Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hardwood Paroxysm's 2008-2009 Season Preview: Denver Nuggets

A person I went to college with was at a game one time, turned to some friends of mine and asked, "Why does their sign say 'D-Gate?'".

And that's a lot like the Denver Nuggets.

End of story. Your opening preview is by Graydon Gordian.

I have never been a statistically oriented sportswriter. Nor have I ever hunkered down in the trenches of the statistics debate as advanced metrics and more literary forms of sportswriting both have a lot of merit in my opinion. But sometimes there is a disjunct between what the numbers tell me and what I see with my own two eyes. Enter the Denver Nuggets.

So in the world of stats there is the highly (and appropriately) lauded figure of John Hollinger. According to some Hollingerian metric (the defensive anti-offensive quotient or some sort of mathematical rating I don't really understand), Denver was supposedly a good defensive team last season. Take this stat, that stat, slice 'em, dice 'em, and suddenly this merry band of underachieving early first round picks knows how to lock it down.

And then there's me, sitting on my couch, drinking a beer, actually watching them play basketball. And in this scenario, this team is a defensive train wreck. The funny thing is they need not be.

Even though they traded away the former Defensive Player of the Year for some spare car parts and a roll of scotch tape, I believe these guys actually have the potential be a quality defensive team. Anybody who watched the Olympics knows Carmelo Anthony can actually play defense. He has lateral quickness. He has length. He can make the appropriate rotations. He just only seems to do that when he has "U.S.A." sown across his chest.

The key to unlocking this defensive potential is pace. Denver likes to push the ball, but just as often as they take advantage of unprepared defenses they open themselves up to easy buckets. Obviously a slower pace wouldn't put up such gaudy offensive numbers but Anthony, A.I. and J.R. Smith don't need a wide open court to score: They are all dynamic half-court players.

The problem with my analysis so far is I've made an assumption that is not necessarily true: I'm talking about the Nuggets as if Allen Iverson will still be a member of this squad at the end of the regular season. I just don't believe that to be true. This team isn't going to win a championship, much less a playoff series, with this core unit. In fact they will be lucky if they can sneak into the postseason this year. And if you are going to break a team down so you can build it back up, you start with the veteran superstar who didn't push you over the hump the way you had hoped. By the end of this year Iverson will be playing for a contender and the 8th seed in the West will be significantly beyond the Nugs reach.

But fear not Denver faithful: By allowing A.I. to pursue his dreams of a ring and dealing away Camby in a deceptively savvy manner, this team will be in a position to rebuild itself into a championship contender. Anthony is a champion. He proved it at Syracuse. He has proved it in the international arena. If given the opening, he will seize the opportunity. At that point there will only be one step left: Fire George Karl.


VISION By Trey Kerby

This is tough. I hate this team. So I will give you the only reason to love them. Linas Kleiza. This is the Linas Kleiza story I always tell to explain why I want him out of Denver. Linas was having a good game late in the season last year. The Nuggets were up 2, Kleiza had 17, 6, and 2, shooting 7 of 10 from the floor. He comes out and traps with Iverson. The ball springs loose. Kleiza bounds out to spread the floor as Iverson snatches up the loose ball and shakes his man. As he approaches the paint, Iverson sees Kleiza, head of steam, waving, calling for the ball. Iverson could lob it to him. He could just pass it. He could throw it and then ask for it back. What does Iverson do? He waits for Melo, who's trailing and has a man on him, to get down to the paint. He completely ignores Kleiza who jumps like an idiot and then runs to the corner to wait for what will surely be the corner three after Melo passes to him once he realizes he's covered. Upon receiving the pass, Melo instead decides just to challenge his man. He badly misses the layup, and the other team gets the rebound, pushes it down the floor, and scores to tie the game. So really, this is less about why you should love Linas Kleiza, and just more reasons to hate the Nuggets and everything they stand for. It's not personal, I'm not a Jazz or Rockets fan. But this wretched mutation of a team must be stopped.

Defense. If you like defense, if you believe in winning, fundamental basketball, you will hate the Nuggets. Who cares about the fact that the team, as a whole will have dropped nearly 100 lbs. by opening day tip off. Who cares that Nene is finally (probably) healthy or that K-Mart (yeah, the original one) is also finally (doubtfully) healthy. Disregard the defensive allergies that permeate the games of AI and Melo. Forget J.R. Smith... No, seriously, forget him. He can't spell D, much less play it. But what about Linas Kleiza? He should be good at defense, right? Big, strong guy who is unafraid to get in anyone's face and bang down low. Good footwork. Hard nose? Eh, not so much. He just wants the ball too!

Oh, but at least at the end of the day and (lane), they have multiple DPOY winner Marcus Camby. Whew, thank God. Oh, hey, brb - gotta phone call..........................
.................................................. Ok, I'm back. Looks like someone just told me that Marcus Camby got traded to the Clips for a second round pick.


George Karl must just be playing Denver fans for fools. After all, he's out of here after this year. So, if he is a man who, as I believe, is truly afraid of defense like its the Boogieman, then you would expect something as ridiculous and an antithetical to playoff success to happen. But Karl might just be a sado-masochist, or at least certifiably insane. These are all logical reasons. In fact, they are all more logical than having hopes of Denver keeping teams under 125 a night. 125!

If you are a Nuggets fan, the thing that you will have to pray and use as an argument is that your team is getting tougher, focusing more and not allowing themselves to rely on Camby's great defensive prowess to save them. They must be all held more personally accountable now. They have to play D like a team. Like Men. Like 12 men with 23 testicles.



One of the theories I subscribe to in terms of roster management is market value by position. What I mean is that an all-world point guard is more valuable than an all-world center/power forward (since so often the position mixes now), which is more important than an all-world small forward, which is more important than an all-world small guard. That's because the gap between great point guards and decent ones is extremely wide, and they are hard to find. There's an even wider gap between great centers and average centers, but there are even fewer truly great centers. Great small forwards on the other hand, are everywhere, and there's a young batch of about ten to fifteen that could make the jump at any moment. Likewise, if you'd like a guy that likes to score but whose handle isn't good enough to play the one? I have about twenty of the m for you off the top of my head and half of them got paid too much money this summer. This is not to include the highest of the crop. Kobe Bryant instantly makes the value of your small guard position higher than any other. Conversely, LeBron James isn't really a small forward, or a point guard, or a power forward. He's listed as a small forward, but you can't really consider him that. Because in all honesty, he's just LeBron. Paul's right up there in terms of talent, but everything Paul does is uniquely point guard in its nature.

How does this relate to the Nuggets? They essentially built around the last two positions, the small forward and small guard spots. Iverson works best with the ball in his hand, but not when he has to bring the ball up and set the offense. He's a dynamic, amazing, all-world small guard. And five years ago, he was at the level of Kobe where you could specialize in him being the focal point. Anthony is a different bird. It's widely accepted that he's an all-world talent. He's considered an elite player. He's always at the top or near the top of the scoring list. Yet his game doesn't garner much impact or praise anymore. He's just kind of been accepted. Like global warming or inflation. Yeah, it's a problem. But no one's really doing anything about it right now. And unlike global warming or inflation, when good defensive teams have needed to solve him, they have. You can not only contain Carmelo Anthony, you can out and out stop him.

What makes this relevant is that inherently, the Nuggets are trying to simultaneously course their offense through two positions which have dubious value and who don't particularly work together. They have no distributor and two finishers. If you're going to specialize in an area, you need to have balance. The Lakers were mediocre to below average when their best players were Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom. Same with the Cavaliers and Larry Hughes and LeBron James. The Hawks only made the playoff once they brought in Mike Bibby to run the offense and added Al Horford to contribute down low instead of putting everything on the shoulders of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. By focusing on Iverson and Anthony and neglecting the decline at both power forward and center and not pursuing a legit point guard (sorry, Anthony Carter), there exists no balance. This isn't to overly criticize the offense, because the two players here are so great that this team can put up points with the best of them. But it makes them human, beatable, solvable. Essentially, if you surround the wagons, cut off the point guard and center from the two superstars and then siege them, they have no way to counter. No escape plan. And defensively you create situations where you have to have two guys on the floor at all times who are not capable of being elite defenders at this point in their careers. And in that scenario you'r forcing other players with less talent to overcompensate for the defensive questions of the leaders on the floor.

Every team is different and I'm not saying you can't build with your best players as a small guard and a small forward. I'm saying that it does present specific challenges that would have to be overcome by a very specific team with certain coaching and talent strengths. I'm also saying that Allen Iverson has got to go. This team needs to blow up, and the HP mantra for rebuilding is STEP 1: Trade your best player over 25 with the biggest contract for as many pieces as you can. There will be suitors, you just have to find them. Because this show in Denver did not work. It's time to scrap the set and rewrite the script.

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