Examining Denver’s reluctance as NJ trade looms

The New Jersey Nets are once again on the verge of a multi-team trade that would land them Carmelo Anthony. Only this time, it appears to make more sense for all parties involved. The idea is New Jersey takes on a ton of salary while upgrading its starting lineup, providing tax relief for Denver and much needed future savings for Detroit in the process. The Nuggets also acquire a younger, cheaper contingent of players highlighted by Derrick Favors, Anthony Morrow, and Devin Harris. But at what cost?

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Summarizing the Mark Warkentien Era

The Denver Nuggets have been to the playoffs seven straight seasons and have posted three straight 50 win campaigns for the first time as an NBA franchise. Despite the consistency they have displayed on the court, the front office is once again in a state of flux.

The Nuggets announced today Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman will not have their contracts renewed and thus will cease to be employed by the club at the end of August (Denver Post article, Tomasson article on FanHouse). This is no surprise as Warkentien has been granted permission to speak with other teams about their front office vacancies. Over the previous four seasons the Nuggets have had quite a few cooks around the fire. Warkentien, Chapman, Bret Bearup and George Karl have all had a say in personnel matters and do not forget Stan Kroenke ultimately determines what he is willing to spend which plays a considerable role in player personnel decisions.

Despite the crowded kitchen Warkentien was the head chef and he made a significant mark on the franchise.

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That’s a Wrap – The Utah Jazz End the Denver Nuggets’ Season

Box Score | Highlights | Watch Replay on ESPN3 | Daily Dime Live

The season is over. A campaign that held such incredible promise ended in the first round against a division rival missing two starters. The Nuggets just had no answer for Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap. Despite the best efforts of players like Johan Petro, Malik Allen and Joey Graham Denver the Jazz controlled the paint in the second half.

Despite my dire predictions of a blowout by halftime the Nuggets stayed close thanks to a 19 point first half from Joey Graham and a 17 point third quarter performance by Chauncey Billups. While Graham and Chauncey carried Denver through three quarters, no Nugget was able to complete the job in the fourth.

Carmelo looked like he was going to answer the bell early in the final stanza as he tallied six points and an assist over the first five plus minutes of the quarter. Melo’s jumper at the 6:33 mark tied the game at 95. That would be the final important bucket by Denver because before Denver would score their next hoop over two minutes later they would fall behind by 11.

The game and the season were over.

While most fans will look at Carmelo’s 20 point performance on just 6-22 shooting, it does not tell the entire story. Melo Battled on the glass pulling down a team high 12 rebounds and handled double teams well as he racked up five assists. Still, he will receive a good deal of responsibility for the loss and rightfully so. His defense was spotty as always and great players are judged by not only putting points on the board, but doing so with some semblance of efficiency. Carmelo’s teammates did not all play well, but they gave him a shot to win in the fourth quarter and it did not happen.  I commented during the game Carmelo looked like he was going half speed as his usual killer first step was not there.  Typically Melo can fire off at his defender and pull up leaving the sorry sap covering fighting to stop his momentum in an attempt to contest the jumper.  Melo never did gain separation and the result was a hoard of contested midrange jumpers that did not fall.

It is not fair to hang this first round loss on Carmelo’s shoulders. However, as the best player on a quality team the successes and failures of his squad are laid at his feet. We will have plenty of time to explore this over the offseason, but for all the accolades Carmelo has received as a scorer, he is still a deeply flawed player. Converting six of 22 shots on a night where his team needed a star to close the deal is simply not good enough.

As I referred to above, Melo was not the only player to struggle. Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen barely contributed to the effort. Martin was the most effective of the three producing a couple of nice conversions in the lane. He also uncharacteristically passed up chances to score in the lane twice choosing instead of dish off to a teammate in a worse position to score.

Smith was back to his passive self. He only attempted four shots in 20 minutes. It was his lowest single game shot total of the season. He also produced no assists producing a mere three points for the team. It seems like J.R. is trying to find himself as a player over the previous three games. He succeeded in playing a quality game in the fifth contest while producing next to nothing in games four and six. I honestly have no idea what to make of it. No idea whatsoever.

Finally looking at Birdman, he was the Nuggets fifth worst big behind not only Kenyon and Petro, but also Malik Allen, who submitted an acceptable six minutes in the second quarter when foul trouble required his presence on the court, and Joey Graham. That is sobering.

Graham deserves all the credit in the world for stepping in ready to play and producing what would have been an all time performance from a forgotten player had Denver managed to win this game. Sadly, his exploits will largely be glossed over and forgotten.

Adrian Dantley provided a boost with a sudden outburst of activity in the second quarter as he drew his first technical as a head coach after a foul by Carmelo away from the ball. The result was a 15-3 surge to close out the half that made the game a contest again. The common joke is that Dantley blew any chance to be a head coach during this series, but he showed growth, made the right personnel decisions in game six and finally realized what you say to the referees is almost as important as what you say to your team.

After six games there is no question who the better team is. Utah absolutely deserved to win the series and they way they played was very impressive. On the other side of things the Nuggets now face a very difficult offseason where complicated questions must be answered. You can count on Roundball Mining Company to walk with you step by step as Denver must gear up for what will hopefully be a more successful season in 2010-11.

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Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz – Game Six Preview

The Denver Nuggets face a very tall task. They must win a game in Utah if they are going to keep their season alive. Before the series began, roughly a lifetime ago, I predicted the Nuggets would win in seven games with both teams winning one game on the road. Of course, that was before the injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur after which I proclaimed Denver would win in five games. In addition to that prediction I also claimed the Jazz would finish the Nuggets off in game five when Denver dropped the previous three games, only to reverse course again prior to tipoff when I claimed the Nuggets would win and force a game six.

File all of that under the if you make enough predictions, one is bound to be right folder.

With all my dirty laundry now exposed, I must say I expect the Jazz to win game six. They have been dominant at home against Denver. The Nuggets really had no shot at winning games three and four, and even in their game five win I did not find Denver’s performance overly impressive. Now add in the loss of Nene for at least game six and Denver certainly has the odds stacked against them.

One thing I do know is all of the talk about Denver being better without Nene is utterly ridiculous. Nene played well in the first two games, and even in games three and four he was able to get to the line, for some reason he was incapable of converting on his many opportunities at a respectable rate, but he still was effective enough to average ten free throws a game. The fact is Denver has struggled with foul trouble when all of their bigs have been available. Things will only be worse with Nene out.

Johan Petro has exceed expectations all season, albeit very low expectations. Petro will have to not only play well, but stay out of foul trouble in game six. Utah is not a team that plays small. Outside of garbage time the Jazz have played a total of about three minutes all series without two big men on the floor. For the most part between Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko two of the three are always on the floor. Asking Carmelo Anthony to guard one of those three in the post will almost assuredly result in Melo committing fouls and Denver needs Melo to be on the floor for at least 42 minutes.

I suspect Kenyon will start out covering Fesenko in order to avoid any early foul trouble from covering Boozer. That will put the onus on Petro to not only keep Boozer from going off, but do so without committing fouls. I am dubious of him being able to accomplish either of those two tasks.

At this point Denver is clearly the underdog. I would recommend they go for broke, set Kenyon on Boozer and hope for the best. If they have to go small, they would be better off with inserting Joey Graham to defend Millsap, there is no way they can go small and expect anyone other than Kenyon, Birdman or Petro to handle Boozer. Melo cannot cover Millsap without fouling and Melo does not need any help in picking up fouls. There is the possibility of doubling to assist Carmelo in defending Millsap, but Denver has struggled to handle Utah when they play them straight up. I shudder to think what Utah might do to them should Denver voluntarily get out of position. Even so, Denver might have no choice other than use Carmelo at the four. The good news is Millsap cannot handle Melo either, however, Millsap is more adept at avoiding foul trouble than Melo has been, though Millsap did foul out in game four.

The bottom line is with the current state of Kenyon and Birdman’s health I do not think you can get more than 65 minutes of floor time between the two of them. That leaves roughly 30 minutes that will need to be picked up by Petro and others. Yes, you can expect a Malik Allen sighting. This is going to be a serious problem for Denver and it increases the degree of difficulty for a win in game six substantially.

Obviously, Denver must have another strong performance from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith on offense. Utah is going to put points on the board and Denver will have to match. I am encouraged by the way J.R. Smith played on Wednesday. If he continues to play his new brand of unselfish ball where he drives to set up teammates and picks his spots from behind the arc, he can be a game changer. Ty Lawson is going to have to create easy opportunities in transition and generally create havoc in the half court.

As far as intangibles, Deron Williams has been consistently amazing and he has yet to have a poor shooting night. Maybe he is due for one. He cannot keep shooting over 50% from the field and from behind the arc all series can he? Utah will be highly motivated to close out the Nuggets and you kind of got the sense they did not feel the urgency to win game five that they will for game six. Also, after the Nuggets enjoyed a significant advantage at the free throw line we can expect a backlash in that area as well as the natural swing in that area that will come about by switching the venue to Salt Lake City. Also, the Jazz had a very poor shooting night from Kyle Korver. The chances of that happening again are remote. The Jazz will undoubtedly perform better shooting off of screens.

The only intangible I can reach for from the Nuggets’ point of view is Melo has really been working hard to prove he is a star player and will not get bumped from the first round again, although his effort to carry Denver in game four came up a bit short. Still, if he plays like he did in game four and gets some help from his talented supporting cast, Denver can win.

That is right, I said Denver can win, I just do not find a victory to be very likely. The lack of big man depth is going to cause a myriad of issues. If the Nuggets find themselves behind by double digits in the second or third quarter, as has been their wont in the other two games in Utah, will they possess the determination and heart to fight back, or will they fold up the tent and write the season off as a nightmare that can only end by starting a new day?

Every game is an opportunity to prove yourself and when the buzzer sounds on game six, we will know exactly what this Nuggets team is made of.

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2009-10 Game 78: Denver Nuggets 98 – Oklahoma City Thunder 94

Box Score | Highlights | Featured Blog: Daily Thunder

There are certainly two ways to look at the Denver Nuggets’ 98-94 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The positive view is on a night where the Nuggets were missing Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen and acting coach Adrian Dantley suffering with kidney stones and in addition to those issues Denver was struggling to execute on both ends of the court, they made the plays they needed to make and came out with a win. The pessimistic view is the Nuggets did not play winning basketball, but pulled out a victory solely because the Thunder ran out of gas due to playing their fourth game in five nights, including the night after a mentally and physically draining overtime loss in Utah.

Honestly, both of those views have some merit. With playoff positioning on the line Denver had to win this game and they did. Regardless of how winded the Thunder might have been the Nuggets still had to make the shots and come up with the stops to complete their comeback.

The Thunder appeared to take control of the game with a 26-6 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. The Nuggets were 0-14 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times during that stretch. At that point I had tagged the body and was zipping up the body bag. Oklahoma City’s spurt was fueled by too few passes when the Nuggets had the ball. To make things worse, when Denver did pass, it was typically a poor decision, such as a lob by Chauncey Billlups in to Johan Petro who was being fronted on the block resulting in a travel when the help came from the weak side and on a three on one fast break J.R. Smith passed to Chauncey instead of Carmelo resulting in a easy block by Kevin Durant. (I do have to give Durant credit for how he played it. He shaded towards Melo’s side to bait J.R. into passing to Chauncey, then when the pass was made he simply closed in and blocked the shot. Still, it was a three on one and all it would have taken was for J.R. to realize Durant was baiting him into passing to Billups, fake to Chauncey and then dump the ball to Melo, or after KD committed to Chauncey he could have dropped the ball to J.R. or Melo for the score.)

So how did Denver manage to get back in the game? First and foremost, the defense finally made an appearance. After falling behind 89-76 with just over seven minutes remaining the Nuggets forced four turnovers and blocked two shots in the next three minutes and Denver ran off ten straight points. The key in my mind was the help defense. For much of the game OKC players were able to drive the lane and finish without worrying about encountering resistance.

Nene did a much better job of hedging on screens. The one time he was out of position, Chauncey squeezed down and tipped the ball away from Russell Westbrook. On another occasion Nene and Chauncey trapped Westbrook in the corner. Nick Collison cut to the basket, but Melo was in perfect help position. He slid over and was able to force a jump ball, which he then won against the taller Collison.

As the Nuggets picked up steam, the Thunder had clearly lost their legs. I believe every shot Durant took in the fourth quarter was short and jumpers from Westbrook and Green consistently hit the front of the rim. Defensively for OKC, the rotations that had closed off the lane for much of the night became a half step slower.

With Kenyon and Birdman sidelined the group that pulled off the comeback was the small ball bunch consisting of Chauncey, J.R., Afflalo, Melo and Nene. Despite the height disadvantage the Nuggets outrebounded the Thunder by nine. The starting back court of Billups and Afflalo corralled 13 rebounds while Carmelo tallied 11.

Defensively, Denver was simply much more active and they did a great job communicating.

There was some good and some bad by Adrian Dantley tonight. He continues to make the stunningly bad decision to give Anthony Carter playing time instead of Ty Lawson. It blows my mind that especially after the way Lawson played against the Clippers Dantley thinks it is a good idea to play Carter. Lawson is so vastly superior Carter’s stranglehold on playing time is difficult to fathom. I also thought it was odd that Petro started instead of Joey Graham. Oklahoma City plays Jeff Green at power forward so Graham would have been a good matchup to combat Green. Also, if Petro checks in for Nene you avoid the situation where your only big on the floor is Malik Allen.

Sticking with questionable decisions by the Denver coaches I was also blown away that coming out after halftime assistant Chad Iske said that the Nuggets were happy that the game had turned into a “defensive game in the second quarter” adding they wanted to slow the “young fast guys” from OKC down. The biggest advantage the Nuggets had was the fact the Thunder were playing their fourth game in five nights. Add in the fact that Denver was missing two of their three best bigs and I fail to see how a defensive half court game gave Denver the best chance to win.

Both coaching staffs engaged in a bit of a battle around Carmelo. Thabo Sefolosha is a very good defender, but he lacks the lateral quickness that other lockdown defenders possess. The Thunder gave Thabo the opportunity to try to handle Melo one on one. Melo blew by Sefolosha twice for layups and after that the Thunder switched to the pressure and pre-rotate system we have seen the Lakers make famous. For the remainder of the first half Melo was held in check. To start the second half the Nuggets made an adjustment that has worked to negate the pre-rotating defense that has been effective against the Lakers in the past. Instead of feeding Melo on the wing, they started giving him the ball in the middle of the floor. That adjustment allowed Melo to get into the lane again. The Nuggets also started curling Melo off a screen to get him the ball on the right side about 12 feet from the rim. That forced the defense to worry about Melo coming off the screen and shooting, Melo continuing to curl and drive to the basket and the fact that the screener was rolling to the rim. I thought Anthony missed some chances to dump the ball to Nene on the roll and once passed up the open short jumper to fake, spin and shoot a much more difficult turn around, but the set succeeded in getting Carmelo the ball.

I did like the play Dantley drew up with the Nuggets down four and 2:20 remaining in the contest. Afflalo threw the ball in to Billups from the right side of the floor. He then ran around a double screen by Melo and Nene. With the defense shifting to account for Afflalo Nene set a down screen for Melo who popped out to the free throw line wide open. Melo caught the pass and instead of settling for the jumper, drove into the lane and converted a short flip shot amongst four Thunder defenders. Sadly for the home team, three of those four defenders were doing more watching than helping.

With the Jazz losing in Houston tonight if the Nuggets can win their final three home games they will win the Northwest Division and have home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. That is easier said than done as the Los Angeles Lakers roll into town on Thursday on three days of rest and smarting after a demoralizing loss to the Spurs in Staples Center on Sunday.

Additional Game 78 Nuggets

  • How bad was the Denver Nuggets’ defense against the Oklahoma City Thunder for the first three plus quarters? The Brakes Plus Stop of the Game was an unforced error where Kevin Durant simply lost control of the ball. Needless to say if they had waited a few more minutes there would have been several much better plays to choose from as Denver really turned up the defense down the stretch.
  • Another very odd decision by the Nuggets’ coaching staff was to attempt to avoid calling a timeout while Carmelo Anthony was laying motionless on the court so that trainer Jim Gillen could make sure Carmelo was not paralyzed. Only after J.R. practically tried using Melo’s lifeless body as a screen to get off a shot did play finally stop.
  • Denver once again gave us some examples of good switching and bad switching. The bad switching was on display for much of the game, but especially early on when Carmelo consistently chose to pass Durant off to Johan Petro. Leaving Petro exposed on the wing against a player he had no business guarding. Believe it or not, Petro picked up two early fouls. The good switching came late in the game as the Nuggets guards successfully passed Durant off to one another on the perimeter in order to ensure he could not get space to fire off an open three pointer.
  • I am really impressed with how well the Thunder are coached. Scott Brooks may have some things to learn at the end of games, but it was interesting to watch how quickly the adapted to what the Nuggets would try to do defensively. If they could get the lane, they would drive and dunk. When Denver pre-rotated some help both weak side players immediately flashed to open areas that could not both be defended. Defensively, they are cohesive and challenge every foray into the lane. Even so, they are still the team I want to play in the first round.
  • After watching the closing sequence over a couple of times, I have no idea how Westbrook did not end up with the rebound after Durant missed a runner that would have tied the game at 96. One second it looks like he has it and then a split second later Melo is holding the ball. Not that I am complaining or anything…
  • Denver would not have won without shooting exceptionally from the charity stripe. They drained 10 of 11 attempts in the fourth quarter including two by Chauncey to give them the lead and two more by Melo to shut the door.

Denver Nuggets Win Two More on the Road

Denver at New Orleans – Box Score | Highlights

Denver at Memphis – Box Score | Highlights

The Denver Nuggets have won six games in a row and are now back above .500 on the road after back to back wins in New Orleans and Memphis. The common denominator in both games was Denver’s ability to make plays in the fourth quarter however both games had different stories to tell.

Through three and a half quarters the Hornets game felt much like the previous loss the Nuggets suffered at the hands of the Hornets in New Orleans earlier this season. A close game where Denver was obviously the better team, but they simply could not get their act together long enough to pull ahead. Then with the score tied at 86 and just under six minutes Denver finally took control of a game that was waiting for one team or the other to claim ownership of the contest.

The Nuggets received a gift when rookie Marcus Thornton drove directly into Darius Songalia, who had just set a screen for him, causing a turnover that triggered a two on one break for J.R. and Melo. The result was a lay in for Anthony. On the other end New Orleans settles for a second jumper by Songalia in about 70 seconds that missed. Chauncey received the outlet, sets up on the left wing, drove left and fed Nene at the rim. Nene is fouled and makes both free throws. The teams trade baskets and then Nene tips two passes on one possession both of which were intended for Emeka Okafor and prevented him from getting an open layup. The ball eventually finds its way to Okafor who misses what is now a contested jump hook instead of a dunk. Nene grabs the rebound and throws a beautiful outlet pass to J.R. who does his best to screw up another two on one break with Carmelo, but Melo is there for the rebound and finishes after adroitly making contact with Okafor to avoid getting his shot blocked. Before New Orleans can catch their breath Chauncey steals the inbounds pass and is fouled. Billups dropped in both free throws the Nuggets then parlay a very good defensive possession into a 30 foot desperation three pointer by Thornton which misses. Chauncey then closed out the game deciding 12-2 run with a drive and dish to Nene for an emphatic dunk that announced to all those watching that it was not going to be the Hornets’ night.

The Hornets were able to stay in the game thanks to a big first half by Thornton and a big third quarter from West. However, once those two options failed to produce in the fourth quarter the Nuggets were able to overwhelm the undermanned Hornets with little plays such as forcing turnovers, deflecting passes, and getting into the lane on offense.

The biggest surprise of the game was the way the Hornets chose to defend Carmelo. New Orleans has typically doubled Carmelo as soon as he would catch the ball and their aggressive scheme has been largely successful. In two games against the Hornets this season Melo had shot only 14-44 and the two teams split two close games, both teams winning at home. For some reason the Hornets decided to go away from that attacking defense and played Carmelo largely one on one choosing to play more of a prerotating scheme that the Lakers have been successful with. The difference is the Hornets do not have the same quality of personnel as the Lakers do. Melo was able to find space for his midrange jumper and scored 32 points on 13-27. The funny thing is as poorly as Denver shot from behind the arc, 3-22 to be exact, had New Orleans been aggressive with Carmelo and not allowed him to play so much one on one they might have cruised to an easy win.

Two other comments that need to be mentioned are, why on God’s green earth do the Nuggets insist on shooting threes on nights when it is obvious none of them can make any? The Nuggets had the advantage all night when they drove into the lane and as I am sure you noticed in the breakdown of their fourth quarter surge above Chauncey was able to get Nene two great looks the two times he drove at the rim. Secondly, J.R. Smith deserves credit for his fourth quarter defense on Thornton. Smith was all over Thornton as New Orleans ran him through and around screens. On one occasion Thronton caught the pass and jumped to shoot only to see J.R. flying at him so close that he had to dump the ball off towards David West and the play nearly resulted in a turnover.

The next night in Memphis instead of a defensive battle, the Nuggets found themselves in a wild shootout.

The Grizzlies jumped out on the Nuggets early on with a combination of layups and dunks to start the game off and then a hoard of threes to close out the first quarter. The Nuggets were obviously out of sync on defense as they allowed the Grizzlies’ bigs to roll into the lane and get great position at will. The Nuggets had just enough offense to stay close while their defense struggled.

Then late in the third quarter the Nuggets found their stride on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets were down 83-77 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter and went on a 20-2 run to smother the any hope that Memphis had for a victory.

The three keys to the Nuggets run were their bigs ability to finally seal off the middle and effectively eliminate the easy shots Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol had been getting all night long. Secondly, Denver got out and ran with Anthony Carter pushing the pace. Thirdly, J.R. Smith turned white hot and splashed three straight threes during the run.

It did not end there though as the Nuggets continued to explode offensively and pushed that 12 point lead up to 24 before taking their foot off the gas. J.R. would convert on five of seven threes over the final 14 minutes including five in a row. Denver wound up outscoring Memphis 48-25 over the closing 14 minutes.

I was growing concerned about Anthony Carter as he has been forced to log minutes in seven consecutive games.  I have believed the key to his effectiveness has been fresh legs and with every passing game that advantage dissipates.  Against New Orleans I though he was starting to look a little sluggish.  Defensively he began reaching which is a sign of fatigue due to the fact it gets more difficult to move your feet.  However in Memphis he was very good, especially down the stretch when his desire to push the pace helped earn Denver some easy scores.  Now if we can just get him to stop shooting threes…

Johan Petro has continued to play respectably.  He did struggled a little defending players like David West and Zach Randolph, but most players do.  Petro continues to rebound pulling down ten boards twice in the past four games.  Plus he has scored 23 points on 14 shots during those same four games.  He has struggled to catch the ball while moving in the past, but has shown some improvement in that area as of late.

One quirky thing to note from the win in Memphis is it was the first game all season where Carmelo attempted fewer than three free throws. In fact, he did not get to the line once. The last time that happened in the regular season was December 12, 2008 in Cleveland although he did have two games in the 2009 playoffs where he did not attempt a free throw, game two against New Orleans and game five against Dallas and somewhat surprisingly both games were wins.

The good news in my mind, apart from winning on the road without two of their top eight players, was that there were no signs of moping or any indication of a lack of purpose as we saw early on in Minnesota. Denver played hard from start to finish in both games. They seem to be comfortable with Adrian Dantley and while Dantley did not have any strokes of genius that swung either game as he did in Minnesota when he went small, he certainly has not done anything to slow the team down.

Denver at New Orleans Stats and Links:

Pace Factor: 96.3

Defensive Efficiency: 97.7

Offensive Efficiency: 105.9

Hornets 24/7 | At the Hive

Denver at Memphis Stats and Links:

Pace Factor: 87.2

Defensive Efficiency: 122.2 – not good, but…

Offensive Efficiency: 143.4 – best efficiency rating of the season topping their 139.1 versus Dallas

3 Shades of Blue

2009-10 Game 53: Denver Nuggets 92 – San Antonio Spurs 111

Box Score | Lowlights

Give the San Antonio Spurs credit. They came into the Pepsi Center and flat out whooped the Denver Nuggets 111-92. I have mentioned the heart that this Nuggets team has, but the Spurs were so good that it looked like the Nuggets realized early in the fourth quarter that they had no chance to stage one of their comebacks and they basically taped out.

After defeating the Spurs twice in San Antonio this season the Nuggets seemed to take the Spurs lightly. San Antonio has not been playing their typical stout defense as they had in the past. However, tonight they looked as good as they have in a long time on that end of the floor and the Nuggets certainly did not appear to be prepared for the defensive effort the Spurs put forth.

Denver took the easy way out settling for jumpers and playing incredibly stationary on offense. Even on the possessions where Denver passed the ball, they were barely probing the membrane the Spurs set up at the three point line rarely making any threatening movements. To make things worse the shots the Nuggets repeatedly settled for were not falling and they were done in not so much by their inability to make a three, but their inability to keep themselves from jacking up the next one.

Chauncey forced several threes in the second half on his way to a 1-8 performance while J.R. attempted four, although none of his could be considered poor shots. Carmelo was the lone Nugget who shot well from behind the arc, finishing 2-3 from distance, but his shot selection was no better than Chauncey’s.

Melo started off the game probing the defense and making a couple of nice passes as he did against Dallas, but the way he played against the Spurs was wildly different from how he played against the Mavs. Instead of showing any kind of patience, he forced contested jumper after contested jumpers. The Spurs give Carmelo as much respect as any team in the league as the frequently send a player to double while the other three all have at least one foot in the lane ready to help at a moments notice.

While Melo forced a good number of bad shots that lead to his 6-17 performance we once again have to go through the chicken and the egg discourse questioning if Melo did not pass because no one would cut or if no one cut because Melo would not pass. Personnel certainly played a role with Denver’s immobility. Kenyon is Denver’s best slasher and he was wearing fancy clothes on the sideline. Neither Birdman nor Malik Allen like to cut both preferring to stand aside incase a pass comes their way off of penetration. Still it is frustrating to see Denver fall back into their no movement jumper chucking mode all the while watching and wondering if they have any idea how badly they are shooting themselves in the foot.

While I hate any loss, I have to wonder if Denver needed a wakeup call following their drubbing of the Mavericks to make sure they stay focused during the all-star break and do not enter the backside of the season overly confident.

Additional Game 53 Nuggets

  • George Hill was fantastic for the Spurs and I cannot fathom Tony Parker helping San Antonio tonight as much as Hill did. Hill was a bullet in transition always getting to the rim when he had the ball no matter how many backpedaling Nuggets were in his way. He did a very good job of penetrating and getting into the lane and defensively he is a bulldog. Rumor had it the Spurs were dead set on drafting Nicolas Batum when he was snatched up right in front of them. With Batum gone they “settled” for Hill. Let me tell you, if San Antonio had Batum instead of Hill, I am not sure they would be one of the top eight teams in the west right now.
  • Not only were the Spurs on their game defensively, but they carved Denver’s defense up with relative ease. The Spurs took advantage of Denver on the pick and roll no matter how it was defended. On switches the guards patiently backed out and attacked the big man who was in front of them. If Denver trapped, the ball handler threaded a pass to his rolling teammate. When the guard tried to fight over the screen whichever Spur had the ball would dart directly into the lane. Regardless of what scheme Denver is going to use, they need to tighten up their positioning as they are once again too easy to pick apart with the pick and roll.
  • The play that summed up the night was when J.R. Smith missed a breakaway layup because he was afraid of 35 year old Antonio McDyess who was hustling back behind him. Instead of sprinting up the floor and throwing down a dunk, he slowed a bit to make sure his body was shielding the shot off from McDyess, who has had multiple knee surgeries and has yet to block a shot in the month of February, and missed the lay in. He recovered the miss and later in the possession had a chance to redeem himself with a wide open three from the left wing, but missed. San Antonio pushed the ball up the floor and Roger Mason splashed a three of his own for the five point swing putting the Spurs up 15 instead of ten.
  • Malik Allen has done fine on a couple of occasions, but I wonder what would have happened had Johan Petro started instead of Allen.  The way both teams played it probably would not have made a bit of difference although Allen seems to struggle when called upon too frequently.  Plus for a guy who lives for the 18 footer, he has passed up an open look in order to drive into traffic and toss up a hopeless shot in each of the past two games.  Allen did do a decent job defending Tim Duncan in the opening few minutes and I guess that is about all we can ask of him.

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2009-10 Game 52: Denver Nuggets 127 – Dallas Mavericks 91

Box Score | Highlights

If you were wondering what would have to happen tonight in order for the top story after the game to be something other than the return of Carmelo Anthony I think we found our answer. Carmelo played a very solid game, but the story of the night was the severity of the 127-91 drubbing the Nuggets laid down on the Mavericks.

I do not want to hear one word about how Dallas played in California last night and had to travel east to play at altitude on the second night of a back to back. The Nuggets were in a very similar position Saturday night as they played in Utah the night after winning in Los Angeles against the Lakers. While it is true the flight to Denver from the west coast is longer than the flight to Utah, the Nuggets had to play without their two all-stars. Denver did fall behind by 18, but fought back to get to within three. Dallas on the other hand folded like an origami swan.

The Nuggets did not do anything special on either end of the court. They ran their offense, moved the ball and made shots. Defensively, they switched the high screen with Dirk to ensure he did not get an open look on the pick and pop, but apart from that did a little less switching than normal. Afflalo and J.R. did a solid job of chasing Terry around the many screens that were laid in their path.

The bulk of the credit for the blowout I believe belongs to the Nuggets’ bigs who controlled the paint and dominated the Mavericks front line. The group of Nene, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro and Malik Allen out produced Dirk, Drew Gooden, Eduardo Najera and James Singleton by fifteen points, 54-39, and seven rebounds, 25-18. It was not a matter of floor time as both foursomes played a combined 96 minutes.

Of course, it was great to see Carmelo back on the court. I was worried about how patient he would be with his offense as there was the possibility that he would try to get himself going by taking many quick shots early on. Those fears proved to be unfounded as Melo looked to pass as often as he looked to shoot. Carmelo started off with a nice drop off to Chauncey who ran behind him to get room for a midrange jumper on the right side. He then fed Nene off a drive that earned the big man two free throws. He made another nice drop off to Chris Andersen that sent Birdman to the line for two free throws a few minutes later. Carmelo only attempted four shots in the first quarter, making two threes and missing two midrange jumpers, but he totaled three assists good for six points and that is not including the four points that were created by his passing that came from free throws by Nene and Birdman.

Carmelo ended the game with six assists and 19 points on 8-16 shooting. Carmelo mixed in some drives and post ups and he dealt adequately with the double teaming scheme the Mavs threw at him. Overall it was a very smooth return to action and with one game remaining before the All-Star break I expect we will see Carmelo hitting on all cylinders heading into the last two months of the season.  Any concern about the ankle problem lingering ended in the closing seconds of the third quarter.  Carmelo caught the ball just right of the top of the circle and blew past Josh Howard with a nice move where he stepped across Howards’ body with his left foot as he ripped the ball across to his right triggering a right handed drive that terminated at the rim with an uncontested layup.

If Melo wanted to wait until his explosiveness was back before he returned, it looks like he waited long enough.

Additional Game 52 Nuggets

  • My favorite sequence of the game came with 3:03 left in the third quarter. J.R. Smith had just hit a three in transition to put Denver up 90-60. Coming out of a Mavericks’ timeout J.R. was hounding Jason Terry 40 feet from the basket, Johan Petro was all over Drew Gooden, who had the ball outside the three point line, and Carmelo stayed with Josh Howard tight enough when he tried cutting towards Gooden to get the ball that Gooden chose to call another timeout just ten seconds after the previous break. Of course after the second time out J.R. fouled Jason Terry shooting a three, which was not quite as high on my list of favorite moments, but I loved seeing the Nuggets playing that hard on defense with a 30 point lead.
  • Did Dirk know that Kenyon Martin did not play tonight and that he was being guarded by Malik Allen for the first seven minutes of the game? Usually Dirk is a very smart and aggressive player. Against the Nuggets tonight he was overly content to toss up contested jumpers. Dirk is no jitterbug, but he sure as heck has a quickness advantage on Allen and I was shocked that Nowitzki never attacked Allen off the dribble.
  • Anyone who watches the Nuggets on Altitude knows all about the four tacos for a dollar with the purchase of a drink promo when Denver scores over 100 points from Taco Bell. There needs to be a filet minion for a dollar with the purchase of a drink promo for when Johan Petro scores in double figures.
  • When Petro gets important minutes he usually does not disappoint. Last season he was more than adequate covering Dwight Howard in the Nuggets big win in Orlando. Petro’s biggest problem is that his hands have a negative reaction to leather that causes the ball to repel from them when he tries to catch it. Tonight, he displayed very good hands latching on to passes and rebounds alike.
  • Denver has had three incredible shooting performances from behind the arc over the past six games. In San Antonio on the final day of January they were 9-12. Five days later in Los Angeles they converted 15-22 against the Lakers and tonight versus Dallas they drained 11-18 three point attempts. Over their previous six games Denver has converted 45.6% of their threes. I do not recall a stretch like that ever although I am sure some of those great shooting teams of the 80’s had similar streaks.
  • These two teams play one more time this season on March 29 in Dallas with the winner earning the tie breaker. The bad news is that game is the fifth game in seven nights, all of them on the road, for Denver while Dallas has a day off at home before the game.
  • The Nuggets had possibly their best shooting night in years as they posted a true shooting percentage, which accounts for free throws and three pointers, of 71.3%. The closest they have been to 70% in the year and a half I have charted their game by game performances was last season when they posted a 69.6% true shooting percentage when they blew out the Raptors in the game that finally ended the Sam Mitchell era in Toronto.
  • The Nuggets used to struggle mightily with zone defenses, but they seem to have overcome their inability to deal with them.  The Mavs themselves have been able to frustrate Denver with their 2-3 zone, but ever since Chauncey arrived he has opened up the floor thanks to his shooting ability.  As long as the Nuggets move without the ball and refrain from holding the ball for too long, they can tear any zone up quickly.
  • By the way, Kenyon sat out with knee tendinitis while Dallas played without Shawn Marion, back tightness, and Erick Dampier who is suffering from a sore knee.  Ty Lawson and Birdman deserve a mention for how well they played.  Birdman is playing some of his best ball of his career over the past few games and Lawson followed up his stellar performance in Utah as a spot starter with a tremendous game tonight.  He ran the one man fast break on a couple of occasions and did a very good job of setting up open teammates.

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Denver Nuggets PER Projections

John Hollinger might be the most decisive NBA analyst in the business. I assume most NBA fans either think he is a stat geek who does not actually know anything about basketball, or he is one of the most astute observers out there.

I fall under the latter camp. I think Hollinger really knows his stuff and is the only member of the national media who is really attuned to the Nuggets. Sometimes I think he is in my head as I read his commentary on Denver. It almost makes me wonder if he reads my posts although if he were to ever stumble upon RMC, I imagine he would think in some situations I was copying his work. The truth is he watches a lot of basketball with unbiased eyes and that is why he can draw the same conclusions as someone like me who attempts to do the same thing.

Despite his impressive anecdotal insights he is best known for his statistical analysis, which brings us to today. It is a day that is widely anticipated by many NBA fans as Professor Hollinger has released his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) projections for the upcoming season. If you do not know what PER is, here is an explanation. The short definition is PER is a statistical per minute measurement of a player’s effect on a game and the average performance is set at 15.00. Anything higher than 15.00 is solid and anything lower is suspect.

You can see the list from of projections from one through 333 or check out a summary of the Nuggets as a team.

Some quick observations are that Chauncey is slated to play at the same level this season as last season, 18.85, which is promising. Hollinger projects a slight bump up for Carmelo Anthony, although if you read his scouting report (insider subscription required) it sounds like he expects his computed projection to be low as he expects a big season from Melo.

The player who Hollinger expects to make the largest leap forward is J.R. Smith who is projected to climb from 16.84 in 2008-09 to 18.15. Hollinger’s system has always been kind to a player like Smith who can get his own shot whenever he wants (usage rate) and score in bunches. However, reading the details it is clear the Professor has a very good read on what J.R. is capable of, primarily his playmaking abilities that most members of the national media have yet to fully recognize.

It is not all sunshine, lollypops and rainbows for Denver. Arron Afflalo has a disappointing projected PER of 9.40. Also, remember how there are 333 player projections? Malik Allen is number 331 with a microscopic projected PER of 6.52.

However, more concerning than that is the play of the Nuggets three key big men is expected to drop off a bit as Chris Andersen, Nene and Kenyon Martin are slated for dips in their statistical production with Andersen slated for the most precipitous drop from 18.16 to 16.58.

Most fans look at these projections and complain that their favorite player or players are not ranked higher. Keep in mind this is all automated based on almost every imaginable statistic and a detailed comparison of similar players performances at similar ages. Because it is stats based I will point out for players like Carmelo (who by the way is ranked 21 overall), Birdman and Nene is that all three are dealing with either an injury related drop last year, Melo, or very poor supporting statistics from previous seasons (Birdman and Nene) that all work to pull down the current statistical projection. This does not mean Birdman and Nene are not capable of playing up to the level they established last season.

Most of Hollinger’s player summaries are only available through ESPN Insider. I strongly recommend signing up for Insider so that you can access Hollinger’s data. It is amazingly thorough and intriguing to read. You also get a great deal more than just Hollinger’s work. Nevertheless, I understand not everyone can though so here are some of the more interesting quotes pertaining to the Nuggets.

Arron Afflalo (Projected PER 9.40): He’ll take over Dahntay Jones’ role as the top perimeter defender, and considering he costs less and is a far better shooter, he should be an upgrade for the Nuggets — provided that Afflalo sticks to his knitting as a shooting specialist and takes half his shots behind the arc.”

Malik Allen (6.52): Allen’s primary skill is his midrange jump shot, and he did that well enough by making 42.0 percent of his long 2s. Unfortunately, he was terrible at everything else.

Chris Andersen (16.58): “[Signing the new contract with Denver was the right move because] the support network he has in place was more important than the money. Even if he can’t replicate the ridiculous block rate of last season, it should be good deal for the Nuggets as well.

Carmelo Anthony (19.36): “While he hit a career-best 37.1 percent on 3-pointers and attempted more than ever, he had trouble when there was more company around. Anthony slumped to 48.2 percent on inside shots after hitting in the mid-50s the three previous seasons. From the right side of the floor, where he prefers to operate on isolations, he hit just 33.8 percent of his 2-pointers — the fifth-worst mark of any player with more than 100 attempts.”

“Anthony appears poised to have his best season. The improved 3-point stroke and strong finish last season both point in that direction as well, as do two other factors: He’s now 25 and should be hitting his prime, and he didn’t suit up for Team USA for the fourth straight summer.

Renaldo Balkman (15.83): Balkman attained a career-best 16.85 PER by playing with his usual boundless energy, ranking fifth among power forwards in offensive rebound rate and leading his position in steals per 40 minutes with 2.4. Only five players in the league had a better rate of steals, and none were frontcourt players.”

Chauncey Billups (18.85): Last season, Billups was once again the only member of the league’s “40-40″ club — 40 percent of his shots originated from beyond the 3-point line, but he still averaged more than 0.40 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt. Usually players who draw lots of fouls rarely shoot 3s and vice versa, but Billups is the exception: He was the only non-center in the league to finish in the top dozen at his position in both categories.

Anthony Carter (9.61): Carter finished 67th out of 69 point guards in turnover rate, and it made him marginal, at best, as a role player. Surprisingly, he still played over 22 minutes a game, as he became something of a security blanket for George Karl. But combine a miniscule 9.2 points per 40 minutes with a penchant for costly miscues, it’s tough to see why.”

Joey Graham (11.21): No player comment, which may be a comment in and of itself.

Ty Lawson (-): “Concerns about Lawson’s size (6-0) undoubtedly hurt, as did some worries about his practice habits and a tendency to sprain his ankles. Nonetheless, he was the top-rated player in my Draft Rater – even edging out Blake Griffin – and the Nuggets absolutely stole him by nabbing him at No. 18 in a trade with Minnesota.

Kenyon Martin (13.36): “More than a third of his shots came outside the immediate basket area, and he was abysmal at them. Historically, he’s converted from these distances in the high 30s or low 40s, but last season he made only 32.1 percent, the worst percentage in the league of anyone with more than 200 attempts.”

Nene (17.89): Nene is still raw enough to envision him improving in coming years. That said, there were elements of last season’s performance that look a bit fluky, so we might expect some regression to the mean in his immediate future. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll shoot 60 percent from the floor again.”

Johan Petro (8.65): “He ranked 65th out of 67 centers in true shooting percentage and 66th in field goal percentage. For a 7-foot center to shoot 41.9 percent and 41.5 percent in consecutive seasons is remarkably awful, and a troubling sign that his offensive development has not only ground to a halt but actually been thrown into reverse.

J.R. Smith (18.15): “Smith lobbed nearly half his shots from behind the 3-point line and made 39.7 percent — many of them from well beyond the arc — but still finished in the top third of shooting guards in free-throw rate. Unfortunately, his concentration lapses at the stripe hurt him. He made only 75.1 percent of his free throws, good for 51st among shooting guards, and that’s inexcusable given how well he strokes it from outside.”

James White (-): He’s a spectacular finisher on the break and he’s slowly but surely figured out how to use his athleticism at the offensive end. He turns 27 in October, so it’s taken a while, but he’s an NBA-caliber athlete and, at 6-7 with a decent jump shot, a prototypical small forward.

Denver Nuggets Resign Johan Petro

The Denver Nuggets have made another smart signing as it was announced today that they have resigned Johan Petro. There has been no word of what the contract terms are, but I would guess that it is a one or two year deal starting at the five year veteran’s minimum salary of $959,111.

The Nuggets have done a very good job of managing their payroll this offseason. No one is going to write a book about Denver’s 2009 offseason although I cannot fault them for anything they have done. Today’s signing of Petro is the perfect example of developing a plan and then executing it.

Early in the summer the Nuggets had to decide whether or not they would extend a qualifying offer (QO) of just under $2.85 million to Petro. All of us knew at the time he was not worth that much, but the Nuggets really needed to have a player like Petro, a legit seven footer who can bang in the paint, on the roster. Denver could have done the safe thing and given Petro the QO. No team was going to top it and it would have guaranteed that Petro would return to Denver although at an overinflated price tag.

Instead of wasting money and as recommended here they made the calculated decision to allow Petro to become a free agent and take the risk that someone would offer him a little more money. I thought it seemed like the right thing to do and the gamble has paid off. Denver will retain Petro’s services at nearly only a third of the cost of his QO.

In addition to the savings they earned with Petro they have also resigned Chris Andersen at a very reasonable first year salary, replaced Dahntay Jones with the cheaper and more talented Arron Afflalo and instead of meeting Linas Kleiza’s salary wishes they are likely to replace him with the cheaper and more sound Wally Szczerbiak.

That is good business and that is how you build a sustainable salary structure. The transactions Denver has made are not front page news, but they are crafty and full of basketball wisdom.

Looking ahead the signing now opens up two questions, will Malik Allen be relegated to the bench and will Coby Karl be in training camp?

Last season the Nuggets had primarily a three man rotation between power forward and center with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Birdman. Linas Kleiza and Renaldo Balkman received the bulk of the remaining minutes at power forward. Before Petro was retained it appeared the Nuggets may have been planning on playing Allen as much as ten minutes a night. Petro is fully capable of filling that role and all three of the Nuggets other front court players can play power forward both offensively and defensively should they be on the floor with Petro. I suspect Petro will make Allen superfluous in the rotation, which I believe is a good thing.

From a roster standpoint Petro’s return may reduce Summer League Fan Favorite Coby Karl’s chances of coming to Denver. The Nuggets are only one player away from hitting the 13 player minimum roster requirement and as mentioned above that spot seems destined to go to Szczerbiak. I assume Karl the Elder will know if Stan Kroenke is willing to foot the bill for a fourteenth player or not. The answer to that question will determine if Coby is in Denver this fall.

Karl the Younger is undoubtedly an NBA player and will go to a team’s camp where he has a great chance to make the team. If Karl the Elder knows the Nuggets will not sign a fourteenth player Karl the Younger will go elsewhere, but if Karl the Younger is brought into Nuggets camp then I think that is a good sign that the Nuggets will carry a fourteenth player, at least to start the season, and Coby will be that fourteenth warm body.

The 2009-10 roster and rotation are taking shape and even though the Nuggets have not done anything dramatic, I think they are executing their offseason plans beautifully.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Arron Afflalo Available and Other Free Agency News

We mentioned Arron Afflalo as a potential replacement for Dahntay Jones.  Afflalo is not a free agent, but we wondered if Detroit may be interested in trading him now that Ben Gordon is in town.  Apparently, Detroit is hoping to move Afflalo:

There’s a good chance the Pistons are looking to clear another $2 million off their payroll. That would give them close to $4 million to pursue another frontcourt player in the wake of Antonio McDyess going to the San Antonio Spurs. Brandon Bass (Dallas Mavericks) and Glen Davis (Boston Celtics) are two possibilities.

To clear the space, the Pistons most likely will try to move Arron Afflalo and Sharpe.

I do not know what Detroit is looking for, but Denver can easily fit Afflalo into one of their trade exceptions and if Detroit is really motivated to make a deal perhaps a second round pick could be enough.  If not, a massively protected first rounder (say 22 or lower) might be worth it.  Keep in mind since Denver traded their first round pick in 2009 to Oklahoma City they cannot trade away their 2010 pick.

In other free agent news Grant Hill is looking more and more like a pipe dream for the Nuggets.  They are never mentioned as one of the teams pursuing him by the media, and New York and Phoenix are both being very aggressive in their courtship of him.

The Knicks have supposedly offered Hill his choice of a one year, $5 million contract or a three year, $10 million deal.  Both are more than Denver can offer without agreeing to a sign and trade with Phoenix.  The Suns have not given up on bringing Hill back as owner Robert Sarver, GM Steve Kerr and coach Alvin Gentry were all in Orlando trying to talk him into returning to the desert.

If Denver is out of the running for Hill I agree with the opinion that Denver should move on to Hill’s Phoenix teammate Matt Barnes.  He is a versatile, athletic high energy player who is an adequate three point shooter, solid defender and can run the floor like a personal injury lawyer chases an ambulance.  Barnes will be cheaper than Hill and will fit better on defense and in the running game.  He is not the creator that Hill is, but he is a decent passer (far better than Linas Kleiza).

On the Channing Frye front there has not been much news since he visited Cleveland.  I think it is pretty good news that he left town without signing a deal.  With the Nuggets only having $2.1 million of their midlevel exception remaining to offer Frye, and a sign and trade is out of the question as pointed out by runningdonut in the comments of a previous post, he may be a long shot to come to Denver.  Still, the money should be close between Denver and Cleveland as the Cavs have reportedly signed Anthony Parker with a portion of their midlevel exception.  (Update: According to Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst the Cavs signed Parker to a two year, $6 million contract so they probably have $700,000 more of their midlevel exception than Denver does.  Windhorst has also tweeted that the Cavs are currently not close to singing any other free agents.  That also leads me to believe if the Cavs want to add Kleiza, it will have to be via sign and trade since they can only offer him a starting salary of $2.8 million, which is barely more than his qualifying offer.)  Phoenix is also in the picture for Frye and probably offers the most playing time of the three teams and the Suns are his “hometown” team (his family moved to Phoenix when he was seven) so Frye will have to decide if he wants to play for a contender or if he wants to play for Phoenix.

Update: As reported by Chris Tomasson Johan Petro is not out of the picture just yet:

The Nuggets didn’t pick up the qualifying offer on Petro, making him an unrestricted, rather than restricted free agent. However, his agent, Sam Goldfeder, said that’s not necessarily an indication Petro won’t return to Denver. Goldfeder said he’s talked to both Warkentien and Karl and “they’re big fans” of his client.

However, any deal in which Petro were to return to Denver likely would be for the minimum.

As I mentioned in my piece on Petro, you probably do not like him at nearly $3 million a year, which is what his qualifying offer would have been for, but at or near the minimum he is a nice roster filler.

The Denver Nuggets, NBA Free Agency and You

With the 2009 NBA meat market known as free agency kicking off tonight at midnight eastern time we need to once again interrupt our individual player evaluations to look at what kind of options are out there for the Nuggets.

Before we get started, familiarize yourself with who is available with this team by team list of free agents.

A quick look at the Nuggets’ finances shows that they are already over the projected luxury tax limit of $70-71 million with the contracts of Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith, Steven Hunter, Linas Kleiza, Renaldo Balkman, Sonny Weems, Ty Lawson and the $3.0 million they owe Antonio McDyess based on the buyout they agreed to last season (all totaling roughly $73 million). That is ten players and you must carry a minimum of 13 players on your roster.

Now add to that at least $4-5 million to resign Chris Andersen and another million plus for Anthony Carter and/or Dahntay Jones. Suddenly they only have one or two spots with which to upgrade the roster and probably not too much financial wiggle room to play with.

Priority number one has to be to resign Chris Andersen. The question is how much will it cost? If Denver has to come up with $7 or $8 million a year to bring Andersen back it will be very difficult for them to afford to beef up their roster. However, in order for Andersen to get a big offer like that a team who wants him would have to be far enough below the salary cap to offer that kind of cash. So are there any teams who fit that mold?

Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Portland and Sacramento are the only teams capable of making a significant offer to any free agent above the midlevel exception. I think we can scratch teams like Atlanta, Memphis, Portland and Sacramento off the list because of either a lack of interest from the team in question or from Birdman in playing there.

That leaves Detroit and Oklahoma City. I think Detroit has quite a few players on their list before they get down to Andersen and most likely they will spend their money elsewhere. To me the only team to really worry about is Oklahoma City. They need a shot blocker and rebounder as evidenced by the fact they acquired Tyson Chandler from New Orleans at the trade deadline before their doctor nixed the deal. The one thing Sam Presti has to worry about is the money he is going to have to shell out for Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook in two or three seasons.

Ultimately, I believe the Thunder will not offer Andersen a big contract and that will allow Denver to only have to deal with midlevel offers from other teams. In fact as we saw with J.R. Smith last season teams usually do not bother even offering the mid level exception when the know it will be matched. J.R. did not receive any offer sheets last season and I suspect Birdman should not expect any this summer either. Why waste your time signing a player to an offer sheet when you know the team will match it as soon as the offer sheet showed up on the fax machine.

I expect Denver will be able to resign Andersen with a three year $15 million deal with a starting salary in the $4.0 million range. Maybe Andersen leaves some money on the table, but he would still receive over a 400% raise and keeps him in Denver, where he wants to be. Not all athletes feel a sense of loyalty to a franchise, but Denver not only gave Birdman his first chance to play in the NBA, they also gave him his second chance at real playing time following his suspension.

Birdman deserves a lot of attention, but Andersen is only one of six free agents the Nuggets have to worry about. Do not expect Jason Hart to return. Johan Petro has been allowed to become an unrestricted free agent which does not bode well for his return, although there is a chance Denver could bring him back. As we discussed yesterday look for Anthony Carter to return for one more season in Denver.

The two great unknowns are Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones.

Denver is expected to extend the one year, $2,705,724 qualifying offer to Kleiza although as of yet there has been no official word that they have. Kleiza quickly became a favorite of George Karl as he improved quickly in his second and third seasons. I was of the opinion that he was overvalued by the Nuggets, as well as other teams around the league, because his rapid improvement convinced them that his ceiling was much higher than it actually is. In his fourth NBA season he appeared to have plateaued. His three point percentage dropped, his defense is still lacking, he passes only begrudgingly and still rarely goes to his left. The one thing Kleiza does well is rebound. His rebound rate was comparable to Kenyon Martin’s (10.4 to 10.9). Kleiza can run the floor very well, but he does not do it consistently game to game and Denver’s slightly slower pace impacted his ability to provide an impact on that area of the game.

When looking at Kleiza’s roster spot one of the players that the Nuggets have been rumored to be interested in is Grant Hill. Hill played for less than $2.0 million last season and I think he would be a very good fit in Denver. Hill is just as good of a shooter as Kleiza, if not better, but offers a creative playmaking ability that Kleiza will never be able to match.

Apart from Hill there are not many options who would be as cheap and as effective as Kleiza. Trevor Ariza is an intriguing option, but I doubt the Nuggets would be able to pry him away from the Lakers. Some people have mentioned Ron Artest as a potential option for the Nuggets. It would be a bold move, but a risky one too. He displayed his combustability again in the playoffs against the Lakers and he would not come cheap. If Denver wants to bring him in, they would most likely have to offer their full midlevel exception in August or September when all of Artest’s other options have been extinguished. With the health of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in question, Houston may cling to Artest as their best healthy player or they may let him walk in order to restructure the team after the season.

It is certainly possible that Kleiza will not get any good offers and have to sign the qualifying offer. If that is the case, I would not be overly upset. However, if the Nuggets manage to sign Hill, I imagine they will pull the qualifying offer and Kleiza might be forced to play overseas in order to make any money.

The final question mark for Denver is Dahntay Jones. Jones is the player who is likely to increase his salary the most from 2008-09. Everyone saw him give Chris Paul fits in the playoffs. With his atrocious offensive game his price will not get too high, but if he makes much more than he did last season his salary will quickly exceed his usefulness. Rumors are that Boston is interested and I do not think the Nuggets will go too deep in the pocketbook to bring Jones back.

With J.R. and possibly Sonny Weems playing much of the minutes at shooting guard I am not sure Denver needs to spend much money on a third shooting guard. Plus a player like Hill could spend some time filling in at shooting guard as well. There are some other price efficient players that I think might be good additions to the Nuggets. Flip Murray was very good for Atlanta last season and he played for only $1.5 million. Plus he helped Denver by missing a game winning shot at the Pepsi Center last season so he clearly is pro Nuggets. Fred Jones had his moments with the Clippers at a bargain basement price and I think he is worth a look. My favorite option would be Shannon Brown. He is a restricted free agent and I doubt the Lakers would let him get away, but if they sign all their big salary free agents, it may decrease their motivation to pay him what it takes to bring him back.

If the Nuggets are not able to bring in Hill and/or Brown and they bring back Jones and Kleiza for bottom dollar, it will not be the worst thing in the world. What would be the worst thing in the world is if they combine to play 40 minutes a game again.

Whether Denver boosts their talent level at the swing positions or not, the one thing they must accomplish before next season is to add a quality fourth big man.

There are a couple of nice options available to the Nuggets. First and foremost in my mind is Rasheed Wallace who is an unrestricted free agent. Sheed saw most of his numbers fall off this past season, but I think a good portion of that was due to the fact he did not buy into the Pistons and their chances to succeed. Maybe the most startling thing about Wallace’s game was 89% of his shots were jumpers. However, Denver needs a big man who can shoot and Wallace is still a good post defender. I think pairing him back up with Chauncey on what I think would be a championship caliber team could squeeze another good season or two out of him.

The good news is Sheed might not cost an arm and a leg and Denver may be in a position where they do not necessarily need to be the high bidder to earn a player’s services. When the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals I wrote that it would make Denver a legitimate destination for players who want to win a championship. With teams like San Antonio and Cleveland reportedly interested in Wallace, if the Nuggets want to go after him it will prove a good test of that theory.

Wallace is not the only free agent that would fit well in Denver. Wallace’s former teammate, Antonio McDyess (unrestricted) would be a good option, if he could be convinced not to hate the Nuggets so much. It would be interesting to have a player who Denver is paying twice. They owe him $3 million as part of the buyout they agreed to with him last season and then if they sign him he would have a current contract on the books as well. What is the old science fiction rule, two instances of the same matter cannot occupy the same space? Perhaps if Denver signs McDyess the universe would collapse upon itself.

I have heard some Nuggets fans hot for Paul Millsap (restricted) and with Carlos Boozer deciding not to opt out of his contract today Utah will be in a tough spot should someone give Millsap a big offer. However, he is not coming to Denver. The only way the Nuggets could bring him on board would be via sign and trade and Utah will put a hit on Millsap before they send him to the Nuggets.

David Lee (restricted) is another player who has been linked to the Nuggets and rumor has it they had worked out a deal for him with the Knicks at the trade deadline but Karl did not want to give up Kleiza. Again, Denver would have to pull off a sign and trade, but with the Knicks looking to create as much cap space as possible for next summer they are not going to want to give Lee a big contract. Would a trade exception and a couple of first round picks get Lee to Denver?

Should the Nuggets fail to nab one of the high profile guys there are a couple of cheap options who could provide some assistance. You may laugh when you read this, but if Denver needs an emergency fill in on the cheap I believe Shelden Williams (unrestricted) would be a good option. He cannot shoot, but he is a big boy who can rebound and block shots. Channing Frye (unrestricted) is a big man who seems to play well with consistent minutes. He is a great midrange shooter and can rebound when he is asked to. One final player who may be of interest is Drew Gooden (unrestricted). He has become a very good rebounder even if he is still a bit rough around the edges.

If Denver does not bring in an exciting free agent all is not lost. They still have two big trade exceptions, $9.8 million (expires November 3, 2009) and $3.24 million (expires January 5, 2010), that they can use to basically buy a player or players from another team. If they cannot sign a free agent they want, they would certainly be able to acquire a player to help via trade.

The big question is will Denver spend what it takes to add to the roster? There has been some consternation that because they are already over the luxury tax limit and with the reduction in spending last summer that Stan Kroenke would not allow the front office to spend any additional money to augment the roster. Kroenke has paid the luxury tax before and I do not think he will say no now as long as doing so makes sense.

For anyone wondering how the world financial crisis is affecting Kroenke I think it is safe to assume he can spend as much money as he wants on the Nuggets. He seems to be taking advantage of the economic recession instead of hoarding his cash in mattresses. He spent over $60 million to increase his ownership in Arsenal of the English Premier League just three months ago. Does that sound like he is freaking out over his Walmart stock?

I think you can count on Denver boosting their talent level and spending the money necessary to do it. Sports Illustrated’s Scott Howard-Cooper seems to be convinced that the Nuggets are going to be aggressive in the free agent market. I expect the same thing. I am convinced Denver wants to make their playoff run a launching point for something better instead of a onetime high point.

Denver did a good job of targeting high energy, athletic and cheap free agents to build a team that can run and play solid team defense.  Hopefully the Nuggets will continue to build a roster of players who can play great team defense, can shoot and play to win and not just for themselves.

Other free agents who I like (are either really good or would be cheaper than they are worth), but are either not going to change teams or Denver would have no interest in:

  • Josh Childress (Restricted – Atlanta Hawks/Greece) – Multi talented
  • Andersen Varejao (Unrestricted – Cleveland Cavaliers) – Scrappy big, great team defender
  • Ersan Ilyasova (Restricted – Milwaukee Bucks/Turkey) – good rebounder and shooter
  • Chris Wilcox (Unrestricted – New York Knickerbockers) – Athletic and possibly cheap
  • Steve Novak (Unrestricted – Los Angeles Clippers) – Deadly shooter
  • C.J. Watson (Restricted – Golden State Warriors) – I like the way he plays
  • Lamar Odom (Unrestricted – Los Angeles Lakers) – No duh
  • Matt Barnes (Restricted – Phoenix Suns) – A more athletic version of LK
  • Hedo Turkoglu (Unrestricted – Orlando Magic) – Versatile, big shot maker
  • Ramon Sessions (Restricted – Milwaukee Bucks) – Can score and distribute

No Qualifying Offer for Johan Petro

The Denver Nuggets arrived at the same conclusion regarding Johan Petro’s contract situation as I did.  They did not extend him a qualifying offer, a one year contract for just under $2.85 million, making him an unrestricted free agent as of July 1.

I do not know if the Nuggets are interested in bringing Petro back at a cheaper price, the only news regarding the status of his qualifying offer was a sentence long blip at the end of an article that I missed the fist time I read it, but I would think he would have to be a cheap option if Denver is looking for a cheap big man to fill the role of emergency big man that Petro did so well last season.

Hat tip to Nate at Pickaxe and Roll for actually reading the last sentence of the aforementioned article.

Johan Petro – To Qualify or Not to Qualify

Heading into the season without Marcus Camby many Denver Nuggets fans were worried about the rotation at power forward and center. Nene and Kenyon Martin were considered health risks and it was impossible to know what we would see out of Chris Andersen. Juwan Howard was on the roster, but he was let go shortly after the season started.

Denver had big men Nick Fazekas and James Mays in training camp, but they were both waived prior to the start of the season. They did acquire Cheikh Samb in the Billups trade on November 3, 2008, but he was clearly not ready to contribute. As the season wore on and Nene, Kenyon and Birdman starting missing a couple of games here and there with bruised ribs or calf strains Denver realized they had to get another big man even for no other reason than an insurance policy against a serious injury.

Enter Johan Petro.

The Nuggets sent Chucky Atkins to Oklahoma City and swapped their first round pick for the Thunders’ second rounder in tomorrow’s draft to acquire Petro. The common analysis of the deal was if Petro cannot get on the floor for OKC how is he going to play for Denver?

Well, the plan never was for Petro to play much, just to hang out in a box with a hammer tied to it and that said “Break glass in case of emergency!” Petro came to Denver with 45 games left in the season and George Karl broke the glass on 27 occasions although Petro only played more than eight minutes on 12 occasions and those situations were comprised of either blowouts or a handful of games where Petro filled in due to injury or suspension.

Petro was as advertised on offense. He has little post game to speak of, he likes to take jumpers and it is difficult to discern why when you see the result and he is not what you would call a great finisher as the roll man off of ball screens. Most Nugget players would not even think about passing him the ball except for Carmelo Anthony. For some reason Melo fed Petro all the time. It may have been simply because he was open or it may have been because Melo just liked seeing how Petro would fumble the pass away. It could be through his hands, between his legs off his chest, the possibilities were numerous.

Fortunately for Petro offense is only half the game. Petro did prove to be a very good rebounder and he had his moments on defense as well. The highlight of Petro’s season as a Nugget had to be in Orlando when he did a solid job guarding Dwight Howard due to the Birdman sitting out with a bum wrist. Petro only played 15 minutes, but without him Denver would have had to go small and Howard would have just demolished them on the boards.

There may not be many true centers in the NBA anymore, especially ones that can dominate games on the block, but at some point you are going to need a seven footer like Petro to come in and prevent you from getting abused in the lane.

It may seem like Petro is expendable, but I believe the Nuggets have to have a player like him on the roster.

Denver seemed to get better at defensive rebounding as the season wore on, but there were nights where they were dominated on the boards. If you just look at total rebounds Denver appears right in the middle of the pack. However, if you judge them by their defensive rebound percentage, which adjusts for the number of shots that are hoisted up, the Nuggets were tied for 23rd in the league in defensive rebounding percentage.

Petro had the second best rebound rate on the team at 16.3, just behind Birdman’s 17.6 rate. For comparison Nene had a rebound rate of only 13.8 and Kenyon was even worse with a rate of 13.7. The Nuggets are going to need someone who can come off the bench or fill in when needed who can rebound and not kill them on defense. They also need that player to be relatively cheap. Petro is a restricted free agent and in order to maintain the right to match any offer he receives Denver will have to offer him a one year qualifying offer that is reportedly $2,849,703.

Petro is not worth nearly $3 million for a team who will surely be looking to cut corners where possible, but with the Nuggets desperate for a big man insurance policy it would be difficult to let Petro walk. Denver would love to sign a competent big man for the minimum, but there are no Chris Andersen’s out there in the free agent market this summer. There are a couple of intriguing free agent big men that can be had, but I am not sure they will be in Denver’s price range (we will get into that another day).

The Nuggets do have the option of playing a dangerous game with Johan. They can decline to present a qualifying offer, making Petro an unrestricted free agent, and try to sign him for much less than the $2.8 million he would be guaranteed under the qualifying offer. There is no way anyone offers Petro $2.8 million for next season and one of the ways teams get into salary cap hell is paying players above their market value (see the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Clippers).

The question then becomes would Petro as an unrestricted free agent sign with someone else just to spite Denver for not making the qualifying offer? Also, by making Petro an unrestricted free agent Denver would have to either sign him to a minimum deal or dip into their mid level exception money if they need to go above the minimum.

It is difficult to say this with Denver being so hard up for big man depth, but I think the Nuggets need to roll the dice and not extend the qualifying offer to Petro. There is still a chance they can retain Petro as Nene/Birdman insurance at a much lower price and it will also free them up to bring in a better big man that could fit into their budget. If Petro were to sign the qualifying offer it would further crimp the Nuggets cap and tax situation.

If the plan fails and Petro walks away for nothing at least the Nuggets have a $3.24 million trade exception left over from sending Atkins to Oklahoma City which would be a valuable tool to find someone else to fill Petro’s emergency role. After all, the Pistons just traded away Amir Johnson for cap relief. There will be more deals like that out there.

2008-09 Game 80: Denver Nuggets 102 – Los Angeles Lakers 116

Box Score | Highlights

I intended to post some very insightful and timely comments on the Denver Nuggets 116-102 loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.  Well, as you are aware it is Sunday now and anything I have to say will not be very timely, but they have not played since then so I still have time to meet my responsibilities as a Nuggets blogger.

While the Nuggets lost and the game was not particularly close by the time the final bell sounded, I thought Denver played a decent game.  There were prolonged stretches where they outplayed the Lakers.  Unfortunately the Lakers had a couple more dominant stretches than Denver did and they resulted in a double digit loss for Denver.

Kobe had a nice night on offense in both quantity and quality as he posted a very efficient 33 point outing.  Even with the Nuggets aggressively jumping Kobe off of screens and throwing every swingman on the team at him defensively he still managed to light them up.  That is Kobe.  When you load up against him and he still has a high efficiency outing you are in trouble.  When you pay that much attention to one player it weakens your ability to defend everyone else.  While Kobe was too much to handle the player that really killed Denver was Pau Gasol.

Gasol killed the Nuggets in numerous ways.  Straight post ups, in transition and especially on the offensive glass.  Gasol pulled down 11 offensive boards on his own, which according to Basketball Reference only Al Jefferson and Erik Dampier have had better nights on the offensive glass this season with 12. 

I wish I could pin the Nuggets weakness on the defensive boards on the absence of Kenyon Martin, but I think that would be disingenuous.  With the return of Andrew Bynum the Lakers have an imposing pair of seven footers and Kenyon struggles to defend players of that height.  Plus it was the Nuggets’ defensive scheme that left Gasol open for so many offensive caroms.  When he was not open because of Denver’s help and rotations he was left alone by Chris Andersen or Johan Petro who both seemed to try to block every shot the Lakers hoisted up.

On the other end of the floor I found it interesting that the Lakers chose to have Trevor Ariza cover Carmelo Anthony one on one.  As a result of the use of Ariza, Melo was able to take advantage of his midrange game and he was also able to get into the paint easier.  The Lakers were ready to help, but not quite so on their toes as when Melo was covered by Walton or Radmanovic.

Additional Game 80 Nuggets

  • For some reason Dahntay Jones did not seem too worried about Kobe early in the game.  On one early possession Jones lost track of Kobe twice and Kobe hit his first shot, a three pointer, as Jones stood and watched him catch and shoot right in front of him.  Maybe Jones did not read the entire pregame scouting report on that Brant guy.
  • On a few occasions the Nuggets did run a switching scheme that bordered on a 2-3 zone.  The idea was to try to keep Birdman as close to under the rim as possible and the rest of the defense were to cover the players cutting to the perimeter.  On more than one possession they utilized this style of defense to stymie the Lakers, but it is not a system that can be utilized for more than a few possessions at a time.
  • The run that really killed the Nuggets chances came in the third quarter when the Nuggets became completely perimeter oriented.  Melo scored on a nice three point play to draw the Nuggets to within a single point at 70-69 and Phil Jackson, who rarely calls timeouts, called a timeout.  The Lakers came out of the timeout and rattled off an eight to nothing run.  George Karl called a timeout of his own and the Lakers followed it up with four more points.  A one point game quickly became a thirteen point spread.  Here are the shots the Nuggets attempted during that 12-0 run:  Nene missed layup, Billups missed three pointer, Melo missed three pointer, Billups missed three pointer, following the timeout called by Karl where I suspect he encouraged them to get to the rim J.R. missed a 20 foot jumper and to close it out J.R. missed a three pointer.  It does not get much more perimeter than that.
  • The Kamenetzky Brothers over at the LA Times Lakers Blog have put together a very good recap of the game, including the Nuggets’ final fade into oblivion in the fourth quarter.  They lay down the big picture view of why many NBA observers do not take the Nuggets seriously despite the fact that they are currently second in the west.  There is also a link there to a podcast with Chris Brousard from ESPN.com where they discuss the Nuggets and their faults.  I encourage you to check it out.
  • Oh by the way, the Lakers shot 17 more free throws for the game than the Nuggets did, but I have a difficult time complaining about that.  The Lakers did get the benefit of the doubt more often than Denver did, but L.A. was simply more assertive than the Nuggets were with the ball and that is a big reason why there was such a disparity.

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  96.5

Defensive Efficiency:  120.2 – They did hold the Lakers to 42.5% shooting, if only they could have collected a few more defensive rebounds.

Offensive Efficiency:  105.7 – Not good enough against a top notch squad.

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