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Denver signed JaVale McGee $44 million last summer. Kosta Koufos starts.

Jan 2, 2013, 3:17 PM EDT

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Getty Images

Last season, the Denver Nuggets were willing to move a quality (if often injured) big man in Nene for JaVale McGee. Then last summer they inked McGee to a four-year, $44 million contract to be part of the future in Denver.

If you have watched a Nuggets game recently — or even looked at a box score — you’ll notice Kosta Koufos is the starter at center.

McGee is giving Denver 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds a game in just less than 20 minutes a night, and doing it as efficiently has he ever has (shooting 58.3 percent). He blocks shots but his lust for those blocks often takes him out of rebounding position. His decision making can be confounding, but he has the athleticism to overcome some of those errors. On the season his +/- is -.4 — he’s basically a break even player when on the floor, although that doesn’t do justice to the “good JaVale/bad JaVale” nature of his game.. Still, it’s good production for your backup center.

It’s not good production for a guy getting $11 million. The Nuggets paid McGee on potential and got basically the same player he was last season — inconsistent, capable of huge numbers or a blooper reel highlight at any moment. That’s not what a coach can trust.

Ask Nuggets coach George Karl why Koufos starts — as Jeff Caplan of NBA.com did — and he is straightforward.

“I think he’s a really good, important player for us,” Karl said. “But in the same sense I’m going to play the guys who I think can help you win the game….

“I think he’s showing me he’s about a 20-minute basketball player,” Karl said. “For me, I go into most games, I have no idea who’s going to finish the game and it’s earned as the game goes on.”

Denver is about to go on a hot streak. They are 18-15 this season but 10-1 at home where they play 14 of their next 17. Denver is currently the seven seed in a deep and crowded West and the next month is huge for them, it is the chance to create some cushion and move up in the standings. The bottom of the West is going to be a dog fight — right now 4.5 games separate the six and 12 seeds. In there Minnesota and the Lakers are getting healthy, Dallas got Dirk Nowitzki back (even though it hasn’t helped yet) and teams like the Rockets are finding themselves. Every game matters for Denver right now.

How much McGee is going to be a part of that run will depend on McGee. And if he earns those huge checks.

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