The Denver Nuggets kicked off the Brian Shaw era with a win Sunday night, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 97-88 in their first game of the preseason. While the score was close for most of the game, the Nuggets were able to ride their superior depth and a strong third quarter surge to a comfortable win over the Lakers, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back without the services of Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar.
All summer long we have heard talk of Brian Shaw’s ambitious plans for a more traditional offense and a renewed focus on defense, but Sunday night was the first real opportunity to get a look at just how that process might play out over the course of the season.
Judging by what we saw in his first outing as a head coach, it’s fair to say Shaw is starting with a very measured approach. Outside of a few more post-ups and much more traditional pick and roll coverages, we didn’t see any drastic departures from the overall style the Nuggets have played in the past. By and large they still looked like the deep, athletic teams of yesteryear with a strong emphasis on pace and early offense.
That is not to say there weren’t some marked differences in Shaw’s coaching style compared to George Karl’s, because there were plenty. But having the Nuggets stick to a loose, running style they already knew made for an easier audition process for the returning roster and some of the new faces who were among the 14 players who saw solid minutes in Denver’s preseason opener.
I liked Shaw’s approach to evenly spreading around the minutes, switching up the starters at half and not locking himself into any patterns based on the erratic flow of a preseason game. In essence what we saw was short, fragmented auditions for Denver’s young roster that spread the touches around without letting anyone get settled into a comfortable routine.
Ty Lawson and Jordan Hamilton led the way in scoring with 15 points apiece. It was Lawson however who had the biggest impact on the night. He consistently looked like the best player on the floor, scoring and assisting as the game dictated. He had his legs under him early and was actually called on take command of the offense when a Lakers push threatened the Nuggets’ lead late. Although Lawson had the hot hand Shaw seemed to be sending a clear message that he was expected to be the go-to guy in a critical situation. Believe it or not that is a radical departure from Karl who routinely assigned late-game ballhandling duties by committee.
The rest of the team took turns scoring in bunches, with Denver’s defense standing out as being several steps ahead of their offense. The Nuggets lost the turnover battle and committed 10 more fouls than the Lakers, but they defended pretty well inside and out, holding the Lakers to just a 37.6 eFG% on the night.
Perhaps the most interesting development of the night was how JaVale and Denver’s deep committee of bigs responded to Shaw’s challenge of becoming more of a focal point. JaVale certainly showed nice touch on his shot and was a presence at the rim defensively, but I was struck by how he and the rest of Denver’s bigs struggled to play at different speeds. Outside of Mozgov none of the bigs looked to use movement inside to create for others and instead we saw a lot of forced shots and out-of-control drives from mid-range, some of which happened to go in. A lot of this was nerves and anxiousness to showcase their games, but my hope is as the preseason progresses we see a lot better balance between post touches and overall offensive movement involving the bigs.
While I did think JaVale helped himself in the context of Shaw’s new system, Kenneth Faried may have done the opposite. He played hard but was routinely caught out of position on both ends. Bad hands and a tendency to wander left him looking not very useful anywhere other than directly underneath the rim. I have no doubt jitters played a part in his struggles but there has to be some level of concern when his limitations became glaring in a system where his role is much less restricted.
Although there were no huge surprises to be found in Denver’s first preseason action, we saw plenty of areas highlighted for improvement. The biggest takeaway might be the fact Denver isn’t trying to forcefully depart from their style rather than slowly start introducing new elements. For a team with such pronounced strengths and obvious flaws that seems like a reasonable approach and a positive first step towards building a new identity.
Preseason Game One Additional Nuggets
Preseason Game One Advanced Stats
Pace Factor: 112.0 – Surprisingly fast although any flow was killed by the constant whistles
Offensive Efficiency: 86.6 – Sloppy but a nice balance of offense with 50 points in the paint
Defensive Efficiency: 78.6 – Denver was active but this may say more about the injury depleted, gassed-looking Lakers