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Lacking a superstar, Nuggets will be underdogs

DENVER -- George Karl wasn't being difficult. He just wanted his "glue guy."

And the Denver Nuggets coach certainly wasn't being demanding. He just coveted his underrated center.

That's why Karl pleaded and petitioned with the front office to bring back both guard Arron Afflalo and Brazilian big man Nene.

Management listened and locked them up with five-year deals.

The perfect holiday presents.

To Karl, Afflalo and Nene were the building blocks he needed to make a run at a ninth straight playoff appearance. Karl doesn't require a superstar, just stability. He doesn't need a headliner, only hard workers.

Karl's philosophy will once again be this: Keep rotating in fresh players from his deep bench. It's a formula that worked last season in the wake of the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks last February. The team went 18-7 down the stretch, before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.

He believes this way of playing can be sustained over the course of an entire season, even if it's somewhat abbreviated because of the lockout. And Karl is eager to put his theory to the test.

"The best team wins championships," Karl said, placing heavy emphasis on the word team.

That said, Karl needed pieces to work with. And not just any pieces, but Afflalo, a restricted free agent, and Nene, who entertained offers to leave Denver, but elected to stay in the city where he began his career in 2002.

With those two, the Nuggets tied up nearly $110 million in payroll. Money well spent in the eyes of Karl.

"Nene texted me, he said, "I'm coming. I'm coming,'" Karl said.

That made Karl's day. Nene, who averaged 14.5 points last season, will be counted on even more, with Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith leaving for China. Those three could be back in the future, but not until they fulfill their obligations overseas.

Nene is a skilled offensive player who has a deft touch around the basket and can run the floor. The knock on him, though, is sometimes he disappears during stretches of games.

"Nene can do a lot of things," said guard Andre Miller, who's making his return to the Mile High City after being acquired from Portland in a draft-night trade that sent Raymond Felton to the Blazers. "He brings a lot of toughness."

And Afflalo provides the glue to keep this team bonded together. Ever since the lockout was lifted, Karl has been preaching the importance of getting Afflalo into the fold, especially after he played an integral role in the team's success late last season. Afflalo has a Chauncey Billups leadership quality to him, Karl said recently.

Lofty praise -- and big shoes for Afflalo to fill.

"I'm excited to be more of a leader of the team," Afflalo said.

The Nuggets realize they will be overlooked this season. They don't have a bona fide star or a household name on the roster. The closest thing they have is Danilo Gallinari, who averaged 14.7 points after arriving in Denver following the Anthony trade.

But Karl insisted having one is merely a luxury and not a mandate.

To him, the Dallas Mavericks proved that point in winning the NBA title last season. They had one focal point (it helped that his name was Dirk Nowitzki) and a reliable complement of players.

That's what the Nuggets boast. They have the speedy Ty Lawson running the show, along with Miller, Afflalo, Gallinari and Nene.

Chris "Birdman" Andersen and Al Harrington should provide depth off the bench. So will rookie Kenneth Faried, who was a rebounding machine at Morehead State as he averaged 14.5 boards his final season.

Karl also speaks highly on Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1 Russian center who's having a very solid training camp.

This helps too: The Nuggets acquired Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from Dallas last week. More pieces for Karl to tinker with.

"I can't deny you get excited," Karl said. "What we're trying to do is start where we left off last year and I think we feel now we can get there.

"Maybe there will be some pieces that will be different and we might not be as good in certain areas, but I think we can get to the point where some of the success we had last season can be repeated."

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