In the second half of our two season preview pieces we’re opening up the format for our writers to be more liberal with their content. This is an opportunity for them to say whatever they want in regards to the upcoming Nuggets season. As always, please chime in with your own “Roundtable Rant” in the comments section below, as we’d love to hear what’s on your mind on the eve of the 2012-13 season.
Who are the real Denver Nuggets? As the team enters the 2012-13 season, there are two competing narratives at play – one of hope and one of worry.
Denver’s strong finish last season — culminating in a noble playoff battle against the Lakers — appeared to be solid evidence that under Masai Ujiri’s custodianship it had successfully weathered the tumult of the Melo trade. The Nuggets were well on their way to a long-lasting, bright future. The surprising offseason trade for Andre Iguodala heightened this perception. There were other encouraging signs too. The coaching staff swooned over how many players committed to staying in Denver over the summer to improve their game. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried attended Hakeem Olajuwon’s training camp, upping expectations on the pace of their development. Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier put in strong international and Summer League performances. Every sign seemed to be auspicious.
Then came the preseason. Many Nuggets fans have been discouraged by the barrage of sub-par performances over the past few weeks. McGee seemed to have regressed. Ty Lawson and Faried were playing far below the level of aggression and effort required for them to be effective. Despite the addition of Iguodala and a training camp primarily focused on defense, there was no discernible improvement in Denver’s perimeter D. The offense appeared disjointed, unfocused and lacking in identity. Preseason field-goal percentages were abysmal: Chandler .214, Iguodala .317, Miller .350, Hamilton .364, Gallinari .389, Lawson .391, Fournier .393, Anthony Carter .400. And Corey Brewer was the best player on the team, which obviously won’t translate into a winning formula.
The Nuggets are about to embark on what surely is their most difficult start to a season in franchise history; and who knows how they’ll handle it. Which Nuggets team (and players) will show up this season? Will the starters abandon their lackluster preseason play and kick it into high gear once the games really matter? Will Ty assert the attacking style the team needs from him? Will Brewer be (as Matt Moore proposes) an MIP candidate, or recede back into his limited role as an energy guy? Will JaVale play more fundamentally sound basketball? Will the team as a whole put in a more energized effort to improve defensively? Can George Karl figure out the best lineups to maximize offensive chemistry? In short, can this team take the next step and elevate itself to a higher tier?
I predict that the answer is yes. For a successful season, not all the questions above need to be resolved in the Nuggets’ favor — but enough will be. The talent level of this team is simply too high. The intensity and energy will be there when the Nuggets start the season with their backs against the wall, playing former teammates in the first two games and pretty much the entire Eastern Conference over the subsequent six weeks. If Denver is still in preseason form by late November, then it will be time to worry. We already saw last year how great this team can be when on top of its game, and that was without Iguodala. Nuggets fans should be pumped for this season and confident it’ll be one of the most exciting in Nuggets history.
Being a Nuggets fan is like having a perpetual case of buyer’s remorse — in a good way, if that makes any sense. Things never go as well as you initially planned. From the outside, every year, the Nuggets look like one of the best teams in the West. At any point in time they could take off; go on that long-awaited run in the Playoffs or even a large stretch of the regular season. As a Nuggets fan, you always expect something great to happen.
Unfortunately, it never really does.
If I sound like quite the cynic, it’s because I am! But please, don’t misconstrue it for pessimism or negativity. I can tell you right now, those are the furthest words in my vocabulary looking towards the start of this upcoming season.
I’ve simply read this book before. You have too. Many times, in fact. Perhaps the difference between us is that I refuse to keep tricking myself. I guess you could say I’m no longer a “believer.” That’s not to say I can’t be converted; I’m just not getting myself up so that I can be let down, when I know it’s coming. It’s happened way too many times before.
In a recent article I wrote for a magazine we’re compiling in one of my classes, I said the Nuggets need to be about business and not partying. Think about it. The Nuggets are kind of like a party. Everyone has a good time… but then what? When it comes down to business, this team lacks substance. It’s all about running like crazy, playing just enough defense to get by and riding the coattails of the team’s best player when the chips are down. There’s a reason the Nuggets are everyone’s favorite League Pass team. Unfortunately, being fun has never been synonymous with establishing dynasties and winning NBA titles.
As much as I love to watch a run-and-gun team for 82 games a year, I also realize it’s not a recipe for success in the Playoffs. When you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on your team it’s a different story. But even the Heat know how to execute in a half-court set. When it comes down to it, the Nuggets simply don’t employ a system that translates to postseason success, which is precisely why they implode come playoff time (or, one of the reasons).
Taking advantage of the altitude in Denver is a smart move, but it shouldn’t be the only move. The Nuggets need to learn how to function when the pace slows down. They need to run plays! They need to understand how to recover when Plan A falls apart. They need to know what it feels like to execute a complex offense in a pressured environment on a regular basis. But most importantly: They need to play defense!
The absolute, unquestioned, outright key to the upcoming Nuggets season is how well they play defense. There’s just no reason they should settle for being mediocre on this end of the court, even if they do run a lot. Losing track of your man on the perimeter as often as the Nuggets do is embarrassing. There’s no willingness to fight through screens. Only a few guys on the team really buy into the philosophy of getting low, moving their feet and having active hands. One of them (Afflalo) left this summer.
If the Nuggets play defense — actually PLAY defense — then you can consider my belief in this team utterly restored. If they start executing in the half court, I’m all in. If they can prove these things to me throughout the season, I’ll be over the moon. But until then, I’ll happily remain a skeptic while still enjoying every minute of every game this season from my all-time favorite sports team.
I have bought into the Nuggets mix of players and for the first time have become the optimistic blogger at RMC. Of course, it helps that I trumpeted the virtues of acquiring Andre Iguodala in a trade featuring Arron Afflalo and the Nuggets proceeded to do just that. Either way, I picked Denver to finish the regular season with 56 wins. The Nuggets have never won that many games in the NBA. In case you were wondering, they joined the league when Gerald Ford was president.
Am I getting sucked in by the hype? I have to admit, my pessimistic side has declared war on my optimistic prediction. The truth is: There are considerable red lights that cannot be ignored.
First and foremost, the Nuggets are a horrendous defensive team and it will take more than Iguodala to repair those issues. With Denver already featuring fantastic offense, I expected George Karl to focus on defense as he did in 2008-09, which happened to be the only season Karl led the Nuggets out of the first round. It is a little disconcerting that Karl’s primary message all offseason and during training camp is to play faster, faster, faster!!!! In Denver’s final two nationally televised preseason games you would expect to see a somewhat polished product. Instead, their defense was abysmal. All of the same issues from last season persist: horrible pick-and-roll coverage, lazy rotations, lackadaisical help defense and plenty of open looks from behind the 3-point line for the opposition.
A major key for the Nuggets this year will be Karl’s ability to understand which players bring out the best in one another. Keep in mind that Karl is fond of referring to the first 20 games of the season as extended training camp. Those first 20 games just so happen to be the 20 most difficult games on the schedule. Also, Wilson Chandler, who’s expected to be a major contributor this year, missed nearly all preseason and training camp. In case you forgot, he only played in eight games last season.
The only connection everyone has confidence in is Miller to McGee. But does it make sense to pair McGee with Miller in the hope they connect on one or two lobs a night instead of pairing him with Lawson, who can get the best out of him in transition as well as on drive-and-dish plays? Honestly, I do not think anyone knows what the best combination of players is heading into the season.
While Denver’s depth is a good thing it could become a very frustrating for the players. There is a long-held belief that players need to know what their role is. NBA players are creatures of habit. The Nuggets have too many players who lack defined roles. The only players who know what their contribution will be night after night are Lawson, Miller, Iguodala, Gallinari and Faried. Everyone else will all be in a state of flux on a nightly basis. To further compound this problem, the five players who finish the game will probably change throughout the year. As long as the team is winning, egos should remain in check. This was a potential issue last season, but injuries provided Karl a bit of a reprieve.
George Karl has to figure out who to play and when. All 12 players who are active for any given game believe they should be playing. But I don’t know of any team that has a 12-man rotation. If the Nuggets struggle out of the gate — which is possible considering their schedule and shoddy defense — will players be content to have their playing time fluctuate, or be relegated to the bench? On a team built with depth and unselfishness, bad chemistry would be disastrous.
That said, the Nuggets are talented and in the NBA talent wins games. I still expect the Nuggets to have a good regular season and go to war against the Lakers or Thunder in the conference semifinals. If the season does not pan out the way most of us expect, it will be the reasons listed above that trigger the disappointment.
I’m not much of a preseason guy and never have been, but it’s a little hard to completely ignore the Nuggets’ issues in the last three exhibition games. We saw the Nuggets’ opponents tighten up their rotations and up the intensity while Denver just kept getting worse as the preseason wore on.
There’s no doubt pessimism is beginning to take hold as Ty Lawson’s contract negotiations hang over a brutal start to the season where the Nuggets play 17 of their first 23 on the road. It’s an unwanted distraction at time when it seems nothing is going right for the Denver Nuggets.
The good news is we still haven’t played a meaningful game and getting some frustration and adversity out of the way before that happens can be a good thing.
The fact the Nuggets didn’t solve their main rotation issues doesn’t surprise me. On a team this deep, the preseason is the right time to get everybody involved. As much as you want guys to naturally fall into roles and play themselves into or out of the rotation, it’s much more likely we’ll see a lot of ups and downs out of the Nuggets’ developing young players. Of course we know the Nuggets need to find scoring off the bench and more reliable big man play — two areas where they have at least two players trying to stand out. Having that kind of competition when games don’t matter naturally makes it difficult to decide on a real rotation.
I think you’ll see Karl be much more forceful with playing time as soon as the games start counting. If Jordan Hamilton’s playing well, he should be able to rest easy knowing Karl isn’t going to sit him the next three games while the Nuggets showcase Anthony Carter. Likewise, JaVale McGee is not going to get a pat on the back and a smile from the bench if he starts the regular season like he did the preseason. After years of watching the NBA, I think how players react to winning and losing has a way of deciding who plays — no matter how much coaching goes into it.
Offensively the Nuggets haven’t been bad, just timid. I expect Gallo, Lawson and Iguodala to be much more aggressive and look to carry more of the scoring load. They will see the ball so often it’s almost guaranteed one of them will have a pretty good year. The Nuggets did struggle to finish at the rim and earned very few free throws in preseason, but I suspect players like Lawson and Gallo will be more willing to attack and risk injury when there’s more than just pride on the line.
Defensively, the Nuggets look bad and there’s cause for some real concern. Denver is soft at the rim and their bigs have been eaten alive in the pick and roll. JaVale McGee and Anthony Randolph look like the only credible shot blockers on the team, but neither has earned the trust of coach George Karl. Kosta Koufos has stood out with his rebounding and steady production, but he’s awful protecting the rim and is outmuscled by more physical players in the post. I sense a major lack of confidence in the bigs coming from George Karl’s staff and quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine this getting resolved without first getting a little ugly.
A lot of it will depend on whether JaVale McGee can play 25-30 minutes a night on a winning team. Paying a player $44 million before knowing the answer to that question seems utterly ridiculous, but we haven’t yet seen it out of JaVale. Personally, I think he will produce if given minutes but I don’t blame the coaching staff for being uneasy about trusting the enigmatic McGee to be dependable. JaVale’s situation is the one hazard that could really blow up the Nuggets’ season if he becomes disenchanted with the bench role and short leash he’s already guaranteed to start the season with.
If the Nuggets avoid that landmine, I really do believe they’ll shake off the preseason malaise and start looking like the most dynamic team Denver has had in years. Outside of some minor injuries and a little bit of rust, this team is healthy and ready to go. I’m a firm believer talent wins out in the NBA and talent-wise, this Nuggets team stacks up with anyone.
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