The Denver Nuggets are 6-4, they have a projected Pythagorean record, expected wins based on point differential, of 46-20 which is equivalent to a 57 win season. They have been atop the league in defensive efficiency and feature possibly the deepest roster in the NBA.
That all sounds great, but if you have spent any time on this site you probably expect I am about to rain on the parade. The truth is, buckle your seatbelts, I believe there are reasons to be concerned.
Frist of all, the Nuggets are not a good defensive team. As the Spurs and Hornets have shown Denver’s defensive front can be broken down rather easily by teams who take care of the ball and run any semblance of an offense. The Spurs especially, playing without their best offensive player in Manu Ginobili, ripped Denver apart as they simply changed their approach based on what Denver was doing.
In the first half the Spurs ran a lot of pick and roll action and the result was numerous easy baskets in the lane. When Denver altered their approach to switching nearly every pick outside the paint San Antonio simply started running their guards off of screens away from the ball which created space to shoot from the perimeter as well as gaping lanes to drive. The combination of the Spurs’ adjustment to Denver’s adjustment and the Nuggets’ complete lack of cohesion resulted in a career night for Danny Green.
Tonight the Hornets were able to score any way they chose to. Chris Kaman and Carl Landry dominated the lane while the Hornets guards took turns making open jumpers. It was the most shocking home loss I can remember. Most stunning of all was the complete lack of emotion. The players were flat and the crowd, possibly realizing they were not going to see anything remotely as exciting as what they witnessed at Mile High the previous day was docile. The largest cheer was reserved for Rocky bedazzled in the predominantly orange number 15 splashing his half-court shot directly after Tebowing.
The easy excuse is after what is probably the second toughest stretch of games all season long Denver lost focus after their day off and they clearly did not respect New Orleans. It is just one game.
I do not think it is that simple. It is becoming more and more apparent that Denver’s depth is as much of a problem as it is a blessing. George Karl has his rotation set to start each half; however, it is clear that he does not have a grasp on what to do after that. The truth is, it is not his fault. He has 11 or 12 players who deserve playing time. They have all had their moments to start the season, how does he know heading into the game if Timofey Mozgov is going to play well, or if Koufos is going to be the one who should be on the court? Rudy Fernandez has been very erratic as has fellow veteran Andre Miller. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is playing the worst ball of his career, but is it just a phase or at the age of 33 and having going through some hard living is he really washed up? Will Corey Brewer’s energy prove to be a sparkplug or will he just run all over like a spaz?
Karl does not seem to have an answer for the club’s defensive woes either. After jumping back to his switching scheme against the Spurs it was the predominant tactic for defending the screen against New Orleans. The difference is now instead of switching a highly mobile and motivated Kenyon Martin onto a guard; Denver ends up with Danilo Gallinari struggling to keep up.
Gallinari is also getting miscast as a power forward as Karl struggles to find answers by employing his small ball lineups. Gallo was abused in San Antonio by the monstrous DeJuan Blair (I hope Denver put the $2.5 million they made for selling their second round pick two years ago when the could have drafted Blair to good use) and tonight by Kaman, Landry and Emeka Okafor.
The Nuggets are going to make the playoffs, they will probably be in the mix for home court advantage in the first round. Even so I continue to believe that my assessment of this team is accurate. They are deep, but the attempts to rebuild last year’s post-trade juggernaut fell short primarily because there is no way this team could match the intensity and unselfishness of that group. They do not have that massive chip on their shoulder and are not fighting every night to prove their value to the league.
Defensively, the glowing numbers were as much a product of playing shaky offensive teams than a result of Denver possessing a solid half-court defense. Dallas was a complete mess when Denver played them, as was Utah, who had played horribly the night before in LA. Milwaukee is a sluggish offensive team, as is the passing adverse Kings. The only team with an offense safely in the top half of the league Denver has faced is the Spurs and we already detailed what happened in that game. If the Nuggets are going to depend on mountains of steals and teams missing 80% of their three pointers, it will be a long season.
While the offensive numbers are more stable, I do not like what I see on that end either. Denver is slowly grinding to a halt in the half-court. There is more and more standing while players take turns trying to drive to the hoop, or even worse, settling for long twos. The constant motion is gone as is the determined pick and roll after pick and roll that were the signature of last season’s dominant offensive team.
I only see one way to resolve these issues. George Karl is going to have to shorten his rotation, play more conventional lineups and hope that over time the defense learns how to cohesively help and rotate to cover for one another. Stick to a starting lineup of Ty Lawson, Afflalo, Gallo, Nene and Mozgov or Koufos (at this point I would go with Koufos, but I am not thrilled about either one) and bring Miller in to spell Lawson for 15 minutes a game, Fernandez can back up Afflalo, Brewer can fill in at small forward when needed and Harrington can back up Nene. Brewer and Kenneth Faried should be utilized as energy players off the bench for nights like tonight when the team is flat. I would cage the Birdman because he looks lost every second he is on the court.
I doubt we will see such an outbreak of conventionalism. Karl always considers the first 20 games of the season to be an extended training camp and maybe that number stretches to 30 this season since training camp was not a typical camp. If Karl can figure out what to do with this bunch, it will be a thing of beauty, the problem is the players have to do their part and provide some consistent performances in order for the coaches and management to properly evaluate them and that is the rub. I do not think most of them are talented enough to accomplish that, with the result being Karl grasping at straws almost every night hoping he can find the right mix.