3-on-3: Nuggets struggles

Over the last several weeks the Nuggets have endured one of its toughest stretches of the season, if not the last several years. After starting off the season on a record-setting pace, even winning six straight road games for the first time in franchise history, the Nuggets fell victim to a myriad of injuries and in the process saw its winning ways vanish in no time. After finally securing a much-needed win against Indiana the Nuggets will now look to get back on track but before Denver takes on the Suns at home on Tuesday, Roundball Mining Company decided to analyze the Nuggets recent struggles in our latest 3-on-3.

1. To what effect has Timofey Mozgov’s absence from the starting lineup contributed to the Nuggets recent woes?

Charlie: To me, the Mozgov injury was a poor excuse for the Nuggets to drop so many games in the such disheartening fashion. While he provided a steady paint presence and solid pick-and-roll defense, Mozgov is still a role player learning to play his position. I thought Kosta Koufos performed admirably in Mozgov’s absence despite lacking continuity with his teammates or the same trust Karl had built up with Mozgov. The costliest side effects of Timo’s injury were the increased workload on Al Harrington and the starting lineup falling into complete disarray. Both of those issues I would put more on Karl’s insistence on going small whenever the Nuggets showed signs of struggling. Mozgov at least provided that steady 20 minutes of a more conventional lineup every night, but that’s pretty far down on the laundry list of issues surrounding the Nuggets’ recent slide. Compared with the challenge of filling Gallo’s much larger role, losing Timo for a few games isn’t a strong argument for the Nuggets suddenly being unable to play any defense.

Jeremy: I do not think it is a significant factor, in fact, it may even be a good thing. It is easy to look at this question as Mozgov vs. Koufos. I believe the difference between the two is negligible. Mozgov is the better post defender and passer while Koufos is the better rebounder and has a little more sizzle around the rim. Still there are nights where both are non-factors. In my mind the benefit behind Mozgov’s absence is the fact that we have a better understanding of what Koufos can provide and Kenneth Faried has earned some additional minutes that probably would not have been available to him if Mozgov was healthy.

Kalen: Hardly at all. Let’s keep in mind, Mozgov usually receives about 18 minutes per game and plays only sparingly in the fourth quarter. Right now, he’s a developing young center who’s still largely inexperienced when it comes to winning basketball games in the NBA. Would he have helped? Sure. But statistically speaking, Koufos is better than Mozgov so you could even make a case the Nuggets might have been better off without him. Obviously it would have helped to have Mozgov throughout the losing streak, but to say the Nuggets lost games because he was out of the lineup, to me, just seems inaccurate. The Nuggets lost way more games than they should have for a variety of reasons, but not having their novice, raw, young center certainly wasn’t a major factor.

2. Once Wilson Chandler returns and the Nuggets regain their health, can fans expect the team to shoot up the standings again?

Charlie: There is a strong argument to be made assuming the Nuggets somehow recapture their dominance at home. With the West being as competitive as it is, the Nuggets really can’t afford to tread water and wait around for Gallo and Chandler to vault them back into contention for a top four seed. They have to get back to consistently playing at a high level right now. Unfortunately I just don’t see that happening considering the schedule only becomes more demanding and injuries keep piling up. If the Nuggets bounce back and salvage February to finish within shouting distance of .500 they stand a great chance to get right back in the mix. Keep making excuses and being satisfied with merely halting their slide and the Nuggets could be on the playoff bubble till the end of the year.

Jeremy: We have expended a great deal of energy projecting when Chandler might return as well as what his agent’s comments concerning the likelihood that he will resign with Denver mean. I expect the Nuggets to rebound from their swoon before Chandler is eligible to return. We have already seen a much better effort in Indianapolis and I think the darkest days of this season are behind them. However, until Danilo Gallinari returns, and if Nene misses a few games, the Nuggets will probably just be good enough to tread water. It will take a return to full strength for Denver to return to their winning ways. The bad news is there is no guarantee they will ever return to full health. The good news is after the All-Star break they enter the easiest portion of their schedule from a physical standpoint. More days off will be a blessing.

Kalen: I definitely think so. Making it through the month of February above .500 would have been difficult without Gallinari, but getting Chandler back should make this goal much more attainable. Though Chandler will have some adjusting to do the bottom line is that he’s still a solid small forward who can do many of the things Gallo did, and some even better. His defense should play a vital role in resurrecting the Nuggets’ passion on that side of the ball and even though he’s not a pure scorer, his offense is nothing to scoff at either. I think the Nuggets collective health is the biggest issue. If Nene, Mozgov, Ty, Afflalo and the rest of the team can stay healthy, there’s no telling how fast the Nuggets could shoot up the standings in the Western Conference.

3. How would you rate the job George Karl has done so far this season and how much is he to blame for the Nuggets recent struggles?

Charlie: I’d give Karl’s coaching a “C” at best. The problem is that the slightest hint of adversity has thrown him into panic. When the season began Karl had the Nuggets on the fast track to one of the most promising starts in franchise history, even admitting they were exceeding his own expectations. Although the team has great depth, they’ve dealt with injuries worse than any other contender in the league. After 28 games there’s been almost no progress establishing continuity with a rotation fans can feel confident will succeed in the playoffs. While it’s tough to live with the pressure of high standards set by a blistering hot start, it can’t be so easy to make excuses and expect regression to the mean.

Jeremy: I always have a difficult time answering this question. We are not privy to what goes on behind closed doors and what happens at practice. I have great concerns about some of the lineups Karl utilizes — small ball, the two-point guard lineup, etc. — and am baffled at how poorly this team defends. Ultimately those issues fall on the coach. On the other hand, I do not envy Karl trying to juggle lineups every night. It is a task made even more difficult by injuries and the fact that Karl does not know who his best player is going to be night in and night out. Will it be Lawson?  Gallo? Harrington? Nene? Will Fernandez be hot or a drain on the offense? Karl has no idea, plus most of these players are not quite good enough for him to know whether they can carry a hot start into the fourth quarter of a tight game. Defensively, I think it is easier to pin more of the blame on Karl, but again, not to be an apologist, but these players are not displaying a very high basketball IQ on defense nor do they do a very good job of communicating. I know Karl can coach defense. He has done it in the past. I am not sure how well this team can learn defense and that is something he cannot solve on his own. Overall, I can see where he should be absolved from some of the blame for the team’s struggles. Even so, I do think he has made some serious errors with his lineups and he tends to stick a little too much to “his guys” even when things are going poorly. There is still time to get things figured out, but the impending arrival of Chandler might make things even more difficult for Karl going forward.

Kalen: Like Jeremy, the older I get the more I realize just how oblivious we, as fans, are to the occurrences inside the Nuggets locker room. Really, who am I to judge how good of a coaching job George Karl has done when I likely don’t even know 90 percent of the story. What I do know, however, is that after starting off incredibly strong and impressive the Nuggets reverted back to their old “street ball” mentality fairly easily, except this time around there was no Allen Iverson or Carmelo Anthony to ignite instant offense when the team needed it most. I firmly believe that you can only judge a coach based on the talent he’s surrounded with and even more so, just how well he does in the face of adversity. Karl has one hell of a roster around him, and one that he practically begged management to build for him. It’s easy to win with so much talent (even without a “superstar”) but if you’re telling me that all it’s gonna take is an injury here or there for the Nuggets to be totally derailed, then I just can’t buy into the fact that Karl’s really pushing whatever buttons he needs in order for this team to succeed. The series of losses the Nuggets suffered lately were inexplicable and unacceptable. The team didn’t even look like it was trying half the time and more importantly, the defense was nonexistent. Those are things Karl has complete control over and until he proves that he’s actively aiming to improve the team in this aspect (or in other words, until the team actually starts playing defense) then I can’t sit here and tell you he’s doing a masterful job of making lemonade out of a fairly nice crop of lemons.

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Kalen Deremo

Kalen was born in Durango, CO, in 1988 and graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 with a degree in journalism. He's now an itinerant hoping to travel as much as possible before eventually succumbing to the "real world." Aside from writing Kalen likes movies, music, spicy food and the great outdoors. Edward Abbey is his current idol.

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  • Andrew

    You guys definitely make all the Nugget talk and speculation more fun. While I generally agree with your take on the three issues, I have a few comments: 1) While Moz’ absence has not affected the Nuggets play that much, it COULD have (and I mean in a positive way). I don’t have any stats in front of me, but it seems to me that Karl was play Moz and K2 more combined minutes than he is giving K2 presently. As Charlie says, this has caused Karl to overwork Harrington. I would add that if Karl had just beefed up K2’s minutes, maybe the Nuggets win one or two of those games. 2) Wilson could help, but Gallo, Nene and seeing the 7 footers keep improving is more important. 3) Karl gets no better than a C. It’s his job to have them playing better. He’s the head coach. The funny thing is that the injuries may end up making him look better, because it has forced I’m to play Faried, K2, Stone, etc more…which can only bode well as the season progresses.

  • Tom

    I must be missing something cause it seems like everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room. Why is Birdman not playing? I’ve searched high and low and can’t find any mention of an injury. If the Nuggets are so depleted by injuries and lacking energy, why is one their highest energy guys sitting on the bench. He used to be one of the first off the bench. Did he suddenly forget how to play? Is this some kind of punishment from GK? If so, he’s punishing the team and fans more than he’s punishing the Bird. Birdman is sitting on the bench, drawing his pay, while the rest of the team is being run to exhaustion. Wish someone would punish me like that…

    • steve

      because birdman cant show up 2 games in a row. I’d rather have faried play over him. With Nene out though, you will see more of birdman im sure.

      • Alex

        Agree with Tom.Birdman can play good pick n roll and rebounds and blocks.I think he’s the energetic person off the bench.I hate to see him step up beacuse of the injuries,after recovery,Birdman will sit on the bench for the whole game for 5 on a row??Please,GK,give him more minutes,he can do more things.Sitting on the bench for 4 to 5 games in a row,and someone said he cannot do anything.?..Is it fair to say this??
        Sorry for my bad English..

    • Charlie

      There isn’t enough room for everyone on this roster to enjoy a consistent role and play every night. Birdman received plenty of chances this season and as someone else pointed out he didn’t make a strong case for himself as the first big off the bench. If you look at it objectively Koufos has actually outplayed him by a nice margin so far and shows upside that isn’t as strong with Birdman anymore.

      I still think Birdman is gonna help in certain situations, he just won’t be a staple of most lineups considering Koufos and Faried are developing into solid contributors with more potential to help long-term.

      • Andrew

        I agree, Charlie. “Consistency” is not Birdman’s middle name. Amazing to say this about two guys who are way younger than Birdman, but you know better what you will get with each of K2 and Faried. I honestly think Birdman, like Miller, is on the downside. They will have their moments, to be sure, but night in and night out, they are just not always mentally/physically there.

  • John

    In my opinion, the losing streak was a combination of multiple factors that snowballed into a big mess. First was the b2b2b which wore out the players. Combine that with the injuries, and that creates more tired players. I’m guessing that to give the players some rest, practice time was limited (and non existent in b2b situations), which made it harder to integrate new line ups, and kept the team from playing with the same fluidity. Lack of practice time was also probably part of the issue on defense.

    For example, the 2 games Denver won, the other team was on a B2B. In addition most of the teams Denver played had more days of rest then Denver did before the game. Once the schedule begins to lighten up, players come back, and they can get some focused practice time, we should see Denver get some more wins.

    Tonight will be a good test of this theory, since Denver has had 3 days of rest, while the Suns played last night.

  • Jeff D

    I have to say I don’t entirely agree with the points made. I like the game grades and the “don’t grade the box score” approach. Yet Mozgov’s presence is being dismissed based on statistics. His pick and roll defense and his ability to run the floor and either draw a defender or finish are far better than the energy I’ve seen Koufos put into either of those.

    As for Karl’s performance this year, I find it hard to place so much emphasis on a 5 game stretch over the first 22 games. This is a roster full of guys trying to fulfill brand new roles. This is Lawson’s first full year as a starter, Afflalo’s first time where he’s asked to be more of a scorer, Gallo’s first year asked to be THE guy, Nene is back at PF, Mozgov’s first year as a starter, Miller’s first year off the bench…. The most consistent guys all year have been Harrington and Brewer, both guys who are familiar with the roles they are asked to do.

    Not only are individual roles still being established, but they are adapting to new team concepts both offensively and defensively. All this without a training camp and compressed schedule. This is even before introducing the myriad of injuries. To me Karl has been the most important person so far this season.

    • Joshua

      I agree Jeff. Way to sum up the new roles that many of the players are taking. I think this team has a lot of room to grow and I’m excited to watch them develop this hectic season. Hopefully we can keep a lot of these guys so we can have some continuity next year.

    • Kalen

      Well, if you want to talk stats, Koufos actually ranks as a better pick-and-roll defender than Mozgov and though he doesn’t run the floor as frequently, also scores more points per possesion in that department as well.

      • Jeff D

        I’m not entirely familiar with advanced defensive measures, but I’m fairly certain any ranking is based only on the man Mozgov/Koufos is guarding (the roll man in this case). It doesn’t quantify the work as a help defender, i.e. disrupting the ball handler or forcing a pass away from the designed play.

        The same for running the floor, stats can’t quantify the mere fact that a big running the floor creates opportunities for others even if he doesn’t get the ball.

        My point was that Mozgov’s contributions seem to be unfairly dismissed based on the box score.

        • Charlie

          Absolutely correct, especially because pick and roll defense is strictly a team concept. Measuring how often each person’s “man” scores on them in this case fails to tell you anything about how well the PNR was defended.

          Where Mozgov really made strides was his ability to hedge and recover. When the Nuggets trapped or switched the ball screens Mozgov was solid applying pressure on the ballhandler. I think his presence is certainly missed, but Koufos does a lot of other things well and I don’t see why the adjustment has to result in the entire team looking lost without Mozgov.

          As far as your points on coach Karl, it’s a good argument. While I would tend to agree I think discipline and accountability are lacking. Every team goes through a tough stretch but unlike Orlando and Boston the Nuggets haven’t displayed the same kind of composure and confidence in tough times. I think it’s the coaches job to navigate the team through injuries and adversity. For the Nuggets to just fall flat on their face and spiral out of control you can’t blame it all on the circumstances. Other top teams have been through worse and managed to fight through it better.

          Another interesting part of the argument that I hadn’t considered: Karl lacks quality veteran leadership on this team. Andre Miller just hasn’t convinced me he cares or even enjoys his role as a leader.

          • Jeff D

            The Nuggets will have their 7th different starting lineup in as many games tonight against Phoenix, so if other teams have had it worse it isn’t by much. This was a 5 game stretch where 4 of them are playoff teams and they were at least competitive in 3 of them.

            I think you hit a key point on veteran leadership, Boston was able to right the ship because they have a roster full of veteran leaders. But let’s not forget Denver still has a better record than Boston. And Orlando had a 4 game stretch where they averaged 76 PPG, so I disagree they handled it better than Denver.

            I do believe this stretch can be blamed on circumstances and that a 5 game sample where they were missing 2 starters a game does not mean they are spiraling out of control. I think their 9-5 road record is a very strong indicator that this team does have the mental toughness to work out of this funk.

          • Kalen

            While I agree somewhat, after watching Synergy on the two — even though there’s not much to watch — it doesn’t appear as if Mozgov is any better than Koufos in pick-and-roll defending. In fact, he looks worse. But again, small sample size and of course, there’s the factors you guys mention above.

            • Charlie

              PNR defense is a team concept, purely dependent on all five players communicating and defending the play in unison. Watching clips comparing individual defense doesn’t even come close to quantifying the effect on team’s ability to guard PNR’s. Especially in the Nuggets scheme which is to get pressure on the ball early and often.

              Anderson Varejao and Kenyon Martin are prime examples. I think you are trying to argue Koufos is a better post defender on opposing bigs and there may be a little truth to that

  • Dubz

    Nice article. Glad to sum up this losing streak as a whole instead of compiling individual games. To sum up each point, I believe Mozgov’s injury has had more negative impact on this team than people may realize. He’s a strong defender in the paint and runs fairly well for his size. It seemed like he was just starting to get things together when he got hurt. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I think Wilson Chandler will have an enormous impact on this team in many different areas. Even though he’s listed as a SF, I believe Karl will use him more at the PF position, and maybe even a bit at SG. That’s the beauty if Chandler’s game, he can truly play 3 positions and not be a liability defensively. This will allow Harrington to remain a SF and will allow Karl to rest Nene more. And speaking of Karl, I believe his grade should be separated into 2 categories: In game coaching and Out of game coaching (for lack of better names). As for in game coaching, I believe he should receive a D+, perhaps a C-. His lineups have been head scratching and I don’t even want to go there right now. As for out of game coaching, he should receive a B+. He’s done a fantastic job of developing Brewer, Gallinari, Harrington(13th season), and many others. Unfortunately he’s incredibly stubborn and would rather lose his way than try to win the conventional way. Sometimes I admire him for it, and others I want to fire him for it.

  • Jrsmithisnumber1

    “Timofey is definitely our best big guy,” Karl said. “He protects the paint very well, protects the basket very well, is our best pick-and-roll defender.”

  • Omar

    mozgov is much better defensively and offensively than koufos. koufos has had his chances since mozzy was out but he did nothing to make me think he was close to or on par with mozzy.

  • ny nugs fan

    if the nugs get a chance to bring back chandler the place they really could use him is helping guard the perimeter, in particular the 3-ball

    if you look at several of the nugs losses it happend because some guy got hot from the 3 and we couldn’t stop them; it all started when we lost that 1st game to portland and it seems like everytime we lose it’s because teams are staying in the game with the 3 ball

    the nugs really could use an extra athletic big guy like chandler to help defend this; almost more than his scoring ability imo

    i think defensively that’s the book on the nugs

  • nugoftruth

    I still have a huge amount of confidence in our team for this year but I would much rather see the young guys getting minutes this year and learning the NBA speed. If we need a down year to see if those guys develop into something, I’m fine with that.

    The interesting thing with the nuggies is I think they can continue to get W’s while giving those players minutes with the starting unit. I Would like to see stone and Manimal getting some starts not due to injury and see if they can ketch up to speed.

    THIS MEANS NO MORE TY AND DRE!!!! Small ball is one thing, but when you stick a small (but feisty) point in ty and a old slow mismatch of a point in Dre, you end up with such a mismatch somewhere you have no choise to over rotate and get burned with the wide open three or back side layup. If Karl wants to run the 2 point system he needs to run ty and stone or figure out a half court offense and run Dre and stone.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • NuggLove

    Wow! has anyone forgotten that Andre was a factor in the Nuggets losses. Yes it was clear that we badly needed energetic and fast-paced offense which is possible with Andersen, Faried, and Stone around, but Miller was there to spoil it. He never adapted to his sixth man role and should hands down be traded. His old age has been exposed when he’s in a running team like Denver and because of that, he will slow things down so he won’t be teased as an old man. Also, the sharing of minutes just prevents Lawson to improve more. I say, besides Karl’s coaching problems, Andre’s role has been the biggest factor in the Nuggets’ struggles. Oh, yes! Have I forgotten that Rudy too has been part of the Andre problem package?

  • NuggLove2

    I only know 2 point guards in the league that are on the trading block. But one is a losing team while the other has already a good point guard who loves pushing the pace. They are Houston (Flynn) and Toronto (Barbosa). Can you guys think of a good trade for Miller?