The Denver Nuggets have five preseason games left on the schedule, and tonight versus the Golden State Warriors (7pm/MT) will be the first of only two to be played at the Pepsi Center. Denver did win its first two games, and now that they’ve been played we have gotten the chance to see some of the players in action, and some of the lineups that George Karl is experimenting with. The coaching decisions and player performances thus far point to a few interesting questions, and over the course of the next few games we will hopefully be closer to having the answers.
1. How open is the battle for backup shooting guard minutes?
Many Nuggets fans were surprised and somewhat irked that Jordan Hamilton was given no playing time in last Friday’s game in San Antonio, especially considering he was coming off the heels of an impressive 17 points in 19 minutes performance in the preseason opener. Evan Fournier, who had played just 7 minutes in that previous game, was the benefactor of J-Ham riding the pine. He played with more confidence and competence than he had in the first game, and took a meaningful step towards demonstrating he deserves to play in the NBA. And, as DenverPost.com‘s Benjamin Hochman recently wrote about, Karl thinks highly of him: “He has a mental focus. He wants to be good, and he’s committed… He’ll get some opportunity to play in the next couple games for us.”
At the beginning of the preseason, all signs generally pointed to Hamilton getting the nod as the regular backup shooting guard in the rotation once the regular season gets underway. But it’s clear that Karl and the coaching staff have taken a keen interest in seeing what Fournier can deliver, so this question remains open, and there will now be a fair amount of pressure on J-Ham to earn his minutes. They clearly won’t fall to him by default. That said, Denver needs a player with natural range, and Hamilton is really the only guy who fits that description. The decision to sit him was surely due to giving Fournier a look and Brewer heating up, and I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more of J-Ham as the preseason progresses.
2. Can JaVale McGee find his groove?
In the first two preseason games, McGee has looked pretty discombobulated out there. He did manage to get things on track a little better in the second half against the Spurs, but for the most part his play has been forced, sloppy and uncontrolled. Or in other words, basically the opposite of what one might expect after training for three weeks with Hakeem Olajuwon. Those sessions and the hype around them, as well as his two superlative playoff games, may have disproportionately raised expectations beyond the real pace of his development regarding “what kind of JaVale” we’d be seeing. But so far, it has been somewhat disappointing to watch.
He did exceed expectations last season after being traded, however, and showed an aptitude for improving his control, reducing the “knucklehead” factor and boosting his overall level of play. A lot of what he needs to learn now still involves unlearning bad habits that got entrenched over his first three and a half seasons, and as such it would be unrealistic to expect him to change overnight. Patience will be necessary, but let’s hope that he can show us some encouraging signs with a few solid preseason performances.
3. Can the starters play like starters?
This is one of those questions where “It’s only the preseason, don’t worry about it” might seem to be the most appropriate response. But don’t forget about Denver’s regular season schedule. With 17 of their first 23 games on the road, they will really need to hit the ground running. And to a man, the starters were all pretty much duds against the Spurs, combining for 18 of 48 shooting (.375) with four of the five players in the minus column (to McGee’s credit, he was the one in the plus).
These guys aren’t going to stop being great basketball players, and it’s easy to see how dudes who aren’t competing for minutes could phone it in a little bit during the preseason. But there should be some valid concern that if they don’t establish good chemistry by the time the regular season starts, that wicked schedule could make it a lot harder to adjust midstream. Hopefully getting back to the Pepsi Center will help on the energy front and serve as an antidote to the last game’s lackluster showing.
4. Will Andre Miller or Wilson Chandler see any preseason action?
George Karl said that Chandler would not be playing against the Spurs or Warriors. The flip side implication of this would seem to be that there’s a chance that rehabilitation from his injury is finally far enough along that he’s close to returning. Of course the Nuggets shouldn’t prematurely rush him back and risk further injury, but if he’s really ready to go and can get in some games, it will be just one more helpful addition to preparing for the regular season.
It would be good, in my opinion, to sit Anthony Carter in a few of these games and let Andre Miller come in to back up Ty Lawson. According to Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com, Miller is expected to play in three or four of Denver’s last preseason games, but was playing with a separated shoulder at the end of last season, and is sitting out a few games to ensure he’ll be healthy when the season starts. His return could help cure some of JaVale’s woes, and also help towards getting the team’s chemistry to gel more quickly.
5. Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov and Anthony Randolph: Will any of them be able to separate themselves from the pack?
Like Hamilton, Randolph also did not play any minutes against San Antonio after playing well in the first preseason game. It appeared that Karl really wanted to give Mozgov and Koufos a lot of run (including significant stretches together) in order to answer this very question of who might be able to put some daylight between himself and the other bigs. In this game, the edge went to Mozgov, who had a pretty nice all-around game, although Koufos did display his rebounding prowess.
I do hope we’ll see more of Randolph going forward, since, unlike Kosta and Timo, how he fits into this team is still a new and largely unanswered question. But for now this contest for frontcourt minutes is wide open, and all of these guys have the opportunity to make their case.