For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the exhausting Denver Nuggets.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The Denver Nuggets have quite a few things going for them as they waltz — forget that, run — into 2012-13. The team is essentially structured like a baseball squad, lining up a deep series of productive players hoping to take down opponents with production upon production upon production. This has been done before without a singular star to a team's credit — the Portland Trail Blazers squad created near the fin de siècle working as the most infamous version of such — but these Nuggets have one component on their side that those Blazers never had in reserve.
(Well, two things; if you count the fact that the Nuggets aren't made up of a bunch of jerks.)
Most of these Nuggets played together, and played together quite well last year. New addition Andre Iguodala is the most important part of this mix, and it could take a while for the Nuggets to determine how great his influence needs to be on either end; and Wilson Chandler had an unsteady 2011-12 that he'll have to remedy, but beyond that the chemistry appears to be in place. Baseball players don't have to pass each other the ball, but these Nuggets seem to share no aversion to doing as much.
Offense will not be a problem for this crew, in spite of the lack of the star you're looking for. Al Harrington had his moments last, and in a couple of ways (mainly improvised, backing down before the help can come) dealing Al for Dre Iguodala is an offensive downgrade. The rest of the ways include passing, superior finishing on the fast break, and a three-point stroke that actually looked like a major weapon during 2011-12 (though Iguodala's marks might slide a little this year). If Danilo Gallinari's marks from outside the arc can perk back up after a year spent south of 33 percent, Dre's regression to his typical averages may not mean as much.
Defense will be the problem, especially as ostensible defense-only types like JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried take to more minutes and (only possibly in McGee's case, should George Karl decide to mix up his lineups based on how the opposition looks should he deem Kosta Koufos ill-equipped to handle a faster team) starting roles. The duo will send back heaps of shots, and we were encouraged with McGee's turn in a Nugget uniform last year as well as Faried's ability to grab nearly a quarter of the defensive rebounds available to him during his rookie year. They're just … pogos. And pogos spring both ways.
For all the team's rangy forwards, lead guard Ty Lawson's inability to close out (or, more specifically, "inability to stand 6-3") makes that perimeter defense a bit of a worry, especially with McGee chasing all those guards away from the paint. Transition run outs can also lead to run-backs, as opponents hit that open cherry-picker. Can teams hit for the upper reaches of 50 wins with a middling defense based mostly on turnovers caused, lots of blocks, defensive rebounds and wearing opponents out?
If the offense holds up, it will. And though the Nuggets will once again be devoid of a star in the Q Rating-sense, the unending drives and free throws and leak outs and run outs and drives and corner threes and extra passes and the-game-was-just-delayed-because-of-what-Faried-did-to-the-rim will secure the team one of the best offenses in the NBA. Not "best" because they run a lot and pile up the points, but "best" because the team will score efficiently and present unending matchup problems despite the rather orthodox sizes of their starting lineup participants.
It's not an experiment, at this point. Great teams filled with great players win ballgames during the regular season, and go-to scorers help to win close playoff contests. Denver doesn't need a marketable jersey to rocket past 55 wins, and Ty Lawson doesn't have to make the All-Star team to take over conquests one, three and four in some second round series next May.
The Denver Nuggets aren't a series of assets, ready to be rolled up into something to trade in exchange for a guy with his own shoe commercial. And they're not an afterthought, cobbled together because some disgruntled superstar doesn't like snow. They're meant to be this way, and you're meant to watch.
Projected record: 55-27
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: The deepest roster in the league and a coach committed to using it. Seriously: Look at the Nuggets' roster. Only the presence of career conundrum Anthony Randolph at the backup power forward slot keeps you from straight-faced arguing that they're two deep at every position, but that doesn't really matter anyway, because positions aren't even real things anymore.
What does matter is that Denver looks like it has at least a dozen guys who could legitimately contribute to an NBA team -- and that, given the lineup flexibility afforded by big wings like Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and a pair of point guards capable of working together in a playmaking backcourt, coach George Karl can mix and match to his heart's content, and call on his team to play a lot of different ways. One thing we do know: Whatever five-man combinations Karl puts together, he's gong to call on them to play fast.
After averaging the NBA's third-most possessions per 48 minutes in 2010-11, only the Sacramento Kings played at a faster pace than the Nuggets last year, and Karl wants to crank things up even further this year, convinced that Denver will earn a top-four seed in the Western Conference and its first trip past the first round in four seasons by hitting the gas. There's no question that it's been a successful strategy on the offensive end -- without a single dominant scorer (11 Nuggets averaged more than 8.5 points per game, but nobody averaged more than Ty Lawson's 16.4 per) and just two regulars (Lawson and since-departed Arron Afflalo) who hit 3-pointers at an above league-average clip, Denver still turned in a dominant offense.
The Nuggets averaged 106.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, due primarily to their gift for getting out in the open floor. Keyed by Lawson's go-go style at the point, Denver led the NBA in fast break points per game, points in the paint per game, and field-goal attempts taken and made directly at the rim, and the addition of Iguodala -- one of the game's premier open-court finishers -- figures to help Karl's team maintain that high level of transition productivity. (He won't get many minutes in a crowded wing rotation, but when he does, French rookie Evan Fournier should be fun to watch on the break, too.) While the offseason trades of Afflalo and key second-unit scorer Al Harrington could hurt the team's output some, returns to form from Gallinari (whose 3-point shooting mark dropped nearly 5 percent from his career average last year) and Chandler (who has never in his NBA career played as badly as he did after returning from China last year) should help mitigate any offensive slippage. The Nuggets are also looking for increased contributions on that end from second-year beast Kenneth Faried and much-improved big man Kosta Koufos, who might just be the team's starting center, despite the fact that they just spent $44 million on JaVale McGee.
Lawson will keep the starting five humming, the re-signed Andre Miller will continue to throw lobs that make all those athletes swoon and the Nuggets will again rank among the five or so highest-powered offenses in the NBA, fielding a unit good enough to score on even the best defenses in the league. It'll just look weird, with about 10 different guys a decent bet to lead Denver in scoring at some point this season; considering Karl's at the helm, you might not want to bet against Anthony Randolph being one of them.
What Should Make You Scared: That one elite defender's not enough, especially when he's a wing defender. Denver's going to score; that much, we know. But their ability to play past the first round will likely depend on how well they defend, and after finishing 19th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency last year, they're banking on vaunted trade acquisition Iguodala to pull them up to the middle of the pack, if not higher.
They've picked a damn good defender to bank on -- few, if any, players in the league are better equipped physically or better prepared mentally to lock down opponents than the 28-year-old former 76ers swingman. It's beyond crazy that he's only made one All-Defensive Team, that getting him on one took until 2011, and that it was the second team. While Afflalo earned his reputation as one of the game's tougher defensive two-guards before his offensive game started develop, Iguodala's ability to reliably neutralize at top scoring threats at three (and, if your power forward's on the small side, four, for a spell) positions represents an upgrade, and a sizable one at that; Denver will certainly be better on defense, possession by possession, this year than they have in recent years. But while adding a dominant defensive center -- like the New York Knicks did in signing Tyson Chandler before last season, or the Los Angeles Lakers did in trading for Dwight Howard this summer -- can send a team skyrocketing up the defensive charts all alone, the scope of a top-flight defensive wing's potential influence seems more limited.
Iguodala can disrupt passing lanes, pick up just about any teammate's assignment on a switch and turn what used to be clean-look jumpers into contested ones, but he won't be able to challenge at the rim, intimidate drivers in the paint, gobble up pick-and-rolls or direct his teammates from the back line in the same way that Chandler or Howard do. He'll definitely improve Denver's perimeter defense, its weakest point a year ago -- the Nuggets allowed the most made field-goals from between 20 and 24 feet away from the basket, giving up a league-high 42 percent mark from that distance, and the most from between 25 and 29 feet out, allowing a league-high 37.6 percent mark from super-deep -- but come the playoffs, against the litany of good big men out west, he'll need help up front.
Can McGee rein in his block-chasing instincts and body up opponents? If he can't, can Karl rely on Koufos and Timofey Mozgov to be defensive anchors down low? Can Faried become a stout post defender who holds down opposing fours in just his second year? If they can, Denver's chances of becoming a top-half-of-the-league D improve dramatically, but I'll need to see it before I believe it, and I'm guessing the rest of the coaches in the Western Conference are thinking the same thing.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
In a league where superstars tend to decimate the franchises they leave behind, the Denver Nuggets offer a glimmer of hope. When Carmelo Anthony made his desire to leave town well known in 2010, general manager Masai Ujiri and the rest of the Nuggets front office assessed the situation, knew they would lose Melo regardless of circumstances, and focused on extracting the best deal possible from the New York Knicks. They added solid starters and pieces for the future, didn't miss a beat, and have gone about their business with the flexibility of a team that went through no trauma at all. You know, because they didn't let that situation become one.
In other words, the Nuggets are a sensible, professional franchise that doesn't let crises overwhelm the situation at hand. While they're a solid playoff team with many reasons to be thankful — in my opinion, they rate as the most watchable team — they are arguably the most admirable team in the league. There's no sense that they lucked into success because of their geographic location or random friendships. Unlike many other model franchises around the NBA, this team earned everything they got.
What exactly that's gotten them is unclear. While I've noted several times in this series that it's perfectly acceptable for a team to make the playoffs consistently with no real shot at a championship, the Nuggets are a different case in that they have handled each situation presented to them in a very impressive manner. This isn't just a team making due — they are thriving. Why, then, should they be content to be a good team when they're so well managed? Shouldn't that approach yield more returns?
Stuff happens, as the saying goes, and it's hard to feel too bad for a professional sports team worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But there is a sense that the Nuggets (in their current team) represent something pretty close to a model franchise for the vast majority of the NBA's 30 clubs. If the game is rigged, they might be the best example of how.
On the other hand, pretty much every NBA champion depends on a heaping pile of luck to come out on top, so it's not as if the Nuggets are alone in their plight. Situations differ, but the breaks are likely just as bad for everyone.