One of the biggest obstacles I run into when trying to project what Denver will look like going into next season is the absence of any idea what the system will be like under Brian Shaw. The Nuggets have spent the better part of a decade running the sometimes varied but always unorthodox George Karl system, and the extent to which Shaw deviates from that remains to be seen. He has been on the record as saying he will ditch the triangle offense that his coaching had been pigeonholed into (a wise move) and that he will continue to utilize Denver’s unique home court advantage with an uptempo offense (another smart move), but other than that it is mostly a mystery.
However, I am pretty confident that at least a good portion of Karl’s dribble-drive offense will be replaced with a more traditional pick-and-roll centric system. I will defend Karl’s dunks-and-threes system till the day I die in terms of how well it succeeded in the team sense but it is undeniable that the Nuggets have many players who would thrive in a more pick-and-roll featured scheme (Ty Lawson especially). There’s just one problem. There are precious few Nuggets who know how to properly set screens.
Screen setting is an oft overlooked skill, being as it’s statistically un-trackable (at least for now) and how readily it’s assumed to be a pretty base skill. It’s not. Like every other skill in the NBA, screening ability comes in degrees, from the excellently tricky Spurs (Splitter, Duncan, and Diaw) to the perpetually fouling Kendrick Perkins to the too often apathetic Melo. A quick glance over the Nugget’s roster reveals an alarming amount of guys on the wrong end of that spectrum.
JaVale treats setting screens like a child treats eating spinach. To him they are nothing but a formality, a mere hinderance in his never ending quest to flamboyantly dunk on the world. It’s almost laughable how poorly executed some of these “screens” are, he either accidentally runs into the opposing player rather than coordinating a two-way attack with the point guard or he’ll extend his hip out for a half a second before bounding off to the basket.
Due to his otherworldly pogo-stick athleticism and Iggy’s excellent court vision (I miss him already), McGee is able to capitalize on many of these broken screen-and-rolls. But there was a reason he was featured in the pick-and-roll as little as he was and why the ball handler in these tandem’s turned the ball over much more when paired with McGee over any other big. There is no real structure to where or when he sets the screen and many times he’ll just hover, shrinking the spacing, while the ball handler is forced to dribble ad infinitum or until he turns it over.
JaVale needs to work on his entire approach to pick-and-rolls, not to mention the trickier stuff like pin-downs and flare screens, of which he (probably on Karl’s instruction) almost never attempted.
Faried has gone through his own learning process but seems to have grasped the intricacies of screening on pick-and-rolls at the very least on a fundamental level (finishing around the rim though…well that’s an article for another time). Like McGee he gets a tad overexcited at times and cuts off his screen too soon, with dreams of the rim flashing prematurely before his eyes. He also overcompensates for this tendency by lingering too long at times and defenders rarely seem bothered to stay attached to him with little to fear from his jump shot.
Here Faried whiffs on his screen and it leads to Philadelphia’s trapping of Andre Miller in a play that ends with a Faried jumper, always a win for the defense.
Timing is huge when it comes to setting screens and Faried is still in the process of calibrating the internal clock that most veterans possess intuitively. But he’s on his way and the flashes of improvement he showed in his sophomore year are encouraging. However he’s going to be asked to shoulder much more of the off-play type screening load, the job that Koufos did almost by himself last year. Nearly every successful Iggy cut and dunk came off a pin-down screen by Koufos. Faried, through both his size and his inexperience, often hijacked the play with a mistimed screen or an inability (or unwillingness) to make direct contact with the opposing player in favor of diving for the rim.
He gets Iggy in trouble with Conley by missing on his pin-down screen because he was so busy trying to get to the rim (Conley also did a great job of staying attached to Iggy all the way through). These are the types of things the Nuggets are going to need him to improve on, with an already spacing-deficient offense, these type of screens are going to be the biggest key to opening lanes to the basket.
Hickson suffers from a lot of the same problems as Faried, his timing on screens can get him in trouble and he tends to float around the play rather than actually dive right in. Still, Hickson was a rim-running monster last year so whatever his tendencies are in the pick-and-roll, they aren’t too damaging.
The problem comes, as it has with every player thus far, with the extra stuff, which he seems to mistake as being extraneous. He takes a rather apathetic approach to screens that do not directly lead to him getting the ball, and there were countless times in the tape I watched where he basically took on the role of a turnstile, much to the determent of the surrounding play.
Hopefully the only problem is that of effort, as that can be curbed with the right coaching and team situation, but compounded with his already lackluster screening skill in the pick-and-roll, it’s something to worry about.
All of Mozgov’s basketball “problems” stem more or less from the same place. He doesn’t really know how tall he is. He has yet to let his seven foot frame manifest itself in the way he plays basketball and the trepidation he has from that on the court is palpable. But the unknown (which, considering the minutes he’s played the last couple of years, he still kind of is) brings much more hope than the established, and he may well turn out to be the team’s salvation. But it is probably not too wise to bank on that.
If you want salvation than here is where you’d likely have to look. Not only does Arthur bring a pick-and-pop skill set that is sorely needed on this roster, but he combines that with multifaceted competency as a screener not seen on the team since the loss of Kofous.
In the first clip Arthur stays with the screen just long enough to free Conley but not too long as to get out of position for his roll to the rim. It’s a relatively small thing but his internal clock is tuned in the way that Faried’s, and maybe even Hickson’s, is not. The second clip emphasizes why it helps to have a jump shot as he essentially screens two players at once, one by the actual screen and the other by merely having the range that requires his defender to stick with him.
Arthur is far and away the best screening big on the team and if you compound that with him being one of the select few Nugget’s who’s not a minus on defense, odds are he’s going to see quite a few minutes in the rotation.
After Kosta, Wilson Chandler and Gallinari were the two most utilized screeners on the team last year. Chandler’s “pick and fade” (credit to Mike Prada) and the Lawson-Gallo pick-and-roll became staples of the offense, but Gallo is coming off knee surgery and Chandler’s play relied heavily on his high three point percentage, an outlier in terms of his career and something I’m dubious he can repeat.
This means the bigs are going to have to develop quickly. For guys like Ty Lawson to truly take advantage of a more pick-and-roll centric offense they’re going to need proper screening. Karl compensated for the spacing issues by basically banning the mid-range shot, something impossible to do when you’re running the pick-and-roll frequently. Denver has to compensate another way, through well timed screens to free up the mid-range shot and the lane to the rim.
Setting screens may be the most mundane and unfulfilling skill in all of basketball, but it’s still an intrinsically valuable skill to have. It may well be the difference between a playoff birth and a fire sale at the trade deadline for the Nuggets.