Shaw versus Karl:
It’s no secret that there’s been an internal struggle between Brain Shaw’s Nuggets and and the ghosts of George Karl’s. Despite being fifty games into his era, and equipped with a (slightly) different roster, Shaw has found himself battling not only with his own inexperience, but the shadow of the coach he replaced. Karl’s basketball sensibilities still seem imbued in this team, and his championing of shots at the rim above all else has Shaw frustrated with what, to him, appears to be his team passing up easier shots in favor of driving at the rim. Here’s exactly what Shaw said after Wednesday’s game vs Milwaukee (taken from audio on 102.3 ESPN Radio):
I’m still on our guys about, if you’re open and you have space, shoot the ball. And I’ve never been around a group of guys that, a coach has had to encourage guys to shoot the ball when they’re open. A big part of it is, when talking with the guys last year, with George Karl everything was to the rim, to the rim, to the rim. And I think that, you know, sometimes you can do that but when your have a rim-protector like Larry Sanders, unless you going to take it all the way to his chest, its gonna be hard to finish over him inside…that’s why you have to take the open shots when you have it. You always think you can get something better but the best shot is the one where you have enough space to shoot it within the rhythm of the offense.”
And here’s Karl’s response on ESPN 102.3:
There’s no question there’s a philosophical difference in what he was saying and what I believe in. But I’ll be honest with you, I can’t stand the shot selection the Denver Nuggets have now. They take more bad shots and tough twos than any team in the NBA. Tough twos go in 40 percent of the time, I don’t care if you’re open or not and its been that same percentage for ten years…In general I don’t mind jump shots, but they have to be incorporated in the philosophy of what we’re trying to do. And if the team is going to take away the rim, and going to give us wide-open jump shots we’re going to take them. Now I prefer that jump shot to be a three-pointer, but its a basic philosophy, its a simple philosophy and its based upon the wide open 18-foot jump shot is not a good shot in the NBA game today.”
Its easy to agree with Karl on the surface, not only was the offense more efficient under his reign last season, his is the strategy that makes sense. Shots at the rim are good, mid-range jumpers, generally, are bad. But Shaw’s offense, and even his comments last week, are hardly Doug Collins-ian. Karl’s claim that Denver takes more tough two’s than any team in the league is a) a made up stat and b) seems a bit misguided as the Nuggets attempt the sixth lowest number of mid-range jumpers in the league. Furthermore, while not being anywhere close to the number of shots at the rim Denver attempted under Karl last year, the Nuggets rank sixth in the league in number of attempts in the restricted area per game. Karl’s “rim-obsession” was a product of his dribble-drive system, which essentially entailed of a series of progressively sharp off-ball cuts to the basket that attempted to manufacture spacing with movement in the absence of three-point shooting. Shaw’s offense revolves much more around the high pick-and-roll, and by product of the type of bigs who set the screens and the ball handlers who run the pick, most of these plays end with a shot at the rim. Where Shaw’s issue comes in is the hesitancy Denver seems to have in the first few heartbeats of either catching the ball or getting open off the screen.
Lawson needs to take this open three but instead he turns it into a pump-fake that leads him nowhere. This is an issue that afflicts Lawson more than any other Nuggets player, but it’s one that still pervades the entire roster. It will be interesting seeing how Shaw runs his offense with a roster more inclined to run pick-and-pops but for now his gripe with the perpetuating rim-runs is a valid one.
Faried on an island:
Statistically, Faried’s having as solidly efficient a season as he had last year and yet his minutes have fallen and his role in the offense has been somewhat neutered. The overly large big man rotation is somewhat to blame but so too is an absence of a precise use for a player like Faried, which is magnified even more by the fact that the majority of his minutes are soaked up playing alongside Hickson. Shaw’s offense is predicated on the high screen and roll, and while one big is setting the screen the other usually serves as a stationary black hole. Too many times a Faried pick and roll ends with him on the elbow, with the weakside overloaded on the wrong half of the court. Faried’s only real post move is a hook shot that he’s pretty good at turning left with his right hand but abysmally inefficient at with his left hand. This play puts Faried on an island that emphasizes his weakness and doesn’t allow for any implementation of his strengths.
A farewell to guards:
Since Andre Miller made his very public exiting of the rotation in late December, Ty Lawson has averaged 38.5 minutes a game. Since Nate Robinson went down with an ACL, its gone up to 40.3. The way Lawson darts from baseline to baseline on a fast break and relentlessly drives at the basket in the half court is exhausting enough that racking up these kinds of minutes cannot be good long term. But Shaw doesn’t have a lot of other options when it comes to players who can run a pick and roll centric offense. Fournier has been a disastrous option for anything but spot up shooting, Wilson Chandler slashes and pulls up with no rhyme or reason, and Foye is just not a point guard.
Lawson’s recent injury shines an even more harsh light on this dearth of ball handlers, and a resolution to the Andre Miller situation, by way of reclamation or trade, seems immanent. But however Denver bolsters its meager reserves, nothing can replace Lawson, he embodies the Nuggets offense when things are clicking and he salvages it when things are not. Denver will wring what it can out of what it has but, going off what we’ve seen thus far, it will be but a drop in the parched bucket of this season.
All bets are off:
There comes a season every so often where things just go awry. The reasons usually draw back from the ill-fated combination of poor luck and a faulty plan. Whether or not Denver should have shaken itself from the George Karl status quo remains something that will likely be debated for some time to come, but what matters now is how much the decisions made thereafter led to this apocalyptically mediocre season. And the answer, as it usually tends to be, is a complicated one.
The Nuggets should not have shored up its front court with the inherently redundant pair of JJ Hickson and Kenneth Faried, but then again JaVale McGee was supposed to be spear-heading the front line. The Andre Miller situation should not have deteriorated to the extent that it did and have gone so long without a resolution, but rarely does a panic trade to stave off early tumors help cure the disease in the future. The front office shouldn’t have handed Shaw a roster he clearly doesn’t seem to want and doesn’t seem to totally mesh anyway, but nobody thought the second best player on the team would be gone for the entirety of the year. The Nuggets shouldn’t be this bad with a roster this talented, but they’re about right were they should be considering how little of that talent is actually seeing time on the court these days.
It’s going to be difficult because the season is barely halfway done, but their needs to be – if not a complete refrain – a couching of the criticism that is bound to come in light of all the team’s recent failings. The product on the court is a tiring one, one that shouldn’t have to be tolerated, but one that seems unavoidable and – frankly – inevitable given the circumstances.
‘Tis a sad place to be in with a team just halfway through February, but that’s where we are.