Recent Realizations About the Denver Nuggets

Since a disappointing loss in New Orleans that left many fans fearing the Denver Nuggets would be sitting at home when the playoffs began the Nuggets have won five of seven games and solidified their position as a playoff team.  The biggest of those five victories came in Houston at the expense of a desperate Rockets team who were playing for their season.

I have been very realistic, some would say pessimistic, about the Nuggets ability to be competitive come playoff time.  With the Nuggets finally fielding a healthy team they are doing their best to prove me wrong.  Here are several observations I have  made recently that are making think Denver could possibly be more than a speed bump in the postseason.

1.  Their pick and roll defense is showing significant signs of improvement

The number one reason I have completely dismissed the Nuggets chances in the playoffs is their horrible defense.  Over their previous three games they have shown signs of life, particularly defending the pick and roll.  The big men, Koufos, Faried, Harrington and even McGee have started doing a much better job of hedging, or at least challenging the ball handler as he comes off the pick.  McGee has shown the most improvement as he is no longer just hanging back by the rim hoping for a blocked shot.  Kudos go to the coaching staff for getting him to make such a big adjustment so quickly.  While Denver’s defense is still a work in progress, it is showing signs of solidifying.

2.  Arron Afflalo is a legitimate scoring threat every night

I was very hard on Afflalo early in the season, as many fans were.  He has always done a good job of adding something to his game every summer.  This offseason it was obvious he wanted to be able to create his own shot and be more than filling just a supporting role.  While AAA is more likely than anyone to pound the ball into the ground with little to show for it, he has developed a herky jerky game that is part Brandon Roy and part Dwyane Wade.  Of course Afflalo is not the passer Roy was, nor is he the finisher that Wade is.  He has developed a deadly touch in the lane and an uncanny ability to get a well-balanced shot off under pressure. His efficiency numbers have slid a bit since last season, but part of that was due to a very slow start to the season.  He has been incredible in March and April.  Monday night in Houston, he moved without the ball better than I have ever seen sneaking behind the defense on at least three occasions to get a layup or draw a foul.

3.  Kenneth Faried is learning how to play defense

I already mentioned Faried’s improvement in defending the pick and roll, but he is also showing growth in defending the post, especially in the past three halves against Houston.  Faried has been abused by both perimeter oriented power forwards and those who are just bigger than he is on the block.  While he still has a lot to learn, he showed he can figure out how to handle a crafty player like Luis Scola.  Scola had destroyed the Nuggets over the first two and a half games this season.  No one had been able to handle him on the block.  Starting in the second half in Denver and into the game in Houston, Faried showed he could deal with Scola in the post.  Faried made the adjustment of bodying Scola up and keeping his weight forward in order to hold his ground all while staying on his toes ready to move as soon as Scola tried to spin or drive.  It sounds simple, but mastering that balance between pushing while being prepared to move your feet is difficult.  It appears to me that Faried is beginning to get the feel for it.

4.  George Karl is figuring out who to trust

I have hesitated to praise or criticize Karl too much during the course of the season.  He has had an incredibly difficult task this season.  He has been handed new players, a shortened season, injuries and a big unexpected midseason trade.  He has a lot of NBA caliber players on the bench, but he has not been able to know who to trust night in and night out.  The perfect example is Corey Brewer.  Brewer brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but he does so in a very unorthodox package.  He is a terrible shooter, even from the short corner.   He is so bad that his teammates sometimes choose not to pass him the ball when he is wide open in the corner.  Still, his length and determination on defense can swing the course of a game.  We have seen him do it late against Minnesota and his presence helped blow the first Houston contest open.  Of course, there are also nights where Brewer is not getting steals, or scoring easy baskets in transition.  On those nights he is a killer to have on the court.  Recently Karl has done a good job of knowing when to play Brewer and how much.  He may have kept him in the game a little too much against the Lakers, but Brewer gave him good reason to keep him in the game.

Gallinari is back from injury and is proving to be a slow starter who needs time to shake off the rust.  Karl has pushed the right buttons with him, first keeping him off the court on Sunday when the Nuggets were making their big second half run to take control of the game and then having him play the closing minutes in Houston.  Faried is another player who Karl has embraced.  He may not play as much as some would like, but Karl has slowly lengthened his leash as the season has progressed.  You can also point to the benching of Mozgov as a sign Karl is willing to make a significant change.  Koufos has proven to be more consistent, if not more spectacular, and McGee certainly deserves to play.  Mozgov was a Karl favorite to start the season, but Karl has basically admitted he was wrong, which is never easy for a coach, or a blogger, to do.  I do feel badly for Birdman as he has shown that when he is rested, he can still play very well, but there is only enough minutes for two centers in the rotation to get consistent minutes and Bird is the odd man out.  Miller and Harrington have certainly proven that they deserve to play down the stretch and both have made big plays for Denver recently.

Now, I am not saying Karl is without blame.  I think it took him a little too long to come around on Faried and he has certainly relied too much on small ball during the season, plus I have taken umbrage with his constant downplaying expectations and that has certainly not changed this season.  Still, he has been dealt a very difficult hand from a personnel standpoint, but is doing as well as can be expected.

5.  Afflalo and Harrington are filling the on court leadership void

The Nuggets have been rudderless on the floor since Chauncey Billups left town along with Carmelo.  Ty Lawson is a talent, but not a leader.  Miller can direct the offense, but is also not a rah rah sis boom bah kind of guy.  When you watch Afflalo and Harrington you can see that they are reaching the point of taking the results of these games personally.  Harrington is not afraid to yell at his teammates if they are not hustling or doing their job and Afflalo is displaying tremendous determination and a will to win.

It remains to be seen if those two can help direct their teammates when they are seeing things crumble around them on the road in the playoffs in a must win situation, but they have earned the right to try.

That goes for this entire Nuggets team.  I am still dubious that they will make any noise in the playoffs, but they have certainly earned the right to try and I sure hope they can do it.

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  • TJ McBride

    Loved this section Jeremy. the only other aspect that has really turned the season around is George Karl’s passion has returned. Seeing him go off on officials and really have the will to win has transferred to his players. I have been a very wary of his small ball late in games, but in the past few games these same lineups have gone from an optional defensive team to a fiery excited team that fights for loose balls and rebounds. I can only find the reason for this to be George Karl’s resurrection back into his passionate coaching style, and that being translated onto the court. This is when his experiments work. It is when he is as motivated and passionate as his own players and it has paid dividends as seen in the past few games in the second halves.

  • TJ McBride

    Thanks again for all the work you guys put into RMC. It motivates me into becoming a sports journalist and pursuing my dream. Thanks again Jeremy!

    • pgwarner

      What a great compliment to receive Jeremy!

    • Jeremy

      Hey TJ, that is very cool. Good luck to you!

  • ryanvdonk

    anyone else think kosta plays better off the bench? i’d like to see jevale start again, he’s shown more focus in the past week of games than he has since college. he has a lot more upside, and kosta is great off the bench, as he’s solid and consistent without being flashy.

    • Greco21

      He has played better of the bench matching with other backups. I believe he got the starter role because he needs time to get into the game. He is a slow starter. If his first touch is a succesful one he gets things going. That is confidence and he needs to relax.

      McGee on the other hand coming of the bench seems more pumped up. High level of energy. I guess it has to do with pairing as he wants a quick big guy. Koufos – Farried , McGee – Al.

      Small ball has worked well against the Rockets (and part of it against the Lakers) because the Rockets play small ball too. Patterson is not really a center.

      During the play-offs Denver has to develop some post moves in order to wear off their opponents. If for example Duncan has a foul in the first two minutes of the game things will be different.

    • magster

      Someone somewhere theorized that McGee has thrived off the bench because he comes in with Miller, who is an excellent lob passer. I think McGee has found a niche coming off the bench that was the last piece of the 9 man rotation puzzle (see my comment below). McGee should come off the bench the rest of the season.

      I wish his free throws were better because I’d like him to finish games when we need size.

  • Nick

    I agree with pretty much just about everything you say. Honestly, as a die hard nuggets fan, I don’t see this team succeeding past the 2nd round. But they truly have potential. Maybe the year or year after, they will make a deeeeep playoff run. We are finally starting to see who our go to men are. Who can be there on defense, etc. Look at 2013-2014

  • kt4949

    I just want to say NUGG fans we got alot to look forward to for the playoffs. Mcgee seems to feel more comfortable and be more of team player, earlier looked like he was all for himself. The kid has so much potential if he keeps his head in the game. Aaron has been balling for sure lately great 2nd half at Houston. You gotta love the way ty been playing and fariad for a rookie huge heart and determination too win love that kid. Now Big Al much props with the injury your going through and I believe he is the leader even tho 6 man. His passion for the game is incredible and he is our leader out there on the court and you can not say enough about Andre Miller great player ever since playing for Utah in college he just makes everybody better out there when hes on his game 99.9 percent of the time. And Galo I know you will be back at full for the spurs if we get 7 seed. We will give them fits more than what Skip Bayless might think and George one hell of a job this year this is why your one of the best to coach the game. Wilson i hope you come back at full strength because we need ya and if you play like I know you can we will be all right in the playoffs and can beat anybody in the West and I am not just saying that because I love my Nuggets and i am born and raised in southern Oregon. keep playing good ball Nuggs Your number 1 fan from the West Coast.

    KT4949Sr and KT4949Jr We love My 7 yr old loves J Mcgee keep it boys much love from Southern Oregon

    • Charles Murray

      Such a heartfelt blog. Very encouraging stuff! Very fun, good team to support. Can’t wait until Wilson is pumping in 14 and Galo plays like he played in NY… maybe soon… hope so. Tomorrow… Mozzy, throw Griffin on the floor again!

  • Tom

    GK just clinched his 20th straight winning season as a head coach. Congratulations to Coach Karl!

    • Tom

      He’s only had one team miss the playoffs in that time (’01 Bucks). His regular season winning percentage as a coach is nearly 60% (though he is only 75-97 in the playoffs).

      • Ryan

        Yes, GK is a great regular season coach, but that shouldn’t really satisfy us as Nuggets fans. We should aspire to be a quality organization that competes for championships on almost basis, like the Spurs, Lakers, and (now) Thunder do. As long as Karl continually gets outcoached consistently in the playoffs, the regular season wins are pretty empty. He’s basically just Don Nelson Jr…

        • Ryan

          *almost yearly

  • steve

    Great article. Go Nugs!

  • al68

    Me parece muy acertado casi todo lo que dices y muy realista sobre cual es la situacion del equipo.

    Pienso que la defensa con miller y harrington a la vez se resiente mucho.

    Mcgee no debe jugar más es un jugador que desequilibra el equipo se cree mucho mejor de lo que es solo busca poner tapones y me parece bien la forma de utilizarlo por GK en periodo cortos de tiempo para que asi consiga estar más concentrado.

    No se habla del tiro exterior que este año es muy malo, podia GK haber obtenido mas beneficio de Hamilton que ha demostrado ser un buen tirador a nivel NBA.

    Brewer no es tan malo como dices para mi es muy parecido a Faried en el sentido que sabe hacer 2 o 3 cosas muy bien pero cuando se creen que son estrellas se estrellan.

    Otra vez muy buen articulo, perdonad que escriba en español ya que es un blog en ingles pero prefiero eso a que no pueda expresar lo que pienso

    Go nuggets!!!!

    • magster

      No problemo! Uso el Google Translator

      • GK4Prez

        That’s how I translate the posts…lol and al68 makes some good points, I don’t always agree with all of them, but that is what a message board is all about, so it is worth the copy and paste imo.

  • Giovanni

    My support from Italy..
    Go Nuggets

  • Thomas

    It’s great that we have some young players that have the potential to take the Nuggets to new places, but let’s not get carried away as we usually do.

    Haven’t any of you seen GK over these last several years? Regardless of the important win last night, did you see anything that would lead you to think that he will change?

    Come playoffs, trust guys (Andre and Al) will play over 25 minutes per game and we will play small ball during most stretches of the second half. We will lose the rebounding edge. We will face teams much bigger than the Rockets (who outrebounded us yesterday), teams that will be much more successful at playing half-court.

    Teams like the Lakers or the Spurs will kill us in a long series if we play that way. The only way to have a fighting chance is to stick it out with our defensive guys – Faried, KK, Brewer. We will need Gallo for more than 30 minutes, even if he lays bricks for a quarter or more.

    Expectations are always so low that GK always feels safe with his job. We will lose in the first round in a predictable way, and our young core will not gain as much experience or confidence that they should.

    If we are not going to win it all this year (I think we all agree on that), what is the point of sticking with Andre and Al and small line-ups at the end of games. To me, that is coaching at its poorest at the worst possible time.

    That’s what we are going to get. I hope I eat my words, but I have zero confidence that GK is going to do things differently or come up with a different outcome.

    It’s been so easy to outcoach him in the playoffs, I wonder what goes on in that mind of his – if anything.

    • Andrew

      Love the post, Jeremy, but I have to agree with Thomas regarding Karl. He will go back to relying on the smalls once post season comes around, and that may translate to a slightly closer game than risking mistakes by the bigs, but in the end it makes the outcome that much more certain. The only chance these Nuggets have come playoff time is to play some LARGE Ball and hope the athleticism of McGee, the constancy of K2 and maybe even some good play by Moz and Birdman can cause an upset. I would like to see Karl experiment with some large lineups in these last few games. Maybe go back to having two 7 footers out there for a period of time and then switch them out with two MORE 7 footers (ok, Bird is only 6’11”, but you get my point). Not sure they could do it with Miller on the court, because he would assuredly leave wide open three pointers for the opposing team, but maybe with a Faried/Brewer/AAA/Ty combo of some sort.

      • Andrew

        Meant to, of course, add Gallo in there.

  • Charles Murray

    I guess we can expect some whining, even when we are doing well and against the odds GK has had to overcome. If you don’t have something helpful to say, please say nothing. What you don’t understand is the balancing required to grow a team; the experimentation, personnel, timing, trade-offs. You manage to look at one thing and fixate; i.e, we lost the rebounding but won the game. What would you rather have? I hope you eat your words too, and can say some good things for a change! Sorry, but that’s my impression…

    • Thomas

      I guess we can also expect lame replies from GK cheerleaders who can’t be objective about the shortcomings of the strategy and the very poor playoff record of the coach.

      • Ryan

        Don’t worry, GK just comes on here under different pseudonyms and defends himself. No objective basketball fan would object to questioning coaching decisions on a message board

    • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

      Wow, have you completely missed the boat here, Mr. Murray. Whining?! Give us a break! It’s called criticism, and in this case it’s plenty thoughtful and on target.

      “If you don’t have something helpful to say, please say nothing.” What garbage. Fans don’t need to be helpful unless they’re in the stands supporting their team. Informed observers of the game have every right to hold and advocate strong opinions about their team and how it executes–and how it is coached.

      Thomas is far from fixated on one thing. He has obviously watched the Nuggets carefully this season, and he well understands the issues with the bizarre rotations, along with the reliance on small ball and Karl’s so-called trust guys. If we’re not one and done in the playoffs, I have no doubt he’ll eat his words, and so will I.

      “What you don’t understand is the balancing required to grow a team; the experimentation, personnel, timing, trade-offs.” Again, give us a break. Plenty of us understand those things all too well. We care less about wins and losses than we do growing this young team. That won’t happen by playing Andre Miller and Al Harrington into the ground. The future roster of this team has needed more time on the court; more trust from the coach; more leeway to make mistakes and learn from them.

      The Nuggets victories of late don’t–and shouldn’t–change the minds of those who have offered the same criticisms throughout most of the season. Nor will your pollyanna attitude. How dare you call that “whining!”

  • magster

    The Nuggets through injury and a season full of tinkering have stumbled into a workable and effective rotation ever since Karl started bringing McGee off the bench with Miller. McGee has improved so much after that move, and now we have a solid 9 man rotation with everyone having a pretty well defined role.

    AAA Gallo Ty the scorers in the starting lineup.
    Al: Scorer off the bench
    Andre: The facilitator off the bench
    Kouf: The big man
    Faried and Brewer: The energy and opposing team discombobulaters
    McGee: Bench big man and energy.

    We have a small ball lineup that fits in that rotation, and since McGee does well with Miller in the game and Miller and Ty usually close games, McGee can be in for the end too if we need size.

    We’ve won 5 straight at home, and 4 of 5, and we’re peaking and stumbling into this rotation just in the nick of time. We are dangerous now.

  • DHinNYC

    Great piece Jeremy! How about another one analyzing potential playoff match-ups?

  • GK4Prez

    First of all, is it just me or have the Nuggets been defending the perimeter better over the last 4 or 5 games? Hopefully, it isn’t just me and some others have also noticed this in games.

    I have never been a big GK fan, and I will be a happy camper once his days as the coach of the Nuggets are over, but the man has done a good job this year. I don’t like some of his habits/patterns, but no other coach in the playoff picture has had to adjust his starting rotation more. I guess the rest of this is just a reiteration of Jeremy’s post, and I can’t believe I am saying this, but, in my opinion, he is right in his assertion.

    I believe the Nuggets have had 23 different starting lineups this year, which is a different lineup every 3 games. This also messes up the rest of the rotation. The team also made a mid-season trade and added a mid-season free agent, which has meant even more juggling of the roster, and GK has managed to do all of this and still keep the team in the playoff picture, this is no small task.

    If things hold true, and I suspect they will, the Nuggets will be in the playoffs once again. Many including myself don’t think that they are going to go far once they do get in, but making them this year is a very good accomplishment, at least I think it is. I have no issues with GK going small in the 4th quarter, and I have no doubts that it will continue in the post season, but GK has even adjusted this a bit, in some of the recent games he has kept a real center on the floor late in the 4th.

    Mcgee should start, but he has played better with the 2nd unit when Dre is running the point. Faried and Gallo also seem to have found a bit of chemistry together. Even though Gallo hasn’t exactly wowed anyone since his return, you can tell that he is a very valuable player to the team when he is in the rotation.

    They need to take care of the home court and steal a game on the road. If they do that, they should be able to hold onto the 6th spot.

    • GK4Prez

      I didn’t mean to imply that I can’t believe that I am agreeing with Jeremy, I meant that I can’t believe that I am agreeing with him by supporting GK for the job he has done this year as the coach of this team.

  • fats

    Mostly agree with point #1, though it should be noted the p&r d struggled against Hou and we made our biggest runs those games when we were switching.

    One point of optimism I have is that Gallo seems to have more confidence in the halfcourt since his latest return from injury. He’s been up and down production-wise, but with halfcourt o being our 2nd biggest problem it’s reason for optimism.

  • Landry

    I feel like GK has reestablished himself to the team at the final stretch of the season and using his experiments to establish his rotation. Like all good coaches GK knows the regular season is a marathon not a sprint.
    The GK Plan (Fan Perspective)
    Step 1 Hot start using superior chemistry to start season 13-5 record
    Step 2 Lay off team by allowing Assistant Coaches to teach and watch experiments(injuries, Faried, Brewer, Koufos, 2PG line-up and a Trade(McGee))
    Step 3 Reestablish fiery attitude, No more excuses mentality.
    Step 4 Get Hot before the Playoffs with team that buys into the “play hard” philosophy on defense as well as offense
    Step 5 Well that’s for you to decide GK!!

    • Landry

      The George Karl all trust team.

      Rudy Fernandez (Go Barcelona)
      Nene (Our Brazilian Beast)
      Andre Miller (Lob city baby!!!)
      Big Al (Still going strong with a torn meniscus)
      Afflalo (I mean 42 mins a game like every night??)

      I mean GK has done a great job adjusting, I was sold once Faried became the starter!!! Hopefully we get a solid back-up SG next year with Hamilton off the bench!!!

      • al68

        Rudy go to madrid no Barcelona.

        Madrid-Barcelona is like Usa-irak the opposite.

  • Evan S

    Hamilton should play back up 2 next year considering we’re loaded at the 3 with gallo chandler and brewer. Nuggets need to find an answer at center if Javale doesn’t come back.

  • Sam

    All good points. In my opinion the biggest difference in the last few games has been the play of Andre Miller. He’s out of his slump. Whether the slump was self-induced or coach-induced I dont know. But if he had played at this level throughout the season we would have been placed much higher on the standings.

  • DH

    Interesting game tonight. I think most Nugs fans would agree that our best chance in the postseason is against the Clippers. For the Nuggets to meet the Clippers, both teams need to finish strong. If we beat the Clips, it puts them one game behind the Lakers in the loss column, and the Lakers have the tiebreaker. So we could be hurting ourselves by winning. Obviously, I’m not advocating losing. We need to keep winning. I’m just pointing out that this is a bad break in the scheduling/timing.

    As for the Nuggets, I’m as excited as anyone about the recent improvement. But I don’t want to celebrate too soon. The Nuggets of a few weeks ago could easily lose 4 out of the next 5. But if we keep doing what we’ve done lately – or even improve on that – I think we will go 3-2 or 4-1 and battle Dallas for the 6th seed until the end. A lot will depend on whether OKC has anything to play for when we meet them.

    Sorry, just thinking out loud. How does everyone else see things working out?

  • ny nugs fan

    the nugs are already a 6 seed

    i could actually see us as a 4 maybe 5 seed

    • DH

      To be a 5 seed, we would need to pass the Grizzlies or the Clippers.

      If we managed to win 4 out of our last 5, then Memphis would need to lose 4 out of their last 5. Their last 5 games are against the Hornets, Bobcats, Blazers (with no Aldridge), Cavs, and Magic (possibly with no Howard). I don’t see much hope there, even if we win all 5 games.

      The only way to pass the Clippers is if we win all 5 games and the Clips lose all of their remaining games.

      So, I think the best we can do is the 6 seed. Hopefully, we can hold on to that, because it’s looking more and more like OKC will be the 2 seed. So we don’t want to be the 7, IMO.

      A win against the Clips tonight, coupled with a loss for the Mavs against the Rockets, would be big for the Nuggets.

      • Avarice_WP

        Yep pretty much correct. I think Denver gets the 6th seed against the Clippers, because the Lakers have been struggling without Kobe. I would like to see an analysis on a Nuggets @ Clippers matchup, which I see as the mostly likely playoff first round matchup.

        • DH

          I really hope you’re right, because I think the most likely matchups are the Nuggets as a 7 seed against the Thunder or the Nuggets as a 6 seed against the Lakers.

          Anyway, maybe Jeremy, Kalen, and Charlie can each analyze one matchup – Den vs LAC, Den vs OKC, Den vs LAL. That would be great, but I bet they would want to wait until the playoff picture clears up a little more.

  • Tom

    Huh, team starts getting healthy and gets its best player back from injury and suddenly starts playing better. Wow, what a concept, that a team’s health could have an impact on its performance!

    I hope the Nuggets get the Lakers in the 1st round. I would love nothing more than for the Nuggets to be the ones to end the Lakers’ season. I don’t care if Bynum is doing his best Godzilla impression, the Nuggets will find a way!

  • DH

    I’m not sure what you mean by “getting healthy”, other than Gallo coming back. Maybe Miller’s shoulder healing? But he’s played well through that injury, for the most part. The only other recent injury developments that I can think of are negative – Al’s knee injury and Chandler’s hip injury.

    I’m glad Gallo is back and it’s helped with the overall team concept. But individually he hasn’t been setting the world on fire. He’s averaging 9 points on 9 of 26 shooting, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in the last three games. I expect his stats to improve over time, though, as he seems to take a while to adjust after injury.

    I think the points that Jeremy outlined – and some that he didn’t – have more to do with the Nuggets’ improvement than the idea that the Nugs are “getting healthy”. Regardless, it’s good to see. And it’s certainly the right time of the year to be playing their best.