The day after trading away their two best players, the Denver Nuggets officially begin the post-Melo era with a walkover victory against the Memphis Grizzlies. They led by double digits throughout most of the game while handily outplaying the Grizz. I wanted to get that out of the way because while the win is an important one – I’m going to discuss why on a personal level as a fan, this is a game I’ve been waiting for that meant so much more to me than any in recent memory.
I have to admit, after reliving that incredible fourth quarter comeback against Dallas I almost bought back in. It’s been tempting at numerous times this season when the Nuggets occasionally act like the good team they think they are. Even through the first half of this game I thought it was the best Denver has looked on the road all season. Something just made me uneasy about saying with another half to play and unfortunately it turned into a cruel reminder of why I can’t get fooled anymore.
Somehow, the boys in powder blue and gold keep on doing it; “it” being finding a way to win, in this case for a seventh straight time. Thanks to Aaron Afflalo’s career-high 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting and a gigantic 27 and 11 from Nene the Nuggets were able to hold onto a lead that at one point was as large as 21 with a single-point victory.
Despite blowing their huge lead in a third quarter in which they were outscored 30-14, Denver resurrected itself in the fourth thanks in large part to some solid bench minutes from J.R. and Ty (though their stats may not show it) and Afflalo’s career night. A game which could have been a disastrous loss for the Nuggets instead remains part of a winning streak that couldn’t have come at a better time for Denver, who will head into a brutal four-game roadtrip out east starting in Charlotte tomorrow night and finishing at the Garden against the Knicks on Sunday.
Here are some thoughts from the game, in bullet format to speed things up a bit-
One last thought that passed through my mind before we turn the page; as I watch this group play more and more, the more and more I think they could survive (nay, dare I say thrive?) without Melo. Some are speculating that Chauncey would want out if Melo is dealt, but Mr. Big Shot loves playing here and wants to retire a Nugget. And what other competing team needs a point guard (ok, there is a team in South Beach but unless they offer Haslem and….five first round picks (that’s what I’m saying, not gonna happen!) why would you make that deal if you were Denver? Miami offers nothing the Nuggets would want, and in Denver you have-
The Nuggets proved they could win when Melo was gone and even on these recent nights when he’s struggled to find his shot (as Chauncey has) they’ve still found a way to win. They can parlay Melo and/or K-Mart’s deals into some good (maybe great pieces) to build a contender around. Who you might say? Well we’ll save that for another day. Just know the Nuggets are heading to Charlotte (close to Karl’s old stomping grounds in Chapel Hill) with a chance ot get their coach his 1,000th all-time victory. My quandary is, would number 1,000 be better in the head man’s alma mater or on national TV, in the Garden, against the defending Eastern Conference champs? Just saying…
The Denver Nuggets 123-101 blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies had a kind of preseason feel to it. It was Kenyon Martin’s second game back from injury and he is still working his way into shape (although he needed the practice, I was relieved we did not have to watch him try to shoot free throws again). The Nuggets seem to be working their way through a transition from switching ball screens to a combination of hedge and recover and trapping the ball handler. As a team Denver had been struggling to get to the line at the rate they are accustomed to and the offense seemed to be not only stuck between first and second gear, but the clutch was grinding like drunks at a dance club.
In many ways the contest with the Grizzlies was simply a tune up for the big matchup against the Phoenix Suns that could decide the fate of the Nuggets season.
After a shaky first quarter that saw Memphis exploit some minor defensive breakdowns in defending the pick and roll and failing to aggressively rebound numerous misses by the Grizzlies, the pieces stated falling together.
Defensively, Denver began to tighten up the pick and roll defense. The lane was successfully sealed off and thanks to some aggressive trapping the Nuggets started forcing turnovers. Turnovers lead to a plethora of fast break points and for the first time in weeks the Denver Nuggets began to resemble the team that was the favorite to finish second in the West and challenge the Lakers.
On offense, Nene was fed early and often and he delivered in a big way. On the heels of his thee point two rebound stink bomb against the Spurs Nene tied a career high by fighting his way to the line 14 times and he made 12, which surpassed his old career high of ten. Denver was able to get the ball in the lane thanks to displaying much more patience on offense than they had in the previous several games combined. J.R. Smith found his shooting stroke, at least temporarily, as he made four threes in the first half and for the first time in five games the people of Colorado can get four tacos for a dollar and the purchase of a drink at participating Taco Bells as the Nuggets finally broke the 100 point barrier.
While it was good to see the Nuggets surge to an easy win they now face a red hot team in Phoenix. As I noted after the loss to the Spurs the Nuggets are making progress in the quality of their pick and roll defense (including video evidence) thanks to both a change in tactics as well as increased effort and focus. Now the real test comes in the form of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
I have long thought the Suns provided the most difficult matchup for Denver this season thanks to their abilities to run the pick and roll, make threes and score in transition. The question is will the two game crash course refresher course the Nuggets just completed against San Antonio and Memphis on how to properly play pick and roll defense be enough. Can Denver really execute their hedge and recover and/or trapping scheme against the best pick and roll point guard in the world?
Despite their improvement against Memphis, Mike Conley lit Denver up for 18 first half points, all of which came off of ball screens or transition, suggesting the Nuggets will still have problems dealing with Nash. The flip side of that coin is Denver was clearly more worried about Zach Randolph than Conley in the first half and after shifting their focus in the second half Conley was held to only four points. The Nuggets will be focusing on Nash from the second they set foot in Phoenix, but Conley is clearly not Steve Nash. The Nuggets must do better.
In addition to the difference between Conley and Nash, Memphis does not have a player who is in any way comparable to Amare. No big in the league is as dangerous rolling to the basket than Amare, largely thanks to the artistry of Nash. One way to prevent Amare from catching the ball in the lane with a head of steam is pressure on the ball. The Nuggets did a good job of forcing bad passes against Memphis, but Nash will not be as easy to fluster. In addition to pressuring the ball handler, Denver must have weak side help to make sure any pass intended for Amare is challenged. What they cannot do is just stand behind him because that is a surefire way to give up an and-one.
If you can manage to keep Nash out of the lane, prevent him from getting an open jumper and shield him from passing the ball to Amare, you still must worry about Jason Richardson, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley. They are all deadly thee point marksmen and if you can manage to slow the pick and roll, your recovery and rotations must be crisp and instantaneous to prevent open three point attempts.
I feel confident Denver can trap Nash, I feel slightly less confident they can keep him from passing to Amare in the lane, I am highly dubious of their ability to do both of those things and prevent Phoenix from earning those deadly opportunities from behind the arc.
I have said it before and I will say it again. Phoenix is the one team who can go toe to toe with Denver and win a Wild West shootout. That being said, they really do not have any player who is capable of handling Carmelo Anthony. Jason Richardson is too small, Dudley is too slow and Grant Hill is too old. Carmelo must be aggressive going to the basket and Denver has to take advantage of the fact Robin Lopez will not be patrolling the paint. Plus Amare has been known to get into foul trouble and if Denver can bait him into committing some early fouls it could change the complexion of the game significantly.
The other factor in the Suns favor is Denver will be playing their fifth game in seven days on Tuesday. The last time Denver played in that situation they were demolished in Dallas. There is a difference between those five games in late March and these five. Denver has only had to fly twice as their last three contests have all been in Denver. That should surely help prevent the kind of fatigue that plagued them against the Mavericks. It also helped that no player had to be on the floor for more than 33 minutes because of the nature of the Memphis game. Still, five games in seven nights is draining for anyone and Phoenix has a distinct advantage because of it.
I will add one other note and that is look out for Anthony Carter. At first I was thrilled that Ty Lawson received all the minutes backing up Chauncey until I realized that Adrian Dantley was quite possibly saving Carter’s legs for the Suns game. If that turns out to be the case, it will make things ever more difficult for Denver should their point guard who is best suited for a fast paced game and is the best pick and roll defender out of the three ends up watching the game while AC is on the court.
The Nuggets may have blown their chance to win the division, earn the third seed and possibly match up with a Portland team who suffered yet another injury, this time to Brandon Roy, by losing at home to the Spurs. Still, all it will take to redeem themselves is one final herculean effort in game 82. They have the talent and ability to beat the Suns in Phoenix. Their fate is in their own hands.
We are close enough to the end of the season to start projecting what might happen with some level of certainty. Honestly, I have no idea what order Dallas, Utah and Phoenix will finish in or how the bottom three spots will be sorted among Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio. I do believe two spots are locked in place. Obviously the Lakers will be the top seed and I think the Nuggets are all but guaranteed to finish as the fifth seed.
While that is a very frustrating sentence to type, Denver can be a dangerous fifth seed or they can be a pushover as the fifth seed. It all depends on how the finish the regular season and the Nuggets’ closing schedule is an interesting one. Almost every contest features a team playing at the end of a difficult stretch of games.
Portland comes to town Thursday playing their fifth game in eight days. Wednesday they bombed the Knicks, but still have to travel for the fifth straight game. Denver has been sitting at home since Monday night dwelling on how badly they have sucked for the past week. If we do not get a big effort from the Nuggets against Portland, it will be very bad news. I think the result is a win for Denver.
Next the Clippers, without Baron Davis who is out with back spasms, arrive in Denver on Saturday in the only battle between two rested teams remaining on the docket. The Nuggets will be on one day of rest while the Clippers will have had two days off after getting blown out in Toronto on Wednesday. That game should absolutely be another win for the Nuggets.
Denver then has three days off before their final five games in seven nights stretch to close out the regular season. The first outing is in Oklahoma City. The way Denver has been playing this would seem like a sure loss. However, this game will be the fourth game in five nights for the Thunder, who play in Utah the night before, and will have traveled before each of the four games. That smells like a win and a three game winning streak.
The next night the Nuggets return home to play the Lakers who are having some serious struggles on the road right now and really have nothing to play for. Even so LA/Denver has become a heated mini-rivalry and with the Lakers enjoying three days off I expect them to play well. Denver will be motivated to do well also with the division crown still within their grasp, but without Kenyon Martin and Coach Karl I suspect they drop this one.
After a day of rest Denver gets a visit from the San Antonio Spurs who will be playing their fourth game in five days. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs will knock themselves out in an attempt to avoid the eight seed and a first round matchup with LA. I suspect the Spurs will sit Tim Duncan and/or Manu Ginobili against Denver and I think this is another Nugget victory.
Two days later in the penultimate matchup of the regular season the Grizzlies come calling. It will be Memphis’ fifth game in seven days as they provide another victim for the now rolling Nuggets.
That brings us to game 82, a visit to Phoenix. The Nuggets will arrive in Phoenix with a solid stretch of five wins in six games and sporting a 53-28 record a half a game behind the Jazz who will be 53-27 and playing a game at Golden State on the same night. Denver will be playing their fifth game in seven nights, although unlike their recent horrific five in seven trip out east, they only have two travel days of which this is the second. The Suns enter the battle after a day off. Phoenix is a very difficult matchup for Denver when the Nuggets are full strength and the chances of earning a W in Phoenix are slim. Chalk that one up as a loss with Denver finishing the season 53-29, fifth overall in the conference.
These final seven games will be a test of Denver’s mental attitude and determination as there are “official” reports backing up my intuitive suggestions that they very well could be without Kenyon and Karl even after the playoffs begin.
Thursday night is the Nuggets’ fight or flight moment. Do they fold the tent and enter the playoffs a slumping has been or embrace the fact they can still capture the Northwest Division and remain relevant? Momentum changes come at unexpected times and as bad as they have looked recently all it will take for the Nuggets to recapture some of their lost mojo is a well played victory against the Blazers.
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
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
The Denver Nuggets 111-109 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies was a perfect example of the difference between playing hard and playing with focus. From the opening tip the Nuggets played hard. They understood the importance of this game and they wanted to win. But their hard work returned poor results because their lack of focus created easy scoring opportunities for the Grizzlies.
Denver snuck to within two points early in the third quarter at 59-57, but then the Grizzlies exploded on a 20-5 run. The Nuggets were not physically sloughing off, they simply made silly mental errors that allowed the Grizzlies to bag some easy points.
It all started after a nice defensive sequence by Carmelo Anthony who ran Rudy Gay off the three point line shut down a drive attempt and then when Gay went to the basket a second time Melo directed him baseline right into Nene resulting in the ball going out of bounds. On the inbounds play O.J. Mayo passed the ball into Marc Gasol and then cut past Gasol to the baseline and took a handoff. Dahntay Jones had been playing Mayo to come to the middle of the floor and was way out of position. Nene stepped out on Mayo after the handoff and Mayo threw him a shot fake. Nene left his feet and for some reason Jones, who was trying to get back into the play took a running leap from ten feet away, which even had Mayo shot would have been a completely ineffective challenge. With Nene and Jones in the air Mayo drive right to the rim and laid in an easy finger roll.
There was a play where Melo had to tie his shoe and he was late coming down the floor. As a result of Melo getting into the play late Chauncey only had one option to trigger the offense and that was Kenyon on the left wing. (Of course, Chauncey could have waited a couple more seconds to let Melo get back into the play or he could have penetrated or even shot, but he did not.) Darrell Arthur realized Chauncey wanted to pass the ball to Kenyon and he overplayed him. Despite telegraphing the pas and seeing Arthur all over Kenyon Chauncey passed the ball anyway. Of course Arthur stole the pass and took it the other way for a pretty sweet slam.
After Melo missed a layup the Grizzlies went the other way on a quasi fat break. Despite having four players back no one noticed Arthur running right down the middle of the floor. Nene stayed at the three point line to help guard Mike Conley even though J.R. was right there too. Chauncey was in the lane, but had his back to the ball looking at Mayo who was on the right wing outside the three point line. Kenyon was under the basket watching Rudy Gay, but he also had his back to the play. Arthur netted another dunk and the Grizzlies were up twelve 73-61.
During another Memphis possession Mayo took a shot from the top of the circle and J.R. ran out. Gasol collected the long rebound and Mayo cut from where he shot to the left wing. As J.R. came back in the play he just ran to the middle of the lane instead of running to Mayo and once Mayo received the pass from Gasol no one rotated over to him.
The run was capped off by a Gay three point play where he received the ball on the left baseline with Melo on him. Kenyon came over and doubled him. With the double team Melo had the responsibility to close off the baseline and Kenyon was to cut off a move to the middle. Even with his defensive responsibilities but in half (not having to worry about Gay driving right to the middle of the floor, Carmelo barely moved as Gay blew right past him along the baseline. Nene was in position to help, but reached instead of stepping in and Gay made a spectacular layup on the far side of the hoop and cashed in the free throw.
The Nuggets were playing hard, but they were playing with no focus or attention to detail. Because of that they saw a two point deficit balloon up to 17 in barely more than five minutes.
Even down 17 in the third the Nuggets managed to come back, but doing so not only required an increase in physical effort, but mental effort as well. In the fourth quarter the Nuggets played as hard as they have all season.
Denver was behind 100-88 with eight minutes left. Their comeback was triggered by an aggressive play trap a pick and roll by Renaldo Balkman who tipped the ball away from Conley and forced it out of bounds off of him.
To me the key play was all about hustle though. Melo tried passing the ball up the floor and his pass was tipped by Gay. J.R. ran the ball down just before it went out of bounds along the right sideline and passed it to Balkman on the block who immediately kicked it out to Melo for a three. The lead was down to eight at 100-92 and the Nuggets energy and focus was increasing on defense with every possession.
J.R. was hounding Mayo everywhere he went and on an ensuing possession after J.R. chased Mayo from one side of the floor to the other Mayo came off a screen and Chauncey pinched over from the top of the circle and forced a turnover.
Next J.R. picked Conley up full court trying to pressure him into a mistake. Conley ran off a Gasol screen where Nene hedged and forced him towards the sideline. J.R. was a little slow recovering, but after chasing Conley into the lane he followed the pass to Arthur and blocked his shot from behind.
After a couple of baskets by the Grizzlies Nene and Balkman doubled Gasol as he spun on the block and got too deep under the rim resulting in a turnover and what followed was the “May the force be with you” moment of the game. with the Nuggets down three, 104-101, Balkman received a nice pass from Nene, had his shot blocked, and then missed the wide open follow up layup. He managed to get the rebound again and Kicked the ball out to Chauncey in the left corner. Billups faked a pass up the sideline to J.R. and that fake drew Mayo out away from the middle of the floor which opened up the weak side wing for Melo. Chauncey skipped the ball across to Melo who drained a wide open game tying three.
The final huge stop of the game came with the Nuggets up one and 33.2 seconds left in the game. Memphis isolated Mayo in the middle of the floor near half court. Gasol came out to set a screen to Mayo’s right. Mayo never went anywhere near the screen allowing Nene and Anthony Carter to play a soft double. Gasol then reset the screen and Mayo tried going right off of it. Carter did a great job of crowding Mayo without fouling to avoid the pick. Mayo was never able to break free and never looked to pass even though he was in a pack of Nuggets. Kenyon, who was inserted back into the lineup for that final stand blocked his shot. Melo made two free throws for the final margin.
Not only did the Nuggets play aggressive physical defense in the fourth quarter, but they also hit their shots. From the time they were down 17 Denver hit seven threes in 13 attempts. It is amazing what making shots can do for a team, just ask Sacramento.
I thought Memphis played well and they forced the Nuggets to earn the victory. While being happy with the result it is once again a little frustrating that Denver could not put together a complete game. Even with their amped up defense if they miss a couple of threes they lose that game. Many of you seem to think that the Nuggets will blow through Phoenix and Dallas on the upcoming road trip, but if the Nuggets play like they did tonight they probably lose both of those games.
Additional Game 69 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 94.2 – Pretty brisk for a road game.
Defensive Efficiency: 115.7 – Memphis shot 47.7% and only turned the ball over 10 times.
Offensive Efficiency: 117.8 – Very good considering Denver turned it over 19 times.
Featured Blog: 3 Shades of Blue
The Denver Nuggets have righted the ship at home, but their last road game was the debacle in Sacramento and they still have a five game road losing streak to teams with records under .500 (Sacramento, Indiana, Milwaukee, Chicago and New Jersey).
They had better turn that around tonight in Memphis. Look for Kenyon to play in the first half only again while Renaldo Balkman is questionable.
Featured Blog: 3 Shades of Blue
I have yet to really put anything together about the trade deadline and that sucks because, well, it has passed. The consensus amongst fans, commentators and the Nuggets front office was that Denver is playing well and should stand pat. That is exactly what they did.
I only have two questions. First, is this team a true contender right now? Secondly, will they be a true contender next season?
There have been an increasing number of stories out there trumpeting the Nuggets’ virtues. Fans are starting to expect great things and are throwing around the term contender. In my mind a contender is a team who has a reasonable chance at defeating every other team in the league in a seven game playoff series. How far the Nuggets go in the playoffs depends completely on matchups. I do not like their chances against the Spurs or the Hornets (especially now that Tyson Chandler is back in the Big Easy) and I would not be very confident should the Nuggets face off against the Jazz. Even if you think Denver could defeat all three of those teams, we still have not mentioned the Lakers. I would love to be forced to eat my words in May and June, but I just do not think it is reasonable to expect a team that has not advanced past the first round in 15 years to suddenly surge into the finals.
As I have pointed out in the past, building a championship team is a process. Denver has taken a big step forward in that process this season. Ideally if the Nuggets do not win it all this season, it will be a campaign where they grow closer to that goal and hopefully find themselves as a legitimate finals contender next season. Well, if you look at their salary structure I do not think we can count on them being in a position to capitalize on their progress next season.
With the economy floundering we have seen many teams seeking to unload contracts and no one really interested in taking on any additional salary obligations. David Stern claimed during the all-star break that teams should expect the salary cap and luxury tax level to drop next season for the first time since its inception. The luxury tax limit was $71.15 million this season and might drop down to around $68 or $69 million next season. Denver has cut a lot of salary over the previous ten months or so, but looking ahead at next season, they are going to have to slash more payroll in order to avoid the tax.
Right now the Nuggets are over $68 million with only Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith, Steven Hunter, Renaldo Balkman and the money they owe Antonio McDyess. That is only seven players. Chris Andersen has been a Godsend playing as well as he has for the minimum. He is going to get a significant raise next season and I doubt the Nuggets will be able to afford to bring him back. It is also highly unlikely that they can bring in a player who will play anywhere near Birdman’s level for such a pittance. They will need to add a backup point guard and even they bring Anthony Carter back it will cost them roughly another million against the cap. The qualifying offers for Linas Kleiza and Johan Petro add up to over $5.5 million combined. Needless to say the Nuggets are likely to be in some financial straits again next season. They have done a masterful job of dropping payroll while improving the quality of the team. Pulling that off over two consecutive seasons would be a pipe dream.
You are free to disagree and make your case in the comments, but I think the evidence points to the Nuggets not being a legitimate contender this season and they will most likely not be one next season either. I believe the Nuggets needed to put a strong emphasis on winning right now and that they should have pulled the trigger on a trade to try to push them over the top.
What should that trade have been? They should have acquired whatever they could have in exchange for Linas Kleiza and Charlotte’s future first round draft pick. Steven Hunter and Dahntay Jones’ contracts should have been fair game as well.
The one problem with trying to improve the team by trading Kleiza is that most teams around the league may have a better grasp of Kleiza’s value than the Nuggets do. The Nuggets have placed far too much value on Kleiza and I think it is due to his rapid development between his second and third seasons. Kleiza has already reached his ceiling as a player, but the Nuggets front office are expecting even better things because of how quickly he has improved. The truth is he is a poor defending gunner with no passing ability. If his shot is not falling he is a complete liability.
The Nuggets have had the opportunity to trade him last season, but perhaps they hung onto him for too long. With each passing game he is exposed further and further to be a one dimensional player. He will most certainly not be back next season so why would they not look to unload to make a push right now when the Nuggets have what is arguably their best team since they joined the NBA?
If I am wrong and Stan Kronke is willing to do next year what he was not willing to do this season, and by that I mean foot the bill for an $80 million payroll, then I am fine with the Nuggets sticking with the current roster and hoping to further augment the roster next season. I seriously doubt that will be the case though.
Chris Tomasson is thinking along the same lines as I am, although he was smart enough to publish his post before the trade deadline passed.
What was Oklahoma City Thinking?
I am baffled by the Thunder’s decision to stamp return to sender on Tyson Chandler’s forehead. I thought that trade was going to push them into playoff contention next season. To decide that his old turf toe injury was too much of an issue going forward blew my mind. There were first hand reports of actual fan excitement about the Thunder. It made them a hot topic around town, but now they may have to deal with a fan backlash, especially if Chandler’s tow does not explode like the Hindenburg on the court at some point over the next few months.
The kicker is that the team physician that flunked Chandler’s physical was the same doctor that performed the surgery on his toe in the first place when New Orleans was playing in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina. The doctor basically said, “I did a bad enough job on repairing his toe that I think it will crumble like a two day old bran muffin.” Nice work Dr. Mengele.
I never understood why New Orleans wanted to trade Chandler during the season anyway. The deal was not going to save them any money this season and they could pull the trigger on a Camby like salary dump over the summer without sabotaging the current campaign. I thought that deal was bungled on both ends.
Oklahoma City did manage to add a nice piece in Thabo Sefolosha. He is a defensive oriented swingman with great size and solid potential. If they only had hung onto Chandler they might have had the foundation in place for a 50 win team in Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Green and Chandler.
Thank you Portland
I was worried that the Trail Blazers might pull off a deal for Richard Jefferson or some other small forward who just might propel them past the Nuggets in the Northwest Division. Thankfully they chose to stick with their current roster and I think lost a chance to vastly improve their team. They will have some cap space to play with this offseason and it will be interesting to see what they turn that into.
Memphis no longer has a glut of point guards
Remember when Memphis had Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Javaris Crittenton? Well, now they just have Conley. Crittenton was shipped off to Washington and Lowry is now a Houston Rocket. I found the three way deal that also sent Rafer Alston to Orlando interesting because I think Lowry is a better player than Alston. Skip to My Lou is a much better shooter, but Orlando is a secretly good defensive team and Lowry is much superior to Alston on that end. Neither player is a perfect fit, although Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith both agreed that this deal pushed the Magic ahead of the Cavs somehow. Personally I think Lowry would be better for the Magic as he can defend and play the drive and kick game they love so much.
John Paxson gets active two years too late
John Paxson finally pulled his balls out of wherever he had them stored and finally pulled the trigger on a big trade and a couple of smaller ones. The sad thing is it is too late to transform the once promising Bulls into a contender. The acquisition of John Salmons has apparently paved the way for the departure of Ben Gordon this summer. If Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah can build on their play over the past month or so Chicago has a decent core of Derrick Rose, Salmons, Luol Deng and the aforementioned bigs.
New York actually making trades for basketball reasons
I did not understand the reasoning behind the Knicks acquisitions of Larry Hughes and Chris Wilcox. There was no monetary benefit from what I could tell. Then it donned on me. It was actually about trying to improve on the court. With so many deals being discussed for purely financial reasons I was caught off guard by the attempt to actually use trades to improve a team. There is no impetus to tank in New York as they do not have the rights to their 2010 draft pick so they might as well try to win while ensuring they do not take on any obligations beyond the summer of 2010.
The NBA on TNT
A big thanks to Detroit and Boston for blowing games against the Spurs and Jazz tonight. Way to go bozos. I will forgive the Celtics as long as they lose to the Nuggets next Monday.
The nice thing about playing a team as bad as Memphis is even after mailing in the first 18 minutes of a game against them, you are only down eight. If Denver plays that badly against a good team they might have been down 20 and in need of a miracle to earn a victory.
The turning point in my mind was when George Karl decided to implement a trapping defense after a Memphis timeout with 5:51 left. Whenever Mike Conley came off of a high screen they would jump him and push him back towards mid court. The defensive energy increased from that moment and the Nuggets started forcing turnovers and getting out on the break. In the two possessions after they started trapping the pick and roll they had back to back three point plays off of steals, one by Chauncey Billups and the other by Linas Kleiza.
Before that the Nuggets were just going through the motions on defense as they are wont to do from time to time. They would go through a couple of rotations and then the last guy would be late. O.J. Mayo started off red hot, just like the first time he played the Nuggets and you could tell early on that not only were the Grizzly players looking to impress their new coach, but they were getting that feeling that they just might be able to keep their nine game losing streak from reaching ten.
Denver did take control of the game in the second quarter though and there was only one time where I sat forward on the couch a little bit and that was when the Grizz cut the lead down to four at 78-82 with 7:23 left in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets made sure I could recline once again though as they held the Grizzlies scoreless for the next 5:10 during which time they bumped their lead back up to 18.
This game does not deserve too much discussion. After starting slowly the Nuggets matched the Grizzlies intensity and ended up winning the game rather easily. Hopefully they were able to get the turnovers and bad decisions out of their systems as they will need to put forth a complete effort in order to get a win tomorrow night against Chris Paul in New Orleans.
Additional Game 45 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 101.6 – A very fast pace thanks to the 53(!) combined turnovers. The previous season high for combined turnovers was game six when the Nuggets, and you guessed it, the Grizzlies each accumulated 22 turnovers.
Defensive Efficiency: 83.7 – That is a new single game low topping the 85.9 they posted against, you guessed it, the Grizzlies the first time they played. A big key to earning such a good rating was their blocked shots. Denver blocked 15 shots, if you assume that Memphis would make 40% of those shots that were blocked that is another six made shots and 12 more points. Those blocks also helped hold Memphis to 37.5% shooting, the first time Denver held an opponent to sub 40% field goal percentage since their December 15 game at Dallas. The Nuggets have now compiled sub 100 defensive efficiencies in each of their previous three games.
Offensive Efficiency: 98.4 – The Nuggets actually shot the ball alright making 44.4% of their shots and 39.1% of their threes, but their season high 27 turnovers just killed their efficiency.
Featured Blog: 3 Shades of Blue
The Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of a league worst nine game losing streak. Even the Washington Wizards only have a three game losing streak. They will have their third head coach in their last four games as Johnny Davis filled in for two games while newly hired head coach Lionel Hollins could psyche himself up enough to jump onboard a sinking ship.
The only thing that worries me is that the Grizzlies will put forth a strong effort to welcome their new leader. Denver has done a great job of not taking the bottom dwellers of the league too lightly and the only loss to a sub .500 team this season remains their defeat at Golden State in the fourth game of the season which was after they acquired Chauncey BIllups, but before they could get him in uniform.
Should the Nuggets start Dahntay Jones and J.R. Smith together the two of them will be responsible for guarding O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay. I would probably assign Rudy to Dahntay and let J.R. try his luck with O.J. Mayo does not shoot very many free throws and plays more of a perimeter game. He has not shot more than six free throws in his last 19 games and he has nearly as many games where he played 30 or more minutes without shooting a free throw (two) as he has games with more than four free throws (three) during that span. I trust J.R. can hang with Mayo without getting into foul trouble. Likewise Gay does not get to the line much. In his 11 January games he has six games where he has shot either zero or one free throws and he has attempted more than five only once.
As long as the Nuggets play with the defensive focus and intensity they brought against the Jazz on Sunday night they will be just fine tonight.
Offensively Denver has advantages all over the floor. Chauncey is too much for Conley. J.R. can score on anyone. Nene should be able to blow by Marc Gasol at will and Kenyon should be able to overpower and out-quick Darrell Arthur.
The Nuggets did have a monkey wrench inserted into their travel plans though as their plane experienced mechanical problems delaying their departure from 2:00 PM yesterday until 9:00 PM. As a result they cancelled their shoot around this morning. They still got into Memphis before they would have if it were a back to back night so I do not think the flight delay will cause much of a problem.
Previous Matchup: Game 6 – Den 100 Mem 90