The closest thing to an easy win the Denver Nuggets have on the schedule in February are home games against the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns.
So much for any easy wins.
The Nuggets were demolished by the Warriors in a game that cast light on Denver’s biggest issues.
The biggest issue with Denver’s offense is it has grown stagnant. The free flowing half court sets where no one stood and watched from earlier in the season are gone. The Nuggets run a pick and roll while the other three players are as still as one of Medusa’s victims. Instead of putting pressure on the entire defense, they are now only putting pressure on the ball side. Help is always ready and in the situation where Denver reverses the ball, recovery is very easy.
The next problem, as Scott Hastings has done a good job of pointing out on the broadcasts, the bigs rarely set any solid screens. The lifeblood of the pick and roll is the titular pick followed by a strong roll directly into the paint. Everything else is a variation designed to keep the defense on their toes. Slipping the screen is very effective, when it is a tactic that is employed sparingly thus taking the defense by surprise. Slipping the screen as the primary tactic defeats the purpose of the entire action. The ball handler gets no separation and the defending big, completely unsurprised, can easily be in position to close off any potential passing lane.
There are very few creative passes that put the pressure on the defense. One thing Carmelo Anthony did very well was attack the defense with a diagonal pass when he was double teamed. The same diagonal passes are open for Denver after their half-hearted pick and rolls, which would put pressure on the weak side defense, but no one is making that pass.
The style of offense also is not appropriate for the personnel. Everything the Nuggets do is predicated on penetration. Outside of Ty Lawson, and a healthy Danilo Gallinari, they have no one capable of driving past their man and threatening the interior of the defense. However, players like Rudy Fernandez, Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo are called to drive against a defense that is properly positioned to cut them off.
Everything Denver does is plagued by the lack of consistent shooting. Teams can lay off of Lawson and go behind the screen because he is currently incapable of hitting a midrange jumper. Andre Miller is an inadequate shooter. Rudy Fernandez is so rarely balanced when he shoots that it is no surprise when he misses. Would it kill him to set his feet more than six inches apart when he lines up his shot in order to promote some sense of balance?
Nene could make such a difference if he could only work harder to get position early on in a possession. Nene was doing very well on the block against Golden State and the Nuggets were looking to feed him in the second half, but he is too easily flustered by defenders beating him to the spot so they can front him. Nene then meekly points for the ball to be sent to the center of the floor so his man has to retreat behind him, thus opening up the possibility that he would now be ready for the pass from the wing. By that team his teammates have lost interest and simply work the other side of the court.
The hallmark of any competent defense is to take away what the offense wants to do. The Nuggets’ opposition, regardless of who they are, have done a great job of realizing if you clog the lane, you can shut them down. The Nuggets on the other hand seem to have no plan on defense. Golden State thrives on the three point shot. It requires a cohesive team effort to cover that much ground. Sadly, Denver did a poor job of dealing with the Warriors’ barrage of threes. The big men were too content to protect the paint on ball screens when the purpose of those screens was to open up a perimeter shot and the Warrior screeners were happy to prolong their contact with the guard knowing it would free up the guard for an open jumper.
The problem is not limited to ball screens. Down screens cause the same problem and the Nuggets were even burned repeatedly on the easiest of plays, having an offensive player on the weak side get in the way of the defender while the ball is skipped the defender covering the shooter is sealed off and cannot contest the shot. It is a tactic junior high kids should be prepared for. The Nuggets? Not so much.
The underlying issue is an abysmally low team IQ on defense.
Players are consistently caught off guard and working as completely reactionary individuals. The frequency of two Nuggets covering the man with the ball only to be completely confused of what to do once a pass is made is staggering. Rotations are always completed with utter surprise that the most basic of passes were made. Swinging the ball to the weak side corner is a pretty standard tactic in the NBA, when Denver is faced with such a scenario, they appear as if they had never seen it before. Rotations are slow with a complete lack of anticipation and often do not exist at all.
There is no sense of collective responsibility, or even individual responsibility. Defense is a team wide responsibility and a solid team concept with great communication and purpose can overcome the lack of great individual defenders. Denver has played solid defense from time to time this season, but it has to be the priority.
It is clear that George Karl is at a loss for what to do to turn things around. I would recommend using more conventional lineups and conducting a lot of film study to remind his players what is expected of them on defense.
In game adjustments are lacking. On Thursday night against the Warriors, there was no effort to apply additional pressure on Stephen Curry, who was obviously red hot and was the number one threat, until it was too late. The decision to trap him off ball screens was apparently not given until the third quarter after the damage was done. Karl seems to have incredibly few arrows in his quiver. Night after night the same lackadaisical approach to covering ball screens is implemented.
I am not calling for a fire sale on players, or Karl’s ouster. This is a very good team that is in a funk. Much of that funk is largely self-inflicted. They will turn things around enough to get back to their winning ways. Gallo will return and they will get back to resembling the team that was the darling of NBA fans everywhere to start the season. However, these issues are terminal ones. The playoffs do not take kindly to teams who cannot implement basic defensive strategies and come playoff time if Karl does not know who he can count on every night, he is not going to be able to consistently put his best team on the floor.
These issues are fixable ones and they do not require a healthy Gallinari or Timofey Mozgov to be addressed. They do require mental effort and attention to detail. If the Nuggets cannot deal with that, there will be no such thing anymore as an easy win.