|The Warriors kick off the the MOST IMPORTANT WEEKEND OF THE SEASON Saturday night in Denver. We thought it would be great to have our SBNation brother and Mile High Favorite Jeremy from Denver Nuggets blog Pickaxe and Roll on the show. Make the jump for his many insights on the Nuggets.
Jeremy also mic'ed me up over at Pickaxe and Roll. Click and roll on over there to read my thoughts about why it's so fun to root for this Warriors team, how Monta Ellis has stepped up this season, what rookie Brandan Wright needs to do to get more PT, the Warriors in 9 potential playoff matchups, and the greatness that is Raider Nation.
Golden State of Mind: On paper the Denver Nuggets looked stacked. They have two of the league's top scorers in Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. Their starting front court features reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby and solid athletic big man Kenyon Martin. The Nuggets bench looks pretty strong too with instant offense in JR Smith and great backup Eduardo Najera. Plus the Nuggets have of the league's top coaches in George Karl. Despite looking so good on paper the Nuggets are fighting for their dear lives just to avoid the lottery with the likes of the Golden State Warriors who aren't nearly as talented or well constructed. Why aren't the Nuggets any better? Are you surprised they're struggling just to make it to the Western Conference spring dance?
Jeremy (Pickaxe and Roll): This is the most frustrating issue surrounding the Denver Nuggets. The bottom line is the Nuggets do not want to try any harder than they absolutely have to. You can count the number of times Denver has played hard, focused ball for four quarters this season on three or four fingers. They go into almost every game knowing they have superior talent to their opponent and it shows in their play on the court.
Early on in the season there was no telling what you would get from the Nuggets from night to night. There were games where they dominated from start to finish, games where they were dominated from start to finish and everything in between. As the potential for missing the playoffs has become all too real the Nuggets have recently become more consistent from game to game.
You have to go back more than a month to find a game they lost that they really had no business losing and the outcome of games has become much easier to project. However, they are still inconsistent within games from quarter to quarter. Their previous game against Dallas is the perfect example. Denver went into the game knowing it was a must win and still played the first half in second gear. They turned it on in the second half and escaped with an easy win. That result only solidifies the notion in their collective team consciousness that they can play that way and be successful.
This variance in effort and focus works fine on most nights, but when they face one of the west's top squads, it is a different story. It does not take much to lose to any of the western conference playoff teams and after a temporary lack of focus it is all over. For some reason, this team seems incapable of avoiding those lapses and it is costing them dearly.
Proof of how their inability to focus for 48 minutes can be seen in Denver's 9-15 record against the top eight in the west. (By comparison according to my calculations Golden State is 9-11 against the other western conference playoff teams and that includes a 0-3 start without Stephen Jackson.) If Denver misses the playoffs, you can start with that record to figure out why. The only team the Nuggets won the season series from out of the top nine in the west was Dallas and even that deserves an asterisk for the absence of Dirk Nowitzki in the rubber match.
The question then becomes why are they so inconsistent? Unfortunately, there is no good answer.
How can a team with a player like Allen Iverson, who is renown for his heart and constant effort, veterans who have never won a title, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, and a young superstar in the making whose resume is only lacking some playoff success, Carmelo Anthony, play so inconsistently? With a core like that comprised of players who should be somewhat desperate to win it boggles the mind as to why they continue to play with a lack of urgency.
A lot of the blame falls on the players, but George Karl is a well respected and relatively successful coach. Unfortunately, he acts like he is incapable of doing anything for this team other than making excuses to the media. Based on many things Karl has said over the season he paints this team like a bunch of Lloyd Brauns who the slightest insult or harsh word will send them back to the funny farm.
Considering that before the season this team was talking about setting a franchise record for wins and maybe winning 60 games it would be shocking if they miss the playoffs. As far as how disappointing it would be for the Nuggets to miss the playoffs, it would only be slightly more disappointing than watching them crap the bed in the first round again. At least missing the playoffs comes with a 0.5% chance of winning the lottery.
Golden State of Mind: Do you see the Nuggets making it into the playoffs when it's all said and done? Which teams do they have a shot at beating in a 7 game series? Against which teams do you think the odds are not stacked in their favor? How far do you think they can go?
Jeremy (Pickaxe and Roll): I had been arguing that the Nuggets were destined to miss the playoffs as recently as last Friday. However, with the injury to Dirk Nowitzki I now believe it is almost a certainty that the Nuggets will still be playing after tax day.
That being said, I still think that they are about as likely to get out of the first round as GSOM is to run out of loyal community members. I already mentioned that the only western conference playoff team the Nuggets won the season series from was Dallas and Denver will probably not be matched up with the Mavs in the first round of the playoffs.
The one team that Denver wants nothing of is the Lakers and with Denver looking like the seventh or eighth seed at this point and the Lakers looking like the one or two seed let me just say that I am less than enthused. Los Angeles demolished the Nuggets twice in LA and beat Denver at the Pepsi Center even though AI pumped in 51 points. LA is one of only two teams Denver did not defeat this year, the other being Detroit, and if they end up facing each other in the first round, it is possible Denver will end up 0-7 versus the Lakers this season.
As far as good matchups for Denver I will again point to the fact that the Nuggets did not win the season series from any of their potential playoff partners. I would have to say that New Orleans would probably be the best pairing for the Nuggets as the Nuggets matchup pretty well with the Hornets. Camby and Chandler are very similar players. Kenyon Martin has the strength and quickness to handle David West. No one on the Hornets can guard Melo or AI (or J.R. Smith for that matter) and Denver has shown that they can put the clamps on Chris Paul in the closing minutes of a game.
Any team that ends up with Houston has to feel somewhat confident about their chances with T-Mac's playoff failings. Denver matches up pretty well with San Antonio and once again the emergence of J.R. Smith provides another problem for the Spurs on defense, although I think we all know how that series would end up. Phoenix is no longer such a difficult matchup for Denver because the Nuggets were clueless when it came to guarding their three point shooters in transition. Denver would have a shot against Utah too, but when Memo Okur is hitting Denver is screwed.
On the other hand (in some alternate universe) if the Nuggets can somehow eliminate their pesky lapses they could defeat any team in the west, other than LA, in a seven game series. Should they manage to get past the first round who knows what could happen? They could be filled with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose or they could become completely full of themselves and collapse. If the matchups fall right I could see Denver potentially making the western conference finals, but in all likelihood they will be bounced from the first round in five or six close games.
Golden State of Mind: Looking at the box scores nightly it looks like the Nuggets are a poor defensive team. However, ESPN.com's John Hollinger had made the case that what's holding them back is their offense as their defense when controlled for pace has been fine. You watch a lot of Nuggets basketball, so you're in the best position to pinpoint where this team is getting hurt. Is it on defense as commonly thought or on the offensive side which Hollinger argues?
Jeremy (Pickaxe and Roll): Denver has plenty of problems on both sides of the ball. It is easy to make a case that Denver's offense is subpar, but the argument that their defense is one of the best in the league is a completely different matter.
I can honestly tell you that I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how the Nuggets could possibly be a league leader in defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) when everything I see on the court tells me they are a poor defensive team. On many occasions they play defense with such disinterest that you would think someone told them their opponents only get one point for every basket they make instead of two. But defensive efficiency is a pretty concrete measurement of how well a team can prevent the other team from scoring. You cannot just discount it.
I will make two arguments for why their defense is not quite as good as their defensive efficiency rating would suggest.
First of all, I think it is important to note that the Nuggets lead the league in steals per game. Obviously a steal is a very abrupt end to a possession. There is no hope for scoring after the ball is stolen away. You can miss a shot or have a shot blocked and get the offensive rebound, but once a steal is made, you flat out ain't gonna score.
Obviously, you cannot remove steals from the defensive equation because that is part of stopping your opponent. On the other hand, the Nuggets have an abnormal amount of possessions where they stop the other team in a way other than contesting shots or forcing a team to go with their third or fourth option instead of their first and second and getting the rebound. If we adjust the Nuggets to a league average of around seven steals a game instead of over nine that is two more possessions for the other team to score. Since the Nuggets give up over a point per possession, we could then adjust their defensive efficiency rating down a couple of points and suddenly they are back in the middle of the pack.
My point is this, when Denver has to play half court defense and force a team to miss a shot, they are a much weaker defensive team.
Secondly, Denver's defensive efficiency rating has been steadily dropping ever since the middle of November. In an old post on December 8th I noted the Nuggets defensive efficiency as being 97.9 good for third in the league. The Nuggets had played 21 games as of December 8th. Now after 72 games they are down to a 102.7 defensive efficiency rating. I ran the numbers earlier in the season and Denver had a six game winning streak where they had a defensive efficiency of 91.7 against some really poor teams. It looks to me like Denver started off with an artificially low rating and the numbers have been adjusting ever since then to a more accurate figure.
So concerning the defense, I think that steals help hide a lot of their deficiencies and after a hot start, they have been slowly falling down the rankings for weeks now. Again pointing to the Dallas game it is obvious this team is capable of playing very good defense when it wants to. They just have not wanted to enough to make me consider them anything but an average defensive team.
Offensively, they score a lot of points, but as you pointed out, they pack more possessions into every game than anyone else does. When adjusted for pace, Denver's offense does not look quite so impressive. The article you linked to is really pretty accurate. All too often AI and Melo try to go it on their own. Karl has intensified those problems by running an isolation heavy offense. I have prayed all season long that AI and Melo would realize that by giving up the ball and moving without it they could get easier shots than forcing their way through the defense on their own. Clearly, they are having very good offensive seasons as both are in the top five in scoring and they are having career years in shooting percentage (well, Melo has tied his career best mark and AI's percentage is a close second, but you get the idea).
However, all too often when the defense is on the verge of breaking down the ball will come to AI or Melo and they will hold it and allow the defense to reset. AI will dribble the ball for seconds without making a move or doing anything to get a teammate open. AI and Melo are not the only ones though. Camby takes too many jumpers. Linas Kleiza is trying to claim a bigger role in the offense and he has had struggles with shooting. Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith have only started putting up nice offensive numbers since the All-Star break. The other problem is there is no off the ball movement when AI and Melo are just standing around or pounding the ball. Both AI and Melo are capable and willing passers, but if they do not have any option but to drive or shoot because their teammates are just hanging out it is not their fault.
Talent wise, this team should be one of the most efficient offenses in the league, but from a style standpoint their two leading men see too many possessions where they hold the ball before taking a bad shot.
Now to the question at hand, is the Nuggets offense or defense what is holding them back? Honestly, it is both. They had two games recently where they put in pretty consistent efforts to do everything as well as they could and the result was two blowouts against Toronto and Seattle (the 168 game), but those teams were obviously subpar. Denver has rarely put everything together for an entire game against a contender. The closest they have come to a full 48 minutes of both was the first game after the All-Star break against Boston when they became the first western conference team to beat Boston all season.
However, at this point in the season Denver is not going to be able to change how they play offense. They have stretches where they will run nonstop, share the ball and everyone is taking turns cutting through the lane for easy shots. But, for some reason it is just too unnatural for them to do it consistently.
Defensively they have the ability to get the job done, they just choose not to play tough defense all the time. Their lack of steady defense is more of a flick of a switch issue than a philosophy or ingrained habit as their struggles on offense are.
If Denver wants to make a playoff run, they will have to address their shortcomings on offense and defense, but it is their periodically shoddy defense that is most responsible for preventing them from being the team they want to be.
Golden State of Mind: Let's say the worst case scenario happens and the Nuggets miss the playoffs. Do you see them making any major moves or shakeups this summer? Will Karl still be coaching the Nuggets next season?
Jeremy (Pickaxe and Roll): I believe there is a good chance that there will be major shakeups with this team even if they do make the playoffs. Another pathetic first round ouster will be difficult to explain to owner Stan Kronke who is putting up about $100 million in salary and luxury taxes to finance this little venture.
The players have seen the writing on the wall too. They know that the payroll is higher than can be consistently maintained without significant postseason revenues rolling in. George Karl is also quite aware of this fact and he has recently been claiming that they are much better than last season's team and if they win 50 games that is a great accomplishment even if they do not make the playoffs in an effort to save his job.
When the Nuggets traded for AI they basically said we need to win now. And all signs have pointed to this season as their best shot at winning a title. AI and Camby have both been remarkably healthy and cannot be expected to be so healthy next year, or any other year for that matter. With that in mind how do you go to the owner and ask to not only keep everyone together, but add another player or two to the mix and tack on another $5 to $10 million in salary and luxury tax?
To further complicate things, AI can opt out of his contract after the season and he has mentioned that a six year extension would be nice. Let me be the first to pass on that contract. Camby is the only tradeable big man unless Nene can return to full strength in the next three weeks and make an impact in the playoffs, which seems dubious proposition. There is a good chance both of those guys will be gone. Do you guys know any teams that could use a good defensive rebounder?
To top it off Karl has played the victim all season. He has cited injuries as a reason for the team underachieving. He has claimed he cannot motivate the players. He has set ridiculously low goals to ensure that the Nuggets reach them. And worst of all, as I mentioned above, he talks like this team is beyond reaching as if all he can hope to do is point them to the court and hope he can get five of them on the floor for game time.
Barring a miracle postseason run all signs point to major changes for next season. At least I should have something to blog about.
Special thanks to Jeremy for sharing his thoughts. Don't forget to check out my segment on Pickaxe and Roll.