First of all I’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to RMC’s founder and main man Jeremy Wagner for bringing me on board and running THE best Nuggets blog out there-it’s been a great couple of months and I’m looking forward to many more in the future.
I’d also like to say thank you and Happy Holidays to all of our devoted readers here on Roundball Mining Company. Without you guys all this is just words on a page-here’s to a great 2011 for the Nuggets!
But now for the juicy stuff. A week ago today I had the good fortune of attending the Nuggets-T-Wolves game at the Pepsi Center, and for the first time in my 22 years I got to sit courtside at an NBA game (big shout out to John and Liz Fitzgerald for the seats), right next to Mrs. Chauncey Billups nonetheless! I’ve seen hundreds (probably thousands) of games on TV and many up in the nosebleeds, but let me tell you, if you’ve never seen a game from that up close, you get a chance to appreciate professional basketball like never before.
My girlfriend asked me who she should watch out for on the other team, and I said number 42, aka mister Kevin Love. After dropping a 30-30 game earlier this season, I was hoping for another masterful performance on this night (and a Nuggets victory of course), and he (and the game) did not disappoint. K-Love scored a career-high 43 points to go with 17 boards, but the Wolves rally late fell short and the Nuggets won 115-113, a margin that should have been much larger. No Chauncey, Bird, or K-Mart was disappointing but J.R. had a decent offensive game, Afflalo added 17 and Ty, “The Law”-son was the player of the game, dropping 23 points to go along with 9 dimes and 3 steals. As quick as the guy looks on television, triple it from up close. He had his way with first Luke Ridnour, then Johnny Flynn, getting to the hoop with ease.
But alas, not all was merry on this night, as the Nuggets bigs (especially Nene) were in foul trouble the whole game and were dominated down low by Love and Kosta Koufos. Yes, Kosta Koufos.
Yet the Nuggets did just enough to win, and I will again emphasize a point I made in my last post- this can be an above average NBA team without Carmelo Anthony. If they can get a solid return for Melo, a trade should be the way to go. I know you may want to hold onto those number 15 jerseys for as long as possible, but we have to face the reality that Melo will sign with the Knicks this summer (lockout pending) and that getting nothing in return is not an acceptable end result.
Who Should Denver trade Melo to?
Here’s the rub Nuggets fans. Melo wants to go to New York. New Jersey has the pieces to trade for him but doesn’t want a three-month rental. And the contenders that might (Dallas, Orlando) either don’t have the pieces or won’t part with them. So let’s analyze the possible scenarios:
Melo and Renaldo Balkman to Dallas for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Dallas’ 2011 1st-round pick
Looking at this trade on paper it might be as good as the Nuggets could do. Yes it may require another draft pick from Dallas, and yes Denver would probably have to trade either K-Mart or Birdman in a separate trade to free up the frontcourt logjam, but it could work. Dallas adds Melo to an already solid core of Kidd, Nowitzki, Chandler, Terry and Marion and gets rid of Haywood’s contract and uninspired play (and allows youngsters Ian Mahinmi and Alexis Ajinca to see time at backup center). Denver gets a solid starting three to replace Melo (which keeps J.R. as the super-sixth man), and can move Nene to power forward (where he truly belongs) alongside Haywood in the starting lineup.
Melo and Shelden Williams to Chicago for Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and 2011 1st-round pick
Korver has to be thrown in to make the salaries work, but also gives Denver a three-point shooter off the bench (Korver is much more efficient from downtown than J.R.) that they could throw into another possible trade with K-Mart or Bird. Obviously Nuggets fans would like to see Joakim Noah wear the powder blue and gold but it’s evident that the Bulls will not part with their young center. In this deal the Nugs would get stuck with Deng’s extremely bloated contract, but also get a decent small forward who can score along with another solid player in Gibson who can play at either the 3 or 4 (and is an upgrade over Forbes off the bench). I’d prefer the Dallas trade over this one, but if Chicago offers this before the deadline, Denver might have to take it (if there are no better offers).
Melo to Philadelphia for Andre Iguodala, Darius Songalia and two first-round picks
Melo to New Jersey for Derrick Favors, Troy Murphy and three first-round picks
This is when things get interesting. If you’re Masai Ujiri, would you rather have Igoudala (who becomes the small forward and team headliner for the foreseeable future), Songalia’s $5 million expiring contract (to go along with Smith [$6 million], Martin [$16 million] and possibly Billups [$13 million team option]) and picks, or the young big man in Favors, Murphy’s $11 million expiring deal, and possibly a third first-rounder? I predict New Jersey (who now has five first-round picks in the next two drafts) will throw a third first-rounder in to sweeten their offer, which may end up being as good as Denver will get. It’s either one of these two options, or take 50¢ on the dollar from the Knicks. Which brings us to this:
Melo and Renaldo Balkman to New York for Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph and Knicks’ 2011 1st-round pick
As each day passes, Nuggets fans get closer and close to this becoming a reality. The Nuggets just don’t have a lot of leverage here (the impending lockout and Melo leaving $65 million on the table being the only reason for Melo to sign an extension) and knowing there’s a 99.9% chance he will bolt to New York this summer, Denver may as well take what they can get from the Knickerbockers. Now, if the Nets can convince Melo to sign an extension with them or the Sixers, Mavs, et al, are interested in a short-term lease then Denver may be able to get a better haul. I just don’t see it happening. Chandler is playing some great ball right now and I see him as a better fit with Denver than Gallinari (who wants to stay in New York); Randolph is getting absolutely no playing time with D’Antoni (surprisingly) and could fill in for Harrington and/or J.R. at the backup forward positions; and Curry’s 500 pound corpse (an exaggeration, but not by much) is clearly a salary dump.
But back to Randolph for a second. If the kid is given a chance, he could pan out to something. Those glimpses of explosiveness he showed at Golden State were not a fluke, and if his mid-range game can stay consistent, he could be a heck of a player. Could be the steal of this trade if given the chance by Coach Karl.
Anyways, hope you all have a great holiday weekend and hopefully the Nugs can pull out a tough road win tonight at the Thunder. Westbrook has been MVP-caliber at the point so far, Durant is on pace to win another scoring title and their role guys (like Collison, Ibaka, Green) do their jobs really well. These two squads always play each other tough and the outcome usually comes down to the wire (who can forget Melo’s game winner in Oklahoma City two years ago). Again, this one could come down to the play of Nene in the post, whose erratic play ranges from All-Star one game to fouling out with a 5 point, 5-rebound line the next (which he did against Minnesota). No Melo tonight, but J.R. should fill the scoring void nicely, and with K-Mart and Chauncey back in the starting lineup, I predict a Nuggets victory with a defensive stop at the finish-here’s hoping that’s not the eggnog talking!
I’m going to start off by stating the obvious…there is NO reason this game should have been this close. NONE, whatsoever. As this game progressed, the Nuggets slowly began to pull away, taking advantage of bad shot selection and the small-ball lineup both teams were throwing out there to out-Knicks the Knicks (anytime these two teams have face each other since D’Antoni moved to New York, I don’t think either team has scored less than 110 points…seriously). With 9:44 to go in the game, Denver went up 102-88 after two Al Harrington free throws. Six minutes and thirty-eight seconds later (3:06 to go), it was a tie ballgame at 109. Do the math folks and that’s a 21-7 run by the Knickerbockers (love calling them that) down the stretch. More often than not, that equates to a total collapse and a notch in the loss column. The Nuggets went into cruise mode, looked uninspired on both ends of the floor (especially on offense) putting up contested jumpers and giving up layups and free throws on defense.
Then something clicked, at least in Carmelo Anthony. After a loose ball foul was called on him on a jump ball (which led to the two game-tying free throws), his intensity went through the roof and looked like he was a man possessed. He played good D, got good position in the post which led to kick-outs and swing-arounds (did I just make up a word…I think I just did) to open guys. The Nuggets started making that extra pass, found the open man and made the Knicks go back to their usual chuck-up-the-threeball style.
I have no idea where to start after that monstrosity.
The combination of horrific defense, staggeringly gruesome offense, conspiracy theory inducing end of game officiating and Anthony Carter was mind numbingly stupefying.
Let’s get the officiating issue out of the way so we can focus on how dismal the Nuggets were. With Denver down three and 3:30 remaining in the game J.R. Smith drew a charge on David Lee. It was not a difficult call to make. As soon as you heard the PA announcer say it was Lee’s sixth foul the refs pulled entered into a caucus and somehow the call was overruled because J.R. was supposedly inside the circle. During live action he seemed to be well away from the circle and replays confirmed it. If the side official was so sure J.R. was inside the circle why didn’t he call it right away? Why was there even any discussion? Not only did Lee not foul out, but he made both free throws and the Nuggets were down five.
That blown call was not the reason Denver lost. They had plenty of time to get over it and failed. Still, I firmly believe that entire episode would not have happened if it was not Lee’s sixth foul and as we all know perception is reality.
We do not need to spend much time on the lackluster offense. It was the typical lack of movement overkill on the jumpers. J.R. Smith was horrible as not only did he take far too many threes, although a couple came in the closing seconds of the game, but he badly forced his two point attempts as well. Also, for the second time in three games he had a possession where he missed three shots that were not repeated tip in attempts either. He then followed it up with a missed shot on the next possession.
Chauncey did a good job of attacking the rim, but conversely he launched five threes and at least three of them were terrible. Melo shot the ball well and had a good scoring night so I guess he gets a pass although most of his points came on jumpers and he only totaled two assists.
Even with all of those issues what was the most disappointing aspect of the game was Adrian Dantley’s insistence on sticking with Anthony Carter. In a game where the Nuggets were too perimeter oriented and struggled to score for stretches Carter did nothing to help. Lawson would have infused better energy and provided a spark. The Nuggets are saying Carter has played well while Lawson was out and that was true for about four or five games. He has not been helpful the past four or five games and Lawson must be on the floor. If Ty does not play tomorrow in Boston it will be inexcusable.
(Another big negative on Dantley’s record is that during the discussion about Lee’s sixth foul he was right there next to the referees. Instead of making sure they knew there was no way they should have been even considering changing the call he was talking to Chauncey. Chauncey had come over to get involved in the conversation between the refs that included David Lee by the way telling them J.R. was definitely inside the circle. Not only did Dantley not get involved, he prevented Chauncey from counterbalancing Lee’s lobbying. Not that it would have mattered, but the Nuggets needed a voice in that conversation.)
All of those things were incredibly frustrating the most infuriating aspect of the Nuggets play is their insistence on switching screens. I spent much of last season railing on utilizing switching screens as your primary defensive strategy on playing the pick and roll. I even have a switching screens tag for my posts. I guess I grew tired blogging about it, but whatever the reason I have not been as aggressive in my assessment of the Denver defense despite the fact they are doing nothing but switching screens. The Denver Nuggets are a very mediocre defensive team. No matter what stat you look at (Defensive Efficiency, Opponent FG%, Defensive Rebounds, Opponent Points per Shot) Denver is not good and the primary reason is they constantly switch screens. The only stat they crack the top ten in is steals per game and that has to be partly discounted due to the pace at which they play.
The Nuggets were a very solid defensive team last season and they were able to win games with their defense. That is not the case this season. They are an offensive team and that is that. I have been patiently waiting the Nuggets return to being at least a decent defensive team. The fact that they continue to rely on switching screens has torpedoed any hopes I had of that happening.
I could write 10,000 words on the problems that switching screens create. My two biggest issues with switching screens are you are voluntarily entering into mismatches and it fosters an environment of passivity and a complete lack of accountability.
There is a reason coaches do not assign a power forward to cover a point guard and a point guard to cover the opposing power forward. It leads to your opponent scoring. There are byproducts of this tactic. If you want to prevent the power forward from posting up the point guard or the guard from blowing by your big man, you have to help. That opens up holes all over for other offensive players to exploit.
There were plenty of examples of this happening in the loss to the Knicks, but here are two from the second quarter. Just past the halfway point in the quarter After Chris Andersen and Afflalo switched Afflalo was stuck on David Lee. Chauncey left his man Giddens, who was in the weakside corner to double. Giddens was just waiting for him to leave and cut to the rim. Carmelo was just a microsecond too late dropping down to replace Chauncey and the pass got through to Giddens for the layup.
A second example came with just over two minutes remaining in the second. Carmelo and Nene switched for absolutely no reason in the right corner leaving Melo on David Lee. Arron Afflalo, who had switched onto Al Harrington, was laying off of Harrington on the left wing. Afflalo turned his head anticipating having to help Carmelo should Lee back him into the post. Because Afflalo was so focused on the possibility of helping Melo who voluntarily switched into a mismatch, he lost track of Harrington who dove to the rim and drew a foul to prevent a layup.
The lack of accountability was evidenced late in the second quarter as well. The next possession after Harrington cut into the lane Chauncey was stuck on Gallinari, although honestly after looking at it again it was not because of a screen, Carmelo doubled and the ball was swung to the weakside. Chauncey rotated to the offside corner and Melo left Gallinari to kind of return to Duhon. The result was no one was guarding Gallinari and he cut to the basket and Nene had to foul to prevent the layup.
There are two secondary problems with switching that I cannot keep myself form touching on. First, the way the Nuggets cheat on the switches it actually opens up perimeter jumpers. The guards, instead of fighting over the screen, know they have to get behind the big to prevent the roll as a result the ball handler has all the space they want to shoot. Look at how much room the Nuggets give the ball handler on a high screen and roll. It would be so easy to step over the screen because there is frequently five feet between the ball handler and the screener. There is no pressure to force the defender into the screen and no pressure to keep the ball handler from turning the corner and blazing into the lane.
Secondly, the bigs who switch out on guards are not in the lane to box out the opposing team’s bigs. For a team who is missing their best rebounder I would think your scheme would seek to keep your rebounders in the paint. The Nuggets struggle on the defensive glass and switching screens is only compounding the problem.
And oh by the way, Toney Douglas hit a easy 15 foot jumper to put the Kincks up three with 27.8 seconds left in the game thanks in large part to a switch. Nene found himself on Douglas who drove towards the rim, stopped and dribbled between his legs to get his rhythm and drilled the jumper.
This was a bad loss and it was made even worse by the way the Nuggets played. It was on March 8 of last season where the Nuggets lost a game in Sacramento and I proclaimed they would be nothing other than a first round patsy again. From that point on they finished the season on a 14-4 tear and you all remember what happened in the playoffs. This loss feels a lot like that loss did so I reserve the right to overact.
I continue to question the contention that Kenyon Martin will be able to play again this season despite the fact he is riding a stationary bike “slowly.” News broke today that it was entirely possible that George Karl would miss the rest of the regular season due to his physically and emotionally draining cancer treatments.
Now add in the fact the Nuggets are bottoming out on defense, the offense has become increasingly reliant on the three point shot and acting coach Adrian Dantley would rather play Anthony Carter than Ty Lawson and they just lost the most winnable game in a five game in seven night road trip.
When Kenyon went down I commented that we had to entertain the possibility that Denver could fall out of the top four in the West and open up the playoffs on the road against a team like Phoenix or Utah. After what we saw tonight that outcome is absolutely on the table.
What is most frightening is for the second straight game Denver was out worked by a team playing on the second night of a back to back. Tomorrow they are going to be the team playing for the second night in a row against a surging Celtics team. Redemption is waiting around the corner, but I am not sure the Nuggets can capture it.
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.