Let’s be clear about one thing — at 14-7 even after two straight losses the Nuggets’ greatest strength is their depth.
When the Nuggets assembled a roster featuring two starting lineups and a couple of NBA-ready rookies behind them, they instantly gained a big advantage over every other team in a lockout-shortened NBA season. They’ve dealt with injuries better than just about anyone and built the second-highest scoring bench in the league.
Denver is going to be a great regular season team behind their depth. They can afford to limit their starters to 20 minutes per night if need be. In many cases there is little to no difference between the second and third string guys at every position.
I still think there is an intelligent debate to be had about whether too much of a good thing can actually turn out bad. George Karl has said the first 20 games of the season are essentially training camp, and at about one-third of the way into the season we’ve reached that point. The rotation should be shaping up nicely and guys should be settling into their roles as the Nuggets prepare to really start hitting their stride.
The reality is time has brought more questions than answers when it comes to the Nuggets’ rotation. Things look even murkier now than before the season began. Last night against the Grizzlies, the Nuggets had everyone available for the first time in weeks (minus DeMarre Carroll). The result was a disappointing overtime loss in which 11 players saw the floor and all except one of them played 10 minutes or more.
No one outside of Ty Lawson and Gallo has a clearly defined role. Statistically, Andre Miller is having the worst season of his career and he’s played his best as a fill-in starter. Arron Afflalo is off to a slow start and can safely be considered one of the most disappointing free agent acquisitions of last summer. Al Harrington is a sixth man of the year candidate, but George Karl is torn on whether to play him 25 or 35 minutes a night. Timofey Mozgov is improving but can barely be considered a legit starter, much less a player deserving of even 20 minutes a night. Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos and Birdman could see anywhere from 0-25 minutes a night.
Even Gallo is starting to feel the wrath of a coach with too many options. After George Karl benched him following a 1-10 shooting performance, fans were quick to blame the loss solely on Karl’s decision. Never mind the fact Gallo was having a terrible game and Rudy Gay was destroying him in the second half. Never mind the fact that after benching Gallo, Karl’s team immediately went up by double digits and even led by 12 with six minutes remaining.
George Karl is in a no-win situation. Gallo comes out with a bad effort as the game is slipping away, so Karl uses his depth and ends up being vilified for it. Second guess Karl all you want, but he’s benched Gallo before and won overtime games for it. This was supposed to be Denver’s greatest advantage: the reason they were better prepared for a hectic, unpredictable shortened season better than anyone else.
Instead, Denver’s depth has been a curse more often that it’s been a blessing. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and Denver’s role players are not enjoying individual success despite the team managing to squeak out wins.
Birdman was the best backup center in the league two seasons ago, now he’s a shadow of his former self and barely seeing 10 minutes of action per night. Although Birdman has 3 years and around $15million left on his contract, Denver just signed 22-year old Kosta Koufos to be his replacement at a much lower cost. Birdman’s future in Denver is ending, the only question remaining is just how much time he has left.
Rudy Fernandez was seeing 30 minutes a game earlier in the year while Corey Brewer sat on the bench. Now, Karl is trying to play both. Rudy just came off two solid games where he played at least 30 minutes and followed it up with a scoreless 19 minutes against Memphis. Is there enough room for both Rudy and Corey Brewer in a healthy lineup? As long as Karl plays his two point guards as much as he likes to play them, I fear there isn’t. Rudy and Brewer will likely continue to be inconsistent as their minutes wildly fluctuate all season long.
Denver’s depth is also forcing them to play small. The one constant in Karl’s lineup is that he will close games with a Miller-Lawson backcourt and Al Harrington playing power forward. This leaves Denver extremely vulnerable defensively and Karl does not know how to react. We’ve seen him try multiple lineups alongside Miller, Ty, and Harrington with limited success. While the Nuggets used to depend on Kenyon Martin straightening out the defense, Karl is now stuck with Gallo and Al Harrington switched onto the opposition’s best player. The result is a dysfunctional defense giving up wide open layups at the end of the games.
Denver’s defense has been in steady decline. With the roster overflowing with capable swingmen, Karl’s only answer is to go small and try to run up the score. It is not a bad strategy, but as we have seen in previous games the Nuggets do not know who to play and they struggle to get consistent production from anyone.
Where depth really hurts the most is no doubt seeing the promising young rookies permanently glued to the end of the bench. With so many capable players already deserving of more minutes, it is not conceivable Jordan Hamilton or Kenneth Faried will play meaningful minutes this season. It would probably take a season ending injury to Al Harrington or Andre Miller for enough minutes to open up. Without a trade or unusual injury situation, I can’t imagine Karl giving either of these guys a single meaningful minute.
So what’s the solution? Clearly the first step is for Karl to bench someone now. With a healthy lineup it’s hard to go with an 11-man rotation and expect the team to perform well. In big games, Karl shortens up the rotations considerably and going forward he needs to establish consistency.
The biggest issue is the rotation at center. Benching Birdman or Koufos would go a long way to giving one of them a fair chance at becoming a solid contributor that Karl can rely on night in and night out. At this point, I believe Koufos has produced more in the time he’s had and is deserving of the backup Center position. Birdman can come in for spot duty and pick up the slack when the Nuggets experience injuries or foul trouble.
That gives Denver a healthy 10-man rotation to work from. I have no idea how to fix the Brewer/Rudy/Afflalo conundrum. At this point I am beginning to doubt Afflalo is worthy of 30+ minutes a night unless his performance picks up considerably in the next 10 games or so.
Regardless of how this all shakes out, what do we really know about the rotation 21 games into the season? When the playoffs come around, every contending team will have their 8-man rotation set. The starters will play as many minutes as their fouls and their bodies allow. The bench players will have fought hard for their minutes and there won’t be any serious questions about who deserves to be on the floor during postseason play.
Answering those questions when it comes to the Nuggets is a daunting proposition. Denver will probably go with a 9 man rotation, but who will they be? George Karl’s assessment that the first 20 games will be a training camp in which he decides which guys to play may turn into 30 or 45 games considering the way things are going right now.
Denver will get back to winning regular season games soon, but these depth issues continue to cloud their long-term future and prospects for playoff success. There are much, much worse problems for an NBA team to have other than what the Nuggets are currently facing. However, after 21 games this team needs to at least start taking baby steps toward figuring out a rotation they can build around going forward.
It’s a fair question to ask. With this roster remaining intact, is too much depth becoming a problem?