Can Nene Live Up To His Contract?

Nene, the $67 million man.

‘Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.’
‘He’s injury-prone.’
‘He disappears in the playoffs.’
‘He’s not a good enough rebounder or defender.’
‘He’s too soft.’
‘I can shoot free throws better than he can.’
‘He’s too unselfish.’

You name it, and Nene’s critics have said it. In fact, it is hard to find a player on the Denver Nuggets that has been more criticized than the Nuggets’ 29-year-old big man. And now, after signing a $67 million deal for five years, the pressure is on Nene to prove the skeptics wrong.

He has to be a more intimidating force on the glass and on defense, as well as play more consistently on both sides of the ball. But above all he has to stay healthy over the course of the five-year deal.

Luckily enough, the Nuggets have the luxury to help Nene succeed. Coach George Karl, who has raved about Nene’s importance to the team, has declared he wants to move the Brazilian big man back to his original position at power forward.

“I like being big, but I also playing fast and quick,” Karl told The Fan on Wednesday.

For the previous three seasons, Nene has suited up out of position at center where he has been able to consistently put up around 14 points and 8 rebounds a game. He even had his career bests in the 2008-09 season, when he averaged 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds. But playing out of position still didn’t suit Nene. He would wear down as the game would go on and many nights he would find himself going against two players of similar size.

Nene, like most big man, thrives against smaller players, which makes the move all that more important for him and the Nuggets’ success. He also is a much better on-the-ball defender than help defender, which was probably his biggest struggle at center. He only blocked more than a 100 shots once in his career (101 in 2006-07), but has surpassed 100 steals three times. He also has the versatility to be a good pick-and-roll defender.

Nene hasn’t played power forward since the 2006-07 season and was at his best during the Nuggets’ first-round matchup against Tim Duncan in the 2007 playoffs. Against Duncan, Nene averaged 15.2 points and 7.8 rebounds and even shot over .58 percent from the field, .78 percent from the line, all the while doing an admirable job on Duncan. The Spurs’ big man averaged 20.2 points and 10.6 rebounds, but shot only .473 from the field. Duncan’s averages throughout the 2007 playoffs were 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and .521 from the field.

Playing power forward also makes Nene more of a threat on offense, where the Nuggets can put him in more pick-and-roll situations which is also a strength of Nuggets’ point guard Ty Lawson.

Skeptics may say that Nene has peaked, but there is also a case for him being a classic late bloomer. He was a raw talent when he entered the NBA and his growth was derailed early in his career due to injuries. He only averaged 49 games a season during his first six years and didn’t see consistent minutes until his seventh year in the NBA. Offensively, he didn’t develop refined post moves until the last couple of seasons and now has a solid back-to-the-basket game, as well as an ability to step back and hit a 15-foot jumper.

But the biggest question is how can you keep Nene healthy? He is signed until he turns 34 and no doubt wear and tear will slow down the Nuggets’ big man. Same can be said about Tyson Chandler, who just signed a $68 million for 4 years with the New York Knicks and Amar’e Stoudemire, who also is signed with the Knicks until the 2014-15 season. All three have suffered serious injuries that could jeopardize their careers. But one secret to keeping them healthy is limiting their minutes.

Last season with the Dallas Mavericks, Chandler averaged less than 28 minutes a game and only missed eight games all season. He went on to have his best postseason and help the Mavericks win the NBA Title.

Stoudemire, on the other hand, was an unstoppable force for the Knicks for most of last season, averaging 25.3 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, but he played over 36 minutes a contest and struggled down the stretch. He missed three of the final four games and was hobbled in the playoffs. He still managed to score 14.5 points, but shot below .40 percent from the field as the Knicks were swept by the Boston Celtics.

Nene has been rather healthy over the previous three seasons (knock on wood), missing only 12 games in three seasons. One reason why is because he hasn’t had to play a lot of minutes. He averaged only 32.6, 33.6 and 30.5 minutes a game over that span and last season he only played more than 40 minutes twice. Skeptics may say he should play more minutes to earn that hefty contract, but logic says he may not average more than 32 minutes a game.

The tough part for the Knicks is they don’t have a lot of depth in the frontcourt, their only other capable big men are rookie Josh Harrellson, veteran Jared Jeffries, rookie Jerome Jordan and former Nuggets forward Renaldo Balkman.

While New York lacks depth in the post, that may be the Denver’s biggest strength this season. The Nuggets have seven capable players to sub in at center and power forward, which makes life easier for Denver when Nene rests. Now the Nuggets can turn to not only Chris Andersen, but also Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, Al Harrington and to a lesser extent Kenneth Faried.

No doubt the Nuggets are a better squad with him on the floor, but right now keeping the mileage off Nene’s body may be more important for the long haul. There is $67 million at stake.

Follow Nugglove on Twitter and Facebook