DENVER — Nene came into the season not only as a power forward on the verge of a breakout year, but also as one of Denver's most valuable commodities on the trade market.
One game into the season, he is no longer either of those.
The Nuggets forward tore up his right knee in the season opener on Tuesday. After an exam Wednesday, the Nuggets said he would most likely miss the entire season.
"I'm sad," Nene said. "In the first game of the season. You are so excited to play, to help the team. Anybody can see I'm sad."
The damage to the knee was extensive — a torn anterior cruciate ligament, sprained medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus. General manager Kiki Vandeweghe said no damage was done to the actual knee joint, which means Nene should eventually come back all the way. Surgery has not yet been scheduled and Vandeweghe said he held out at least a little hope that Nene could return this season.
"He was playing so well," Vandeweghe said. "In the whole scheme of things, it hurts us, the Nuggets, but I really feel bad for Nene. He looked great in preseason and for something like this to happen really hurts, but he is going to come back."
Thus marked yet another major opening-night injury for the Nuggets, who lost shooting guard Voshon Lenard to a torn Achilles' tendon in last season's first game.
Nene, a first-round pick in 2002, had potential to be a big cog in the Nuggets' plans this season, although his exact role for the long term hadn't been precisely worked out. Denver passed on a chance to extend his contract in the offseason, instead deciding to let him become a restricted free agent next summer.
Of course, some felt he might not be around that long. He was considered prime trade bait for Denver, a team with depth in the frontcourt but still in search of more options at shooting guard.
"My contract is OK," Nene said. "The next time I come back I am going to work hard. I'll come early and I'll prepare totally, mentally, physically to do good in the season."
Regardless of the speculation, Nene was with the team to start the season and was expecting big things, fully healthy after missing 27 games last season with a hurting left knee. He averaged 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds in 2004-05.
"It's a big loss," said assistant coach Scott Brooks, who ran the team Wednesday in place of George Karl, while Karl serves out a suspension. "He is a big part of our team. You hate to have any of your players hurt, whether it is one game or 80 games. You hate it if it's your best player or your 12th man."
With Nene out, it seems likely Francisco Elson — the player Karl deemed a great "insurance policy" during the preseason — will see more playing time. The Nuggets activated rookie Linas Kleiza to take Nene's spot on the bench for Wednesday's game against the Lakers.
Meanwhile, more of a burden will fall on Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and, of course, Carmelo Anthony.
"To see anybody mess up their knee like that is real tough," Anthony said. "I think, not just me, but a lot of people, will have to step up."