The Denver Nuggets just completed a disastrous stretch where they actually lost five games in only nine days. I understand how physically demanding such a stretch is and how the Nuggets were short handed playing without Kenyon Martin in three of those games and Anthony Carter in four. Those are all just excuses. Denver has managed to play very well other times during this season while playing six games in nine days. What matters is at a time in the year where other teams are raising their level of play (Utah, New Orleans, Portland and San Antonio all come to mind) Denver is playing as poorly as they have all season.
I have two reactions to tonight’s loss against the Houston Rockets. First, I would argue while many fans are waiving the white flag the season is not over. The Nuggets have now completed one of the most difficult portions of their schedule and while they are floundering they have a great opportunity to collect themselves and go on an immediate five game winning streak. Their next five games are comprised of contests against the Thunder, Clippers and Nets at home, a road game against the Grizzlies and then they return to Denver to play the Wizards. A five game winning streak will put them right back at 20 games over .500 where they were when this debacle first began in Chicago. If they can rebuild some confidence and recapture the efficiency on both ends of the floor which made them such a strong team the first three and a half months of the season 52 or 53 wins is still well within reach. With the talent on this team and with the schedule providing them with a plethora of winnable games I feel very good guaranteeing that the Nuggets will make the playoffs.
While the season is not over my second reaction following the loss to the Rockets is, well, the season is over. With the stink bomb the Nuggets dropped on us the past couple of weeks they have almost completely destroyed any chance of earning home court advantage in the playoffs. I have a difficult time envisioning a scenario where they catch the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets. Plus with the loss last night they have lost the season series to the Rockets making it even more difficult to surpass them in the standings. In order to earn home court advantage the Nuggets would have to overtake two of those four teams. At this point almost any best case scenario we can construct leaves the Nuggets playing either the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets in the first round. Because of that I am afraid there is little hope of Denver reaching the second round. (The one caveat I will add is if the Trail Blazers manage to crash the party and earn a top four seed and end up matched up against Denver in the first round. I would welcome that series no matter who has home court advantage. However, I do not see Portland finishing that highly in the standings as a likely outcome.)
What is most alarming is the Nuggets seem to be at a complete loss as to why they are losing games. After dropping last night’s contest to Houston Carmelo Anthony is quoted as saying, “I can’t really pinpoint what’s going on.” If they want to figure out why they are losing all the Nuggets need to do is throw in some game film of their home win against the Jazz or of the second half in Philadelphia and then put in the tape from last night. The differences will be obvious and they all revolve around mental focus and the desire to do what is necessary to win. Do not get me wrong, Denver has played very hard in the fourth quarters of both the Kings and Rockets losses, but that is not enough. We are 65 games into the season and they do not seem to have figured that out.
You may be thinking to yourself that I am panicking and am way out of line. Let me say this. I do my best to stay on an even keel on this blog and remain consistent in my coverage of the team. I try to remove emotion from the equation and give thoughtful analysis. The season is long and it is not always easy to keep from getting too high when things are going well or too low during tough stretches such as this one. I sat on this post for at least 12 hours since writing it trying to decide whether or not I wanted to publish it. What it came down to is this is my honest assessment of the current situation and if it is what I truly believe, I would be cheating both myself and you all by not posting it. After all, I proclaimed last season that the Nuggets would lose in the first round again after the fifth game of the campaign. If I was confident that I was not jumping to conclusions at that point in the season I should fell alright arriving at the same determination in March this season. What the Nuggets have displayed for us since the All-Star break is all the proof I need to see.
Of course I have been wrong before and I hope I am wrong now. There is still over a fifth of the season remaining and things can change quickly. Look where Utah was fifteen games ago and where they are now. The same thing can happen for the Nuggets. As I have said over and over the schedule is still set up in their favor, but they have to step up and earn wins. Teams like Sacramento are not going to just roll over and thank Denver for blessing them with the honor of their presence. The opportunity to claim home court advantage and win the Northwest Division title is still there as long as the Nuggets take every second of every game seriously from here on out. I just wish I thought they had it in them.
Prove me wrong Denver, I beg you.
Sure the Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers, but the real story was the homecoming of local boy and Denver hero Michael Ruffin. What, you guys care more about beating the Blazers than the return of Ruffin? Well, OK then.
Hopefully we will look at tonight’s game as the return of Carmelo Anthony as a dominant offensive player. He clearly felt like he had something to prove coming back off of his one game suspension and his play was spectacular. He was a little jumper happy early on, but he started going to the rim and utilizing his quickness for short pull up jumpers instead of long range ones and Portland had absolutely no answer for him.
Melo’s displayed his entire arsenal tonight. He scored off of transition jumpers, pull up jumpers, catch and shoot jumpers, he drove and finished with his right hand, drove and finished with his left. He ran the floor and was successful on either scoring or getting to the line from the post.
Almost as encouraging as the play of Melo was the play of J.R. Smith. I loved the way J.R. was aggressive on both ends of the floor. On offense he was looking for seams in the defense and succeed in setting up other players as well as getting his own shot off. Plus he was clearly fired up as the taunting technical for his primal scream that followed his follow up dunk over Joel Przybilla. J.R. was also all over the glass in the first half.
Above all else I really enjoyed the defense he played on Brandon Roy. J.R. has all the physical skills to be a very good one on one defender. He has just been missing the desire and the mental comprehension of positioning and technique. Of course, those are two pretty important aspects of playing defense, but one can be created and the other taught. J.R. appears to be making progress in both areas.
I had hoped to see an over the top defensive effort from Denver. They fell short of that although I am pretty happy with the way they played. Brandon Roy was able to get his points although he was never able to take over the game. Denver showed some cracks though and they allowed the Blazers to stay in the game.
There were several occasions where they missed a rotation resulting in a wide open look from behind the arc for Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw and they shot a combined 6-12 on threes. However, those were not the breakdowns that hurt the Nuggets. There were really only two stretches where the Blazers controlled the action. A two and a half minute stretch where they outscored the Nuggets 10-2 and a three minute stretch in the third quarter where they outscored Denver 10-4. Those two runs the Blazers had came when they were able to consistently score at the rim. For those who are interested I have put a breakdown of those stretches in the additional nuggets.
The win was an important one and it sets up what may be the biggest game of the season tomorrow night in Utah. Should the Nuggets pull off a victory in Salt Lake City and build up a two and a half game lead on the Jazz again I will feel very good about Denver’s chances to win the division. Utah is on fire, but the Nuggets have a far easier schedule from here on out than Utah does.
Additional Game 62 Nuggets
[4:30, 2nd quarter] In the second quarter the Blazers started their run with an impressive fast break alley oop from Roy to Aldridge.
[4:01, 2nd quarter] After a traveling violation by Kleiza they ran Rudy Fernandez back and forth off the same screen until he finally freed himself up for a three.
[3:23, 2nd quarter] Melo scored on a runner and then on the other end he attempted to steal a pass into the post by Steve Blake to Aldridge. He missed getting the steal and to make things worse he fell down. Aldridge kicked the ball out to Blake and Birdman ran at Blake leaving Aldridge uncovered. Blake passed the ball back to Aldridge who made a hook shot at the rim. Had the guards rotated over they could have delayed the play long enough to get Melo back involved.
[2:32, 2nd quarter] After a couple of missed jumpers Portland goes back and runs Blake and Fernandez off a series of screens. Nene helps out on one screen leaving Pryzbilla temporarily open and Roy zips a pass to him. Andersen comes over to help leaving Aldridge open. Joel dumps the ball over to Aldridge and Nene, attempting to get back in the play fouls LaMarcus for the “and one.”
That is seven paint points in four possessions. Now fast forward to the third quarter for the other run the Blazers sprung on Denver.
[9:56, 3rd quarter] After a screen and roll between Roy and Aldridge Portland swings the ball to Blake in the weak side corner for a long two.
[9:15, 3rd quarter] Chauncey misses a contested corner three, coming back at the Nuggets Roy runs off a high screen from Przybilla. J.R. does a good job fighting through a half hearted screen, but he overruns the play and Nene fails to cut off Roy at the free throw line and Roy gets to the rim for a layup.
[8:51, 3rd quarter] Chauncey throws the ball away attempting a behind the back pass to Nene in the lane triggering a fast break dunk by Nicolas Batum. Portland is now within two for the first time since the 6:17 mark in the first quarter.
[8:45, 3rd quarter] Time out Nuggets. Following the break Nene receives a pass at the left elbow and drives right at Przybilla for a layup. Denver then forces a turnover as Portland tries to post Aldridge and he losses the ball out of bounds.
[7:54, 3rd quarter] Nene hits a 14 footer over Przybilla and Portland responds by running Roy along the baseline off a strong side screen and he receives the pass and drives in the lane. J.R. is right with him, but he hits a short 13 foot fade away.
[7:10, 3rd quarter] Nene throws a bad cross court pass that is intercepted by Batum. The Blazers run out on the break and Batum scores a layup.
Eight points in the paint in six possessions. Between the two runs Portland put together spanning roughly five minutes they scored 15 of their 38 points in the paint. The Nuggets helped with turnovers and jumpers that lent themselves to scrambling defense and early offense.
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 88.6 – Closer to Portland’s ideal pace than the Denver’s ideal pace.
Defensive Efficiency: 101.6 – Very good considering Portland is the second best team in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Offensive Efficiency: 119.6
Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter are going to miss the game tonight against the Trail Blazers. Karl has inserted J.R. Smith in place of Dahntay Jones and Johan Petro in place of Kenyon in the starting lineup.
With J.R. starting I think that indicates he is not going to be playing back up point guard. That role will be filled by newly signed Jason Hart. The Nuggets may be able to get through tonight’s game alright, but by removing a starter and rotation player the increased minutes that will burden the rest of the players tonight is bad news considering Denver is kicking off a stretch of four games in five nights.
During the All-Star break when the Nuggets had a three and a half game lead these next two games against Portland and at Utah looked to be important, but not life or death type matchups. With the events that have transpired since then (the Nuggets slumping while the Blazers have surged and the Jazz have absolutely caught fire) the next two nights have taken on a much greater importance. However, it has not reached that status to George Karl who referred to it as “one game in a marathon (season)” in the Denver Post today.
The Nuggets have been in first place in the Northwest Division for most of the season. If they lose the next two games and Houston and New Orleans win their next games Denver will wake up on Saturday and fine themselves in third place in the division and seventh in the conference. Think about that. For all the praise and good press the Nuggets have received they are really teetering on the brink right now.
What is the solution? Desperation. The Nuggets showed us when the pressure was on against the Lakers that they can perform at a higher level. Intensity and focus on defense can overcome a multitude of issues. Against the Lakers the Nuggets shot 41.7% from the field and 14.3% from three point land, but they won by 11 points. They will have to play with desperation these next two games.
The Trail Blazers have a top quality offense. They are second in the NBA in offensive efficiency behind only the Lakers. They have incredibly talented offensive players in LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and of course Brandon Roy. What makes them even more dangerous is they play very unselfishly making them even more difficult to defend. What they do not have is a defense that can go into lock down mode and that is the difference between these two squads. Of course should the Nuggets come out tonight and go through the motions any defensive advantage will be completely negated and that is why it is important they play with desperation.
Portland comes into town having played a tough game at home against the Pacers and they were a Jarrett Jack three at the buzzer away from losing. The Nuggets should be fairly well rested and Melo should be very well rested.
Brandon Roy has yet to shoot well in Denver having a career field goal percentage of 37.8% on 28-74 shooting. Portland has only won once in five tries in Denver since Roy came to town. Earlier this season when the two teams met at the Pepsi Center Carmelo was sitting out to rest his sore elbow and the Nuggets won with defense. They held Roy to 3-11 shooting and no one else stepped up to fill the void. I wrote in my game recap that one of the keys to the Nuggets defensive effort that night was that they fought through screens with the bigs hedging to slow down the ball handler. We should be able to get a good indication of what type of defense the Nuggets will come out with tonight based on how they defend the pick and roll.
These next two games are going to be more about effort and heart. Denver can either lose their grip on the division or they can reestablish it.
Take this with you (new feature for a big game): With a great effort and win tonight Denver can put the Melo suspension behind them. With a loss it will threaten to hang over them for the foreseeable future.
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 Darius Miles Saga has taken a very interesting turn over the past couple of days.
If you are not sure what I am talking about here is a quick recap. While playing for the Portland Trail Blazers Darius Miles hurt his knee and the injury was determined to be career ending. As a result Portland was able to remove his contract from their cap. Miles has since worked his way back and the Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that if a player can play in 10 games his medical retirement is revoked and his contract goes back on the books.
Portland is currently in position to have a large amount of cap space this summer, but if Miles’ $9 million contract goes back on their books it will most likely cut their cap space in half.
It seemed like there was little to no chance of Miles seeing time in the required 10 games due to the fact that he has only played in two regular season games and was just waived by the Memphis Grizzlies. It seemed that there was no way he would play in ten games this season.
However, yesterday came a revelation. Adrain Wojnarowski with Yahoo! Sports reported that the league is counting the six preseason games Miles played with Boston towards his ten game limit. As a result he has played in eight games instead of two and any team interested in putting his salary back on Portland’s books need only sign him to a ten game contract, play him in two games and waive him.
You can imagine that several teams would be interested in making sure the up and coming Blazers do not have the cash to sign a max free agent, or two upper level free agents this summer. Portland knows that this is an option and as a result they have released the following memo to every team in the league.
Team Presidents and General Managers,
The Portland Trail Blazers are aware that certain teams may be contemplating signing Darius Miles to a contract for the purpose of adversely impacting the Portland Trail Blazers Salary Cap and tax positions. Such conduct from a team would violate its fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer. In addition, persons or entities involved in such conduct may be individually liable to the Portland Trail Blazers for tortuously interfering with the Portland Trail Blazers’ contract rights and perspective economic opportunities.
Please be aware that if a team engages in such conduct, the Portland Trail Blazers will take all necessary steps to safeguard its rights, including, without limitation, litigation.
I have two questions. First of all, on what grounds do the Blazers think they have any legal case against a team signing any player? I see no reason why a team interested in Miles should not sign him. He has already been signed by the Celtics and Grizzlies. Why should another team not bring him in to see what he can do? Especially now that they can bring him in on a ten day contract with no strings attached? It is only logical that someone would bring him on board to see what he can do. After all, we are talking about a player who once dropped 47 points on the Nuggets in one game. Teams should be interested in seeing what he can do firsthand.
The second question, and to me the big issue, is if any team is subject to legal litigation is now Portland. The memo they sent out is infringing on Miles ability to earn a living. If no team signs him, he has a great case that the league has committed collusion against him and the reason for that is the letter Portland has sent to the other teams. To avoid such a legal situation I believe that the NBA now needs to have a team sign Miles.
Portland may have had enjoyed flexing their muscles, but they may have done the one thing that will ensure Miles will get his last two games in.
Update: Henry Abbott at TrueHoop has a great post on the Miles issue and he points out that the memo only threatens action against a team who signs Miles “for the purposes of hurting Portland.” That is an important distinction. If the Nuggets or Jazz sign Miles to a ten day contract, play him in two games for two minutes each game and then waives him, I can see how Portland would have a been with them.
Blazer’s Edge also addresses the memo and looks deeper at the legal issues.