George Karl saw his team's crazy early-season schedule, with 17 of their first 23 games on the road, and settled on a goal: Be two or three games over .500 on January 1. Then, when that road-heavy slog is over, go nuts and reach 40 wins by March 1.
The season has unfolded almost exactly as Karl envisioned. The Nuggets were 17-15 at the end of December, and after blitzing to a 9-1 mark in their last 10 games, they could still hit Karl's 40-win target by sweeping their next seven games. "We just blew up in January," Karl says. That seven-game sweep is unlikely, since five of seven come on the road, but that's the point: Are the Nuggets, at 33-19 and with a .500 or better record against every other Western Conference power, a real title contender? Or are they a very good team that can only beat top competition consistently when the circumstances — home-court advantage, fast-break mania — flip in their favor?
Whether they can beat two of the Thunder-Spurs-Clippers trio in the playoffs depends on two huge questions, notwithstanding the possibility that Denver uses its bevy of midpriced assets to swing a major trade. Rival executives say Denver is projecting calm ahead of the deadline, and the vibe coming from there since the summer has been one of satisfaction with incremental progress and patience with this young core — in part because the team does not want to add much to its current payroll, according to GM Masai Ujiri. Those two questions:
1. Can Denver get its half-court efficiency closer to its transition efficiency? The Nuggets rank sixth overall in points per possession, but no team gets a larger share of its offense from fast breaks, per Synergy Sports.1The notion that those run-outs will evaporate in the playoffs isn't quite right; Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are still exhausted from trailing Denver fast breaks in last season's first round. But they're not as easy to come by when teams are focused on higher stakes, and Denver's offense mostly ranks average or worse when you isolate half-court play types — pick-and-rolls, cuts, spot-up chances, etc.
That so-so half-court efficiency gets at the most popular talking point surrounding Denver: They don't have a superstar whom they can give the ball in crunch time and count on to either create a decent look or draw a double-team.2 That may be a problem against dialed-in defenses, but this season the Nuggets have actually been solid offensively in crunch time, per NBA.com's stats database.3
2. Can the Nuggets build a top-10 defense? They're 13th in points allowed per possession, and their work on that side of the ball was the primary reason — along with the related issue of an unreliable three-man big rotation — I didn't buy Denver as a real contender at the start of the season. And while the "go-to guy" thing is the sexier talking point, Denver's so-so defense is the larger issue.
The offense and defense questions are intertwined, especially when it comes to Denver's shoddy work on the defensive glass. Denver ranks just 23rd in defensive rebounding rate, a problem that gets at a key tradeoff the Nuggets try to balance: Their rebounding issues are linked to their tendency to leak out for fast-break chances before a Nugget has secured the ball, a blatantly irresponsible thing for traditional teams. But Denver, given its blah half-court offense, may need those fast-break chances in order to survive.4
Denver also needs turnovers to fuel its transition attack, and more than perhaps any team save the Grizzlies, it is willing to gamble in order to snare them. Those gambles come with a cost: Teams are lighting up the Nuggets on spot-up opportunities, both 3-pointers and drives. Denver has allowed the most 3-point attempts in the league overall, and the second-most from the corners — about 7.9 per game. Its high pace of play explains part of that, but only a small part. And all those offensive rebounds naturally lead to kickouts and open 3s. Denver is 29th, ahead of only the pitiful Bobcats, in points allowed per opposing spot-up chance, according to Synergy Sports.
What's going on here?
First: Denver's pick-and-roll defense is very shaky. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried are below-average defenders, which is why Karl has been hesitant at times to play them together; Denver is about plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions overall, but minus-4.2 so far when that pair shares the floor; the decline is drastic on both ends. "The numbers are telling the truth on those two," he says. "It's not a great defensive lineup. It's not a good offensive lineup, either." Kosta Koufos has been Denver's steadiest big-man defender, and Karl says Koufos also has a better understanding of how to space the floor on offense.
Faried and McGee are jumpy and unsteady on their feet, and they have trouble containing point guards on the pick-and-roll. Faried has a tendency to stand up straight, with his arms at his sides, and that makes it easy for point guards to hit the roll man on pocket passes, as Nate Robinson does here:
And once that roll man has the ball in the paint, help has to come from the perimeter.
But it's not just Denver's big guys. Denver's perimeter defenders have trouble directing opposing point guards toward the sideline on pick-and-rolls. Even when Denver tries to execute correctly, opposing point guards can use screens to get into the middle of the floor, turn the corner, attack the paint, and draw help. Denver thus allows a ton of open 3s that look like this play, on which George Hill gets to the middle and kicks to Paul George.5
Denver has to send crisis help like this more often than most good defensive teams, and Denver compounds things by helping in an ultra-aggressive manner that creates more leaks if it fails. Denver's players, hunting for turnovers, have greater freedom to go for steals in the paint and lunge into passing lanes on kickout passes instead of simply closing out shooters. Look at Professor Miller lingering on Chuck Hayes at the elbow, even though Hayes is in no position to do anything dangerous:
Again: Some of this is by design. Ditto for Denver's rampant switching, a tactic they lean on even more when Professor Miller and his slow feet enter the game.6 Karl wants to re-create the glory days of his mid-1990s Seattle teams, which reinvented NBA defense by attacking offenses in unconventional ways. Gambling and switching are part of that, and Karl promises to do more switching as the season goes on. He's even asked Iguodala and Miller about playing Julyan Stone, a long-armed and very tall guard, in key late-game defensive situations, and both have been receptive, he says. The goal is to create a lineup with as many athletic, similarly sized players as possible — a lineup that can switch like mad, chase steals, and cover for gambles. "When we are switching and really jumping around, it really reminds me of Seattle," Karl says. "Most of the time, it's the defense reacting to the offense. We want more possessions where the offense has to react to us."
I don't think any other NBA team would do what Denver does here to create a turnover — and especially what Corey Brewer does in abandoning a corner shooter to chase a steal:
Any mention of Seattle is heady stuff for a team that hasn't cracked the top 10 in points allowed per possession since 2008-09 and regularly switches itself into mismatches — bad matchups other teams can exploit, as the Lakers did in the first round last season by running off-ball screens and Kobe Bryant–Ramon Sessions pick-and-rolls. Karl invites those mismatches, in the right doses. "If the other team tries to have a 6-foot-8 guy get into a wrestling match with [Ty Lawson] in the post, I'm OK with that," he says. "If they score doing that, I don't care."
Karl likes when offenses get away from their bread and butter to attack a mismatch, especially since such attacks invite post-ups and double-teams on the block. "The worst offense in the league is a low-post attack that doesn't get to the rim," he says.
Maybe he's right. But Denver still has to clean up the defensive glass, which means more committed rebounding from everyone. Karl's guards and wings have to help, in part because rebounds from those players result in devastating fast breaks. Denver's internal stats show that the team scored 1.4 points per possession, up from about 1.05 overall, when a wing player has rebounded the ball and gone. "Everyone says the outlet pass [from a big man] is faster than the dribble," Karl philosophizes. "But sometimes the dribble can be faster than the pass."7
Switching also requires perfect communication, and Denver, for years, has had breakdowns here. Watch Miller and Brewer get confused on this Jason Terry 3 from Sunday's game:
But even if Karl can craft a top-10 defense, can the offense score at an acceptable level when Denver can't run? Denver has shaky 3-point shooting from its perimeter players and no reliable jump-shooting among its bigs. Teams can pack the paint and cram driving lanes Denver needs to sustain. That's the main reason Karl likes to go small, with Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler at power forward, and it's also the main reason he's uncomfortable with the McGee-Faried pairing, he says.8
Karl is now experimenting with another tactic that might manufacture some space Denver just can't generate running standard high pick-and-rolls. "We've got a little Harlem Globetrotters three-man weave thing going on," he says. A Denver game will include several possessions that feature fast-paced pitch-back action, like this:
The goal is to get players moving from side to side and keep the middle of the floor — the area near the top of the 3-point arc — totally clear. Most offenses station a player up there for spacing purposes, but Karl wants to avoid that on a lot of possessions. Clearing that area opens up more space in the middle for ball handlers catching those pitch-backs and flying off screens on the wing.9
There is just a lot of effort going on here — gymnastics a team with more shooting or even one well-rounded offensive big man wouldn't have to try. Will it be enough to transform Denver into a true contender? Most coaches, scouts, and GMs I've talked to are skeptical Denver could beat two of the San Antonio–Oklahoma City–Clippers trio in succession to advance to the Finals. The most common prediction: They just won't get those fast-break points in the playoffs, and they'll lose in the second round.
But the defense is what still bugs me. Are they disciplined enough to track San Antonio? Can they stop Chris Paul from picking them apart? Can they do anything to limit the high-powered Thunder, who can damn near run with Denver? The Nuggets play all these teams tough, but winning four of seven is a different matter.
I'm skeptical, but I'm rooting for Denver to prove the skeptics wrong.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Gerald Wallace
Wallace has bordered on being a non-entity this season, which is a problem, since the Nets surrendered a lottery pick to get him and then agreed to pay him $40 million over four seasons. He barely shoots anymore, and when he does, he usually misses. Teams ignore him to cramp Brooklyn's spacing, one reason an offense-first team has seen its offense fall out of the top 10 in points per possession. He's rebounding at career-worst levels, and though he's a solid defender, he's slipping on that end, too. He and Deron Williams, who just underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy on both ankles, have miscommunicated often on weakside pick-and-roll rotations.
The Nets have zero financial flexibility in upgrading their roster until 2015-16 as the cap sheet stands now, which is why they are reportedly shopping their only tradable assets — Kris Humphries's $12 million deal, which expires after next season, and whatever is left of MarShon Brooks's upside — for a player who might produce this season and re-sign via Bird Rights in free agency.
It's hard to see much upside unless the Nets absolutely nail that type of trade. Wallace looking like a shell of himself is a big reason for the long-term pessimism.
2. Milwaukee's Red Road Alternates
Love 'em, even if the red is so bright it appears orange in some lights.
3. The Spacing With Tayshaun Prince in Memphis
Prince is shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, and he's been especially good from the corners, but the notion that he would help Memphis loosen its spacing just a tick hasn't played out yet. Prince has been operating a lot in the elbow area, often in a two-man game with Marc Gasol, and when he does spot up, he's often a step inside the 3-point arc. And while he has shot well from deep, Prince needs time to lock and load, which means he'll often pump-fake and take a step inside the line against aggressive closeouts. There's a reason he barely attempts one 3 per game. But let's give this new Grizz team some time to jell.
4. The Vince Carter Motorcycle Rev
I normally oppose "signature" post-accomplishment taunts. The classic example: Russell Westbrook's irritating six-shooter celebration, which commemorates a bad 3-point shooter making a 3-point shot — something that happens more often than it should, since Westbrook doesn't seem to realize he's a bad 3-point shooter.
But I'm a sucker for Vinsanity's post-dunk motorcycle rev. It's a nod to his past as perhaps the greatest dunker ever, and Carter performs it with a blank look on his face as he jogs back on defense. The nonchalance says, "Yeah, I can still do this, and I used to be pretty damn good at it. No biggie."
5. Using the Word "Snub" in Conjunction With the Rookie-Sophomore Game
Rule of thumb: If you're getting into Twitter disputes about the Rising Stars Challenge, or whatever it's called, it's time to take a walk for a few minutes. I can't remember a single event from any of these games, and I've been to one in person. I vaguely remember John Wall throwing a crazy pass, probably a failed alley-oop that had about a 5 percent chance of completion. The game is unwatchable.
I get that fans look to every "honor" as a gauge of their team's status, but there is no pride gained or lost in Tyler Zeller being selected over Jared Sullinger. It doesn't matter.
And while we're here: If an internal team story reaches the point at which a player's parent is talking to the press, and that parent's comments require reaction stories, then we should all agree to stop talking about said team for at least a week.
6. A Tay Play With Potential
Rudy Gay wasn't exactly a knock-down 3-point shooter in Memphis, either, and when you watch the new Grizz, you can see how the front office might have envisioned Prince being more polished at all the cuts and screens and quick-decision passes inside the arc through which Memphis has long tried to manufacture spacing. Prince and Gasol have shown potential in a two-man game around the left elbow, and Prince can run a side pick-and-roll in a pinch.
Prince can also post up, with Gasol taking on Greg Monroe's old role as Prince's entry passer on the right side of the floor. And here's a new wrinkle for Memphis: After delivering that entry pass, Gasol will amble across the foul line and to the left side of the floor, as if he's clearing the right side for Prince to work. Zach Randolph will already be stationed on the left block, Gasol's apparent destination, but as Gasol gets into the paint, Randolph will suddenly cut right around him, so that the two crisscross in the paint. It works as a kind of (legal) moving screen for Z-Bo, whom Prince can hit in the post for a close-range shot.
Memphis's assist rate is up since the trade, but they started the season with three weeks of high-assist play that proved a blip.
7. The Jared Dudley Sandwich
A really visually pleasing action, though it'd be more mathematically pleasing if it freed Dudley for 3s instead of long 2s. Other teams with sharpshooters, including the Warriors (Stephen Curry) and Hawks (Kyle Korver), run this action now and then, and they mix it up by targeting the top of the arc instead of the wing.
8. The Richard Jefferson–Draymond Green Wing Combo
Going big and rangy on the wing can be an advantage on defense, but pairing these two qualifies more as going "big and slow." The Warriors have given up 111.2 points per 100 possessions in the 202 minutes these two have shared the floor, a number that would rank dead last in the league. The usual caveats apply — sample sizes for very different lineup combinations, the impact of so-so defensive teammates, etc. But the early returns have been bad, and it can get ugly watching one of these guys chase a waterbug shooting guard around screens.
9. The End of the Ed Davis–Amir Johnson Era
It's a footnote to the Gay–Prince–Jose Calderon trade, I realize, but watching the Davis-Johnson pairing mature was a small joy this season. Toronto was better on both sides of the floor when these two played together, and they developed a nifty passing chemistry on high-lows and pick-and-rolls; Johnson's improvement as a passer came in part because Toronto finally paired him with another true interior player who could serve as a target for short-distance passes below the foul line.
Johnson will be fine in Toronto, especially when Jonas Valanciunas sees more time, but watching Davis waste away on Memphis's bench has been sad. The Grizz have a crowded frontcourt rotation, with two heavy-minutes stalwarts, but playing Austin Daye more than Davis qualifies as something close to sabotage.
10. The Hawk "Screech"
After an occasional Hawks basket, the in-arena sound team will play a terrifying hawk screeching noise. I haven't figured out if there's any rhyme or reason to when they play it, but it'll snap you back to attention if you've dozed through another Josh Smith 20-footer. A nice touch. I also enjoy "You Can Call Me Al" after an Al Horford hoop.
This article has been updated to correct an editorial error that changed two Tayshaun Prince references to "Rudy Gay."