into a trendy pick this season to be a top contender in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. But the fascination with his squad has the longtime coach a bit mystified.

Because really, what’s changed since last season when the Nuggets were once again knocked out of the playoffs in the first round?

Sure, they added defensive stopper Andre Iguodala as part of the blockbuster deal that landed Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers. And granted, athletic big man JaVale McGee will have a full year on board. But other than that, this is largely the same core of players – the one lacking a bona fide “star.”

Still, prognosticators are predicting Denver will accomplish great things. Some even have them winning the West.

“Why did we come from nowhere to onto the radar?” Karl said after a recent practice. “Why all these other people have jumped onto our bandwagon, I have no idea.”

Karl’s explosive point guard understands the enchantment with the team in sky blue and yellow. About time, too.

Ty Lawson has been stumping for more respect all preseason, even crowing that the Nuggets are indeed the ones to beat in the West. He drew quite a bit of flak in social media circles for that recent assertion, but he’s not budging from his boast. It wasn’t meant to needle or irritate anyone, either, just draw some attention toward his team.

The Oklahoma City Thunder may have Kevin Durant and the Lakers an All-Star crew led by Kobe Bryant, but the Nuggets have strength in numbers and a defensive presence with Iguodala, who can lock down the opposition’s top offensive threat.

“We are one of the best in the West,” Lawson recently reiterated.

Karl just rolled his eyes. The Nuggets are still young for this kind of conversation and still trying to blend all the pieces to find just the right mix.

“We’ve got to learn how to be good,” said Karl, whose team lost to the Lakers in Game 7 last season. “There’s a process of being more professional, more prepared, more focused, more disciplined, to be a really good team.”

The most intriguing player for the Nuggets could be McGee, whom Denver acquired late last season. The team made a commitment to McGee by re-signing the versatile center to a four-year, $44 million deal in the offseason.

In turn, McGee rewarded their commitment by stepping up his game in the gym. He traveled to Houston over the summer to work with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon on some low-post moves. Now, the player known more as a shot blocker may just provide a scoring presence in the paint.

Another element for teams to deal with.

“You just can’t have a game plan to guard just two people with us,” Lawson said. “Teams have to pick their poison.”

It all starts with Lawson, the revved-up engine that powers this squad. He averaged 16 points and nearly seven assists a game last season – numbers the Nuggets are hoping to see soar in 2012-13.

“It’s a big year for him,” executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said. “We’re going to ask more of him.”

Iguodala, too.

These days, the All-Star is spending extra time in the gym, working on his jumper. The longtime Philadelphia 76er standout is the closest thing the Nuggets have to a marquee player since trading away Carmelo Anthony.

So far, Iguodala likes what he sees.

“We have a lot of weapons,” said Iguodala, who won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA over the summer in London. “If we use those weapons to our advantage – if everyone can explode in their area – that makes us a very dangerous team.”

That said, there remain some questions surrounding this squad:

- Can Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer become the long-range shooters the Nuggets are searching for?

- Will Wilson Chandler‘s surgically repaired hip hold up to the grind?

- Can Kenneth Faried, a rebounding beast on the boards in his rookie season, take another next step forward?

- Will the trio of McGee, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos be able to contain the likes of Howard and Tim Duncan in the middle?

- And maybe the biggest one of all: How will the team handle the increased pressure as a favorite in the West?

“As a coach, I’m always nervous about all the hype,” Karl said. “We’re young and so you worry a little bit. … We haven’t proven anything. We’re a team that played good in the first round (of the playoffs) and lost.

“It doesn’t seem we should be getting as much love.”

- By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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