These are no chicken Nuggets


Meet the new boss?

Now, finally, presenting the new, trendy pick in the West . . . the Denver Nuggets?

I know. You knew things had changed, but not that much.

Yes, here they are, the same wild-and-crazy Hole in the Wall Gang the Lakers put to the torch in last spring’s 4-0 sweep, and defeated in 10 of 11 meetings overall in two seasons.

Actually, this Nuggets team is nothing like that Nuggets team, even if it has most of the same players.

With Chauncey Billups, the Solomon the Wise of NBA players, replacing Allen Iverson, the Jim Morrison of NBA players, they not only became a real team, which was surprising enough, but a real good one, finishing No. 2 in the West, going 8-2 in the first two rounds, picking up endorsements from pundit (Tim Legler) after pundit (Mark Jackson).


In an even more surprising bit of data, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” asked viewers to choose which of the four possible NBA Finals pairings they prefer.

Of course, Lakers-Cleveland was No. 1, with the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James matchup already getting massive hype in vitamin water and sneaker commercials.

The surprising part was, it got only 57%, to 27% for Denver-Cleveland.

To summarize, the Nuggets have not only risen from the ashes, they’re so good that someone can not only imagine them beating the Lakers but would predict it, and more than 25% of fans think the Nuggets are more entertaining, too?

Talk about your dark days in Lakerdom.

Denver Coach George Karl calls this his “team of redemption,” and well he should.

Of course, few teams ever had as much to redeem.

Karl has come back from cancer, as has Nene, his starting center. Chris Andersen is back from a year-long drug suspension, Carmelo Anthony from years of the wrong kind of headlines, and Kenyon Martin from years of spats with Karl, who suspended him in the 2005 postseason.

Then there’s J.R. Smith, their version of Marlon Brando as the biker leader in “The Wild One,” who is asked what he’s rebelling against and answers, “Whatya got?”

Smith’s talent is immense, but his shot selection is a little on the wild side . . . of Picasso . . . and his attitude isn’t what you’d call conciliatory, leading to years of exchanges with Karl that were more like fireworks shows.


Take this one at midseason, with each talking to the media, which served as intermediary:

J.R.: “We never talk. I wish we did. You never want to not even talk to your coach.”

George: “J.R. is a good-bad player and we’re trying to take the bad out and magnify the good. . . . Some nights I’ll tolerate his bad and some nights I’m probably going to go someplace else.”

J.R.: “He’s going to think what he wants to think. I just go out there and be me.”

It took a lot to put these parts together, but here they are, big, athletic, and en fuego, with the Mavericks and Hornets strewn in their wake.

Fortunately for the Lakers, they awoke in the nick of time -- at least to stave off Houston, without Yao Ming.

Also in the nick of time, if only in retrospect, they discovered their approach hadn’t been . . . what’s the right word . . . professional.

I consider myself an expert on wackos. Aside from my own life, I’ve covered some of the zaniest outfits around, including the Raiders, the Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, and the Philadelphia 76ers with Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins.

The young 76ers all wanted to supplant Julius, George and Doug, including World, Double D and, yes, Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, so chaos was an issue but effort wasn’t.


It could take all season to get O’Neal into it, but the Shaq-Kobe teams were monsters in the postseason, going 64-28 in their five under Phil Jackson.

These Lakers aren’t the least bit zany. The question has been how conscious they were.

Their what-us-worry attitude raised questions as far back as November, and eyebrows in the first round when they held double-figure leads in all five games against Utah, and let the Jazz back into three of them.

As it turned out, they were just warming up for their lame Game 1 loss to Houston -- as Jackson noted after the series, “We weren’t prepared from the first game” -- and their piece de resistance, in Game 4.

In another eye-opener, the Lakers tried in Game 6 and got drubbed, anyway, introducing them to more new experiences, like humility . . . and fear.

Getting the moral of the story . . . after the series, when Jackson decided it was safe to scold them . . . Lakers players finally said they had been kidding.

Of course, it was themselves they had been kidding.

“We were stubborn,” said Trevor Ariza. “We thought we could win on sheer talent.”

Actually, the word he was looking for wasn’t “stubborn,” but “clueless.”

If he had ever said anything like that aloud, even teammates as young as Jordan Farmar or Andrew Bynum would have told him that didn’t sound right.


Having played their best defensive game Sunday, the Lakers had better remember the feeling, because this isn’t Houston without Yao.

The Nuggets have all their stars, they’re almost as big as the Lakers, a fair bit more athletic and a lot hotter.

This just in: Sheer talent won’t do in this series, either.