A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Denver Nuggets: An impressive team, but one not made for the playoffs

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Nenê of the Denver Nuggets

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One of the most impressive teams of the young 2011-2012 NBA season is the Denver Nuggets. They’re the ultimate team over star story, playing as well without Carmelo Anthony as they ever did with him. They presently have a 12-5 record after 4 straight impressive road wins, and have the 4th highest the adjusted point differential (SRS) in the league. Their secret? A combination of phenomenal ball movement between highly efficient outside shooters and inside finishers, always finding the best shot on the floor – to go along with the highest defensive turnover % in the league and the league’s fastest pace, a devastating combination. It’s the ultimate George Karl team, a coach who’s always favored teams with a high amount of turnovers defensively and fastbreak counter-punch points, forced due to an ultra aggresive help defense scheme on the perimeter.

But there’s a difference between the Nuggets proving an Anthony type centerpiece is unneeded for success in the regular season and doing so in the playoffs. The first is a nice story, but if you don’t have the second, it means nothing at the end of the day. And I don’t believe the Nuggets are built to carry this success to the postseason, a place where many of Karl’s fastest and most aggressive teams have played below their regular season results.

The main problem is an overwhelmingly perimeter based offense. Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Aaron Afflalo, Danillo Gallinari and Al Harrington are all players who specialize on creating shots on the perimeter. Of that group Gallinari does the best job attacking the paint and getting to the free throw line consistently, but is more comfortable as a shooter. A PF/C Nene is an efficient finisher, but not a go to volume scorer in the paint either.  As a result I simply do not see enough consistent halfcourt offense in the paint from the Nuggets. In the playoffs as defenses tighten and spaces are closed off, you simply need to go those points close to the basket and at the free throw line and specifically, you need players who can make sure you get those points.

Presently, the Nuggets can get those efficient inside and out shots when defenses have to rotate on an offensive player like Lawson or Gallinari when they get in a dangerous spot, leaving another man open. Against great playoff defenses it’s not as simple. Smart teams guard the 3pt line and basket hard and only leave it to help if completley necessary. Teams will have the athletic defensive personnel to guard drives by a Ty Lawson or Danillo Gallinari or a post up by Nene, without bringing defenders off that line or away from the basket. The Nuggets seriously lack of a player who can consistently draw double teams and multiple defenders to create those easy shots outside and inside and who can can force the defenses hand and break it, not matter how talented or athletic the defenders are. Dirk Nowitzki was that player for the Mavericks last year. It’s why superstar set scorers are so valued league-wide.

The Nuggets also have serious flaws in their halfcourt defensive roster that could be exposed in the playoffs. The team’s most productive frontcourt combination in Al Harrington and Nene is extremely undersized and far from elite at protecting the rim – with Harrington’s defensive reputation being particularly bad. On the perimeter Lawson and Gallinari are far from rock solid defensive pieces, with the former’s size and the latter’s weak lateral footspeed – and both players are young. While the team has defenders like Aaron Afflalo, Corey Brewer, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov, they will need to play Lawson, Gallinari and Harrington at the same time to reach their maximum offensive output, and playing all 3 at once strikes fear into no-one from a help defense or man defense perspective. The Nuggets do not have a fast enough help defense on the perimeter  to lock up a team like Oklahoma City’s perimeter players in the paint. And how does a Harrington and Nene frontcourt survive if they have to guard the post against the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combination or the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol? Not to mention nobody is equipped to guard Dirk, Lamarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin either if Dallas, Portland or the LA Clippers are the opponents.

As for the Nuggets fastbreak points and counterpunch style, once again this is something that will be hard served to carry over in a playoff series. Good teams take care of the ball more and will plan to get back in transition in every play. A smart playoff coach will have his team force the Nuggets into the halfcourt any way he can, even if it means taking away all of his own team’s fastbreak points. It’s worth it to neutralize Denver’s speed.

The Nuggets right now rely on winning the turnover, 3pt shooting and fastbreak points margins almost every night they play. If you can get those 3 things, you win a lot of games. The problem is that in the postseason the criteria that dictates who wins those categories changes. The best 3pt shooting teams are the ones that collapse the opposing defense in the halfcourt, which is how you get situations like the Lakers outshooting a Suns team in their 2010 Western Conference Finals, when it was Phoenix with the elite 3P numbers in the regular season. As for winning the turnover and fastbreak points battles, that’s incredibly hard to rely on against the best teams in the league, as great teams specialize in not turning it over and not giving up fastbreak points. The Nuggets are a team who specializes in crushing teams when they make mistakes, but the great teams don’t make mistakes.

What you really need in the postseason is a rock solid halfcourt game on both ends. In particular, winning the battle of the paint in the halfcourt. And I simply don’t see that from the Nuggets. Offensively they don’t have a consistent double team player or a guy who can create offense in the paint, and defensively they have serious questions. They will likely be able to be physically controlled in the paint in halfcourt sets both offensively and defensively, and that is what almost decides playoff series.

Finally, while the whole “Who’s scoring in the 4th quarter!!!” craze is one of the most aggravating parts of the NBA media and completley overrated when judging players, one has to admit it certainly matters in the playoffs if the player has the ability to take over and swing a game. I would say the most important role of a “go to star” in the playoffs is to change where a game is headed mentally. A star who can go off can erase an opposing team’s momentum, shut up a crowd and force an opposing timeout – When a 10 pt lead is threatened to be erased they can restore it, when an opposing team is threatening to go up 10 they can make sure it doesn’t happen. They can completely deflate the other team’s will on their own – this is all something Dirk did repeatedly last year, and something the Nuggets could’ve used in their 1st round series against Oklahoma City, and particularly the first game when they blew a hefty first half lead. While I would say a much bigger problem for the Nuggets in the playoffs is the lack of halfcourt paint presence they’ll have both offensively and defensively, it’s not irrelevant that they don’t have a star who can either break a game or stop it from breaking at timely moments.

The Nuggets are a great story and ultimately, it’s good for the league that they’re succeeding as a team and the New York Knicks are failing because they’re not one. But from my view, there shouldn’t be any doubt about whether losing a star such as Carmelo Anthony hurts them. Success in the regular season only means so much. The Nuggets are not real title contenders, nor are they simply 1 or 2 pieces away – they are a complete remodeling towards a paint controlling offense and defensive halfcourt team away, and that remodel would come at the cost of the effectiveness of many of their current players. As happy as Masai Ujiri and the Nuggets management has to be with their season so far, one cannot let short term results cause losing sight of the long term goals and plan. Roster evaluation should not be based on regular season success, but postseason capability – Right now the Nuggets are a succesful team who’s playoff fundamentals are very off. They simply need far more halfcourt talent and that will take a lot of time, patience and smart moves. If the Nuggets overrate their roster to think they can win a title with this roster or a slight tweak, this season might do more bad than good for them in the end.

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Written by jr.

January 25, 2012 at 6:28 pm

One Response

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  1. What do you think of the McNuggets now that Nene was swapped for McGee? How would you make the Nuggets contenders?

    Gabe Moreau

    April 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm


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