Juggling flaming chainsaws — Denver’s front court dilemma

It’s hard to know how much to extrapolate from the first couple games of the season, as the morning dew from the new year still lays damp upon both arena and player alike. But if there has been any clear takeaway from Denver’s first two games it’s that the front court rotation is a rolling tire fire right now. No front court combination has logged more than 26 minutes together and Brian Shaw is currently juggling the unwieldy number of five big men in and out of the rotation.

The starting pair of McGee and J.J. Hickson is perhaps the most egregious miscalculation and the one who’s change seems the most immanent. Offensively, neither Hickson nor McGee seems to understand how to properly space the floor, despite J.J. being a threat in the pick and pop.

Here the Nuggets run a play to isolate JaVale on the left block (an inadvisable set, but that’s a different article) and  J.J. not only literally runs into Ty Lawson, he follows that up by planting himself uselessly in the middle of the paint just as McGee is making his move. This move renders the weak side of the floor completely inert and places his defender, Aldridge, in perfect position to help on McGee.

The defense, as it were, is even worse. It’s hard to see J.J. Hickson in the play below because he is being completely swallowed by a Wes Matthews screen. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge (Hickson’s man), has a good 10 feet of space to leisurely get off the mide-range jumper he is extremely adept at nailing.

Hickson screened

Hickson did a fair job versus DeMarcus Cousins in the post Wednesday night, but anytime Sacramento or Portland ran his guy through a screen, things fell apart very quickly. McGee’s minutes were once again frustratingly limited but the frustration should probably be directed at the player who has once again failed to change his enthusiastically superfluous ways and not the coach who’s job it is to win games. Over the duration of his 23 minutes of playing time this year, the Nuggets have posted a disastrous defensive rating of 120.6 points per 100 possessions, a number aided by the antics of someone who still does things like this in his sixth season in the NBA.

JaVale Wings

Alternative front court duos included McGee and Faried — just as bad as the McGee-Hickson pairing for the same reasons — Mozgov and Faried; and Hickson and Arthur. Hickson and Arthur closed out the game against Sacramento, more out of necessity than meritocratic reward for their play, but the pair cannot really be looked at as a long term solution. Arthur is a solid defensive player in his own right but he has some egregious tendencies (shown below) that do not get covered up in the slightest when he is played alongside Hickson or McGee.

Arthur not closing out

Faried and Mozgov have, rather surprisingly, meshed together the best out of the group. Their net rating in 26 minutes (plus-22.1) is slightly misleading as they’ve mostly gone up against bench units thus far, but Mozgov especially has shown some signs of defensive life among a group of center options otherwise devoid of any. For a mobile big he still lingers below the foul line too often and his offensive game is probably always going to be somewhat raw, but he uses his length in much smarter ways than McGee and he’s fit in the flow of the offense much more seamlessly than Hickson or Arthur.

The answer to these glaring front-court questions remains an enigma in the macro sense, although Chandler and (eventually) Gallinari’s returns should help the spacing on offense and help soak up solid minutes at the power forward spot versus smaller teams. But at the moment the Nuggets face a true conundrum. The player they fired the coach of a 57-win team over and traded away a cheap, solid two-way center for, is not earning the minutes that were so lavishly carved out for him. The undersized power forward who doesn’t fit the new system is still somehow outplaying the newly acquired asset who was supposedly good enough to take that player’s starting spot.

There may be 80 games to go, but it’s already nearing decision time for Brian Shaw and the front office. Do they proceed as planned and give more minutes to JaVale and J.J., and hope that development comes, even at the cost of wins? Or do they admit that the plan executed during the offseason was misguided by giving the jobs to Faried and Mozgov, and burying $16 million worth of assets on the bench yet again.

Denver still has a bit to go before they get to that particular crossroads and Chandler’s return, as well as an increased sample size, should help shake somethings out. But the Nuggets are already a third of the way to their home loss total of last year and with a Western conference this competitive, the timing on this decision could make all the difference.

  • Fraser Nixon

    I’m a big JaVale supporter probably always will be. I’ll be the guy saying “oh but he’s just one step away, IF ONLY he can do this right!”. At the moment Timo is easily our best center. He understands verticality!! He’s a 7’1″ guy who takes up lots of space and plays super fundamental defense!

    Offensively, none of the big fellas have been good. At all. But there has been some promise. 1st of all this post game scheme is absolute rubbish. This team is built to run and attack the rim, that’s what it was built for and that’s what it is good at. None of our big guys are Hakeem or Shaq… or even Roy Hibbert or Marc Gasol! Stop dumping the ball to them!!

    I think the promise shown has been Timo’s aggressiveness, Faried’s hustle (Surprise Surprise) and D.A being apparently the only guy who can set a good screen!

    I’d love to see more of Timo and Faried- and I honestly couldn’t care which 7 footer is in the game in the 4th- but please put one of them in!

    • Chain Breaker

      I couldn’t agree more. Our bigs aren’t the big guys of the 90s i like the idea of posting up, but this is just a little too much. I also believe Javale could be a decent post player given the time. I think combinations of players are hurting us right now. Hopefully, Shaw can find the combinations he is comfortable with and stick with them, because playing 5 bigs isn’t ever going to work.

  • Charliemyboy

    So sad. I’m glad I couldn’t watch. I really feel for the fans in the arena. WTF, fire George Karl. Now what?

  • Duane Grasmick

    I still believe firing George Karl was the right decision…but now I think it is up to the front office to get Shaw the players he needs…..which means this season might get ugly to build a better team

    • Chain Breaker

      I agree. I think Shaw is still raw but Eventually his coaching style will pay off. Eventually, he will realize the pace and style we need to play at, as well as the combinations of players. Lawson is the clear PG but Robinson and Miller cant play together too often as the both need the ball to be effective.

    • Charliemyboy

      When we are 3-13 you will reconsider your thoughts.

      • Duane Grasmick

        No I won’t because even if it is a bad year I believe in the long term Shaw will get this team closer to a championship than Karl ever could going forward.

        • Charliemyboy

          That is speculation and hope. Love Shaw the person, but hw is the same one that couldn’t land a head coach job for years. 9 games and we are getting worse with each game. Poor selection of new players, none with any impact. Bigs getting worse, 3 point shooting defense same. Something doesn’t click. Long term? When we lost Melo how long did it take Karl to get the team gelling? will we beat San Antonio?

  • heykyleinsf

    Foye and Fournier. The both look terrible. I’m hoping it’s more adjusting and learning. . Foye on the veteran side and Fournier on the neophyte side. I think Foye was our worst offseason decision.. I don’t see much hope. I think Fournier will come around eventually.

    • Duane Grasmick

      It is the toughest thing that Shaw will have to teach to this group…defensive responsiblity and attitude….for 10 years this organization had a head coach who couldn’t give a flip about defense…that will be the hardest part of the transition to the new style of play

      • heykyleinsf

        Thank you. And that’s been encultured. Maybe Shaw is trying to do that as well.. and we’re still not adjusting. Hard to say where this is all at, except obviously not working right now. I have to wonder about the minutes distribution and the slower tempo.. but as bad as that loss was at home.. not sure anyone can tell anything.

      • Charliemyboy

        Wrong. Last year in top 10 in defense differential. The difference was we had #1 in fast break points, #1 in points in paint. No playoff success? Now, no playoffs, period. I would rather win 57 games than 3-27-37, thank you.

        • trank

          you can say that again

        • Cullen

          You keep quoting this horribly overrated statistic differential. Differential means they just had an amazing offense to make up for an anemic defense… But guess what? In the playoffs where offense won’t always be easy, how did the Karl defense work.. Oh, yeah.

          • Charliemyboy

            At this level, a slight differential means winning or losing. If they had beat Sacramento by one, the reflection on the game would have completely changed, i.e., they are growing, emphasizing the positive, etc. It is more important to see what the trend of effectiveness is. It’s negative or stagnant; i.e., defense of bigs, defense on 3 pointers, no offense each game. If we have a poor defense and win games during the season we can make the playoffs and enjoy those wins. Now we have a poor defense, poor offense and will likely not make the playoffs. Is this going to change after 9 games?

      • Michael

        Isn’t this the problem though, we seem to be expecting Shaw to teach this team better defense, but he has always focused on offense. He was basically the o-coordinater in Indiana; Defense is Vogal’s specialty. In LA he was supposed to be the next generation expert on the dying Triangle offense. Shaw came here to install his system, but it is an offensive one don’t expect incredible improvement on the Defense (especially with this group of bigs)

  • Warner Dean

    I’m usually the type who believes one should generally use the “rip of the band-aid” approach with these types of situations and go all in with Shaw’s new scheme. However, I’m feeling very differently in regards to how Shaw should proceed with this team. I think it’s very obvious that too much has been thrust upon these guys in too short a period and they’re struggling with the new schemes. If I felt that in a few games we’d see significant progress, I’d say we should stay the course. I don’t feel that way however, and I do feel strongly that we should go back to the basics and try to slowly phase in new techniques as the season progresses. When we still have the ability to field lineups such as Ty, Foye, Fournier, Faried, and McGee, there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t been running balls to the wall, especially at home. No reason whatsoever. Eventually, with some more practice time and established chemistry (at times there are 3 guys playing who weren’t on the team last year) we can slow things down and develop more half court sets. Shaw! Go back to the basics!!

    • Charliemyboy

      If Shaw was smart, he would have let Ty, Gallo and the others tell him how they were so successful, and continue that. Then add his thoughts and experience, incrementally, rather than tell them to do things they don’t know how to do and apparently neither does he. He wasn’t very smart. Karl knew how to do that when Melo left. Almost immediately. Shaw can still reverse himself, and, if we are 3 and 13 before you know it, Kroenke had better suck it up and get Karl back, or he is in big trouble. And that will never happen. Very, very long year. Pay Westbrook $50 mil and trade Ty and Faried. OK might listen (probably not). Oh, BTW, do you think Shaw will make McGee a great center?

  • pgwarner

    Its a players league. The coaches are so way down the list. I like how Shaw takes credit for “bringing Hibbert along defensively”. Right, Shaw created the super human Roy Hibbert. You always look good bringing along HOF players.

    This team was built by the previous GM and coach to run and sky. Remember they traded a player with low post skills in Nene to get McGee. Kofus was their best low post defender and they traded him.

    They wanted McGee’s skill set. The high flyer who could run. Offensively he will never be able to put the ball on the ground. If you can not dribble a few times it really hamstrings you in the post. Defensively McGee is a shot blocker and mainly weak side at that or a jump shot grabber. He is Camby without the toughness. Its not just his lack of mental focus he is light for his size and not strong either.

    I won’t even try to talk about Hixson. Just look at him and you tell me. Faried has all the ability and is very coachable. He has never been taught how to play defense. The smart move would be to teach and support him and not run him down like his present coach seems to want to do.

    I am on record about the challenges Shaw faces with this team. I promise you this. If he keeps blaming his players for not “getting” his system instead of taking that responsibility on himself at this early stage he is in trouble. If he blames a poor showing by his team, which was clearly confused about what their responsibility was to a man, on lack of effort is in for a world of hurt. If McGee gets his feelings hurt even if its his fault and this team does not win Shaw will have a cancer in the locker room.

  • tigglon

    Now let’s not start worrying. This is all part of the Anyone-But-Karl master plan. Step 1: Win very few regular season games. Step 2: Dominate the playoffs.

  • Cullen

    The one thing I will say: there are 80 games left, you alarmists. And the Heat are 1-2! Blow the team up! Hopefully they can get Van Gundy back!!! Spoelstra is the worst coach ever!! Realize how absurd that sounds now?

  • Makkon Farstriders

    It’s way too early; there is too much panic. I’ll come back in 10-15 games and see where we stand. Then we will have a better sample size to determine what needs to be done about player rotations and which guys will stick in this system. As far as this season is concerned, I’m willing to punt a year or two to build a team that can be a real contender and not just a one and done like the last decade.