Like many Americans, the Denver Nuggets have a lot of crap wrong with them. And like many Americans, the Denver Nuggets will make a conscious effort to resolve their nagging issues in the coming week. On Friday the Nuggets will play the New Orleans
Hornets (insert owner’s wife’s favorite animal) Pelicans to put them just over one third of the way through the 2013-14 NBA season. After dropping five of their last six games, and coming off three full days of rest, the Nuggets should be more than ready to turn over a new leaf — even if January 1 is still a few days away. And though the Nuggets have a plethora of problems to be addressed, here are five of most imperative heading into Friday’s game…
Opening and closing out quarters
The Nuggets are an awful team when it comes to the first few minutes of a quarter and the last few minutes of a quarter. They’re especially atrocious during the first five minutes of games and the last five minutes of games. Don’t believe me? Check out any one of the Nuggets’ recent game flows at PopcornMachine.net. My old high-school soccer coach always said these were the most important periods of a game for establishing energy and intimidating your opponent. I believed him and still do, no matter what sport is under discussion. Much of the Nuggets’ problems in this area can be attributed to lineups (more on this later), but enthusiasm, passion and defensive intensity are all things that require effort, not innate talent. Brian Shaw and the Nuggets have to make a collective pact to come out each quarter like a bat out of hell and finish what they started going into timeouts and halftime. Perpetually relying on the middle six to eight minutes of each quarter to score points and play defense is not a sustainable mentality for winning basketball games. The game is played for 48 minutes, not 32.
You know the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Well, this statement also has a verbal counterpart. You may not have heard it before, but it goes something like, “If it is br0ke, for Christ’s sake, please, fix it, do something to correct the problem, because doing nothing about it sure as hell won’t fix it!!!” It’s kind of a new maxim, and you know how those things take a while to catch on. Anyways, the Nuggets’ starting unit is broken. It has been ever since Brian Shaw started using it. It was packaged broken. It arrived broken. And now it’s being broken. At some point Shaw has to realize that (as Joel detailed a few days ago) Randy Foye isn’t producing, Wilson Chandler needs a swift kick in the rear end, and J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried are entirely too similar in both strengths and weaknesses to play heavy minutes side by side.
Replacing Foye with Hamilton would be a start. Hamilton has a better field goal percentage from both inside and outside the arc than Foye, scores more points per shot attempt, hauls in two more rebounds per game, has nearly double the steals per game, turns the ball over far less, fouls nearly three times less, and has a six-point PER advantage over Foye, all despite logging six minutes less per game than Foye. Taking it a step further, replacing either Faried or Hickson with Mozgov or Arthur would be monumental. Neither Faried or Hickson ranks in the top 240 of all NBA players in opponent’s points per possession according to MySynergySports.com. Mozgov and Arthur on the other hand both nearly rank in the top 100 of all NBA players in opponent’s points per possession and even top 40 and top five in other key defensive categories according to MySynergySports.com.
Lineups matter. They’re like a puzzle. Certain pieces fit well together. Having the two most similarly flawed players starting side by side makes no sense. Continuing to play a shooting guard who can’t shoot makes no sense. Shaw needs to find some balance between offense and defense, inside and out, energy and skill in order to make his lineups and overall team production pop. The current rotations are not popping.
Statistically the Nuggets aren’t a bad defensive team. They’re middle of the road in most categories. And considering the roster’s lack of defensive bastions, you can’t knock Shaw too much for where the Nuggets rank amongst all other teams in the NBA. But statistics don’t always tell the fully story. When watching the Nuggets there are still all sorts of basic defensive fundamentals that aren’t being emphasized. The Nuggets are still blowing rotations left and right. Guys are still failing to box out on a consistent basis. Certain players who shall not be named because it’s Christmas time and I try to be a nice guy around this time (hence: try) aren’t even attempting to close out on their man, or they barely try but end up running at their opponents like zombies with no arms. Again, the Nuggets aren’t a bad defensive team. But they’re not a good defensive team either. When trying to make the playoffs out West, mediocre won’t do. If the Nuggets are really gonna steer their season in the right direction it has to start with defense — as is almost always the case in sports.
OK. So let’s say Shaw does in fact alter the starting lineup. Great. Everything’s hunky dory from then on out. It’s all downhill… Right? Not exactly. In fact, I’d argue the effectiveness of a change in the starting lineup almost entirely hinges on how Shaw manages his other lineups as well, meaning some sort of continuity must be established across the board, not just with the starting lineup. This year Shaw has used 19 different lineup combinations that have averaged at least five minutes per game together when they’ve been assembled, according to NBA.com. Compare this to other teams across the NBA, primarily those that win lots of basketball games, and Shaw ends up looking like an indecisive Victor Frankenstein who dug up every Denver-metro area cemetery and still can’t decide which body parts he’s gonna use on his prized holistic monster creation. Take the Nuggets’ Northwest division rivals, the Portland Trailblazers and Oklahoma City Thunder, for example. These are two of the best teams in the NBA. Not surprisingly, they have lots of continuity in their lineups. The Blazers have used only six lineups that average five or more minutes together when implemented (remember, the Nuggets have used 19!) and the Thunder have used only seven.
It’s understandable that Brian Shaw is having a tough time paring down his lineups, but he shouldn’t be having this much trouble. He needs to find a five-man rotation to start the game, a five-man rotation to end the game, and several rotations in between that consist of bench players, starters and a combination of the two that will keep the Nuggets more than just afloat throughout the midsections of each half. Then he just needs to step back and watch as his creation comes alive!!!
Make a trade
If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize after watching the Nuggets play nearly a third of the 2013-14 season, it’s that there’s a very incongruent concoction of players on the roster. Many are players that were drafted or acquired by Masai Ujiri to play in George Karl’s run-and-gun system. Others were last-second free agents brought in by Tim Connelly this summer with the leftover money that was allotted for Andre Iguodala. Then there are a few who actually like to play defense. The Nuggets essentially went to the soda fountain, attempted a suicide while (foolishly) hoping they’d hit just the right combination of flavors to create something at least remotely appetizing, and are now feeling the side effects of attempting to drink the eclectic but vile potion they themselves created. If the Nuggets want to start winning consistently they must start over. They must dump their Baja Blast-Diet Pepsi-Dr. Pepper beverage and fill it up with just Lemonade, or Mountain Dew or water — whatever — as long as it’s one thing. They must commit to Brian Shaw and rid him of players he doesn’t want, that don’t jive well in his system. But above all, they must dump more good players than they acquire. The Nuggets need to trade for one starter. The current roster is teeming with solid role players. What the Nuggets need is pure, fizzing talent. They need one really good guy. Trade three, even four solid role players, and bring back a stud along with a few other worthless corpses. That’s the trade the Nuggets need to make.