George Karl reaches out for that top-four spot. (Getty Images)The Denver Nuggets have tons of youth, boatloads of athleticism and point-producing potential for days. They've also got a three-year streak of being knocked out of the Western Conference playoffs in the first round, and while the team's gone through quite a transition over the past two years from the Carmelo Anthony era to the present, Nuggets fans would be forgiven for wanting to see the promise of all that youth and athleticism translate into more concrete postseason success. Head coach George Karl thinks that could, and should, be coming along shortly.
During a chat with Scott Hastings of KKFN-FM in Denver (as transcribed by Chris Fedor of Sports Radio Interviews), Karl discussed the Nuggets' run of nine straight playoff appearances, eight of which have ended before the second round, and how the team can take that much-ballyhooed "next step" to the upper echelon of the Western Conference:
[...] "We have gotten higher at times and then we haven't gotten as high as we wanted at times, but expectations and excellence is defined by the fan and/or the sportswriter and/or the commentators, like you guys on the radio. We can't do anything about that. We are excited about this season and we think we can be a top four team in the West. If we get to [be] a top four team in the West, we should expect to try to win the first round and see what happens after that."
In case y'all forgot, Denver finished sixth in the Western Conference during the 2011-12 season, three games back of fourth place. The top four spots in the conference went to the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies.
For what it's worth, Karl's projection is shared by Basketball Prospectus statistical analysis guru Bradford Doolittle. His recent ESPN.com Insider forecast of wins out West pegged Denver's magic number at 51, which would slot it in behind the '11-12 conference champion Thunder and the Steve Nash-and-Dwight Howard-reloaded Lakers as the third-place finisher in the conference.
Doolittle cited Denver's established offensive firepower (third in points scored per 100 possessions last year, the team's third straight top-three finish in that category and its fourth top-eight finish in the last five years), its enviable depth and positional versatility, and an anticipated improvement over their bottom-third-of-the-league defensive efficiency keyed by the addition of elite multi-position defender Andre Iguodala as the engines of their ascent. That he thinks the year-older Spurs and Grizz will fall off some doesn't hurt, either.
And that makes an awful lot of sense.
It remains to be seen if Iguodala will be as great a leap forward over Arron Afflalo as his reputation and skill-set suggests, and Denver's reconfigured bench rotation might miss Al Harrington's scoring punch more than people think, but with so much youth and talent on the wing, a handful of agile bigs who can run the floor and crash the boards, and a speed-demon triggerman in Ty Lawson at the controls, this roster looks like just about the perfect version of the up-and-down system that Karl's favored for years.
For his part, the coach seems to know that, and he sounds intent on using the ingredients that Denver general manager Masai Ujiri has provided to make a real run at making a strong philosophical statement about the way the game can be played.
More from the KKFN interview, during which Karl responded to a question about the Nuggets potentially rolling out two complete, discrete five-man groups, swapping one in for the other like a full line change in hockey:
"I think you will see us rotate the game very positively to the second unit. Now, would we keep the second unit and not kind of bridge them together by meshing certain guys with other certain guys with different units? I understand what you're trying to say. I've never seen it be that successful in the NBA, but I think the big thing for us is, who is going to commit to playing fast? We talked about it and last year we did a good job at it, but there's no way I want to slow down. I want to try to prove the world wrong — that you can run and win in the NBA, and you can win big if you keep running. The problem is, can you run for 82 games every minute, every possession of every game?"
George Karl inspects Timofey Mozgov's sneakers to ensure they are prepared for fast running. (Getty Images)Recent NBA history says that the answer to this is no — or, at least, you can't run every minute, every possession, every game and actually win a title. Of the 52 teams that have made the conference finals since 2000, only 14 have played at a top-10 pace (using Basketball-Reference.com's pace metrics), while 29 have played league-average (15th of 30/14th of 29) or slower.
Teams obviously need to be able to take advantage of transition opportunities, but in the postseason — when possession counts dwindle, defenses tighten and the game becomes much more about half-court execution than about which team can sustain a track-meet pace — the teams that have tended to be most successful are the ones that have shown a capacity to slow the game down, create high-percentage looks in their set offenses and, through a combination of talent, design and precision, convert those looks. Only twice in the last 13 seasons has a team that's played at one of the league's 10 fastest paces won the NBA championship — the 2002 (sixth-fastest) and 2009 (fifth-fastest) Lakers. And it's not like those L.A. teams were run-and-gun outfits; while they liked to get up and down, huge chunks of their attack were predicated on the low-post dominance of Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in Phil Jackson's Triangle offense, and on Kobe Bryant's spectacular shot-making in tight situations.
There have been teams that made frenetic, uptempo ball popular (the '07 "We Believe" Golden State Warriors come to mind) and even some that have made it successful — Rick Adelman's free-wheeling Sacramento Kings made the Western Conference finals as the league's fastest-paced team in 2002, and Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns made back-to-back WCFs in '05 and '06. But each time, they were taken out by a more deliberate opponent (or, in the case of the '02 Kings, more deliberate officiating) that weathered the offensive storm and was eventually able to dictate the terms of engagement. Time and again, teams that rely on speedball, fast-break-based attacks have fallen by the wayside. What makes Karl think this year's Nuggets will be any different?
Stubbornness, probably. And faith. Belief in a concept greater than himself — that somewhere in the midst of all that freedom and chaos, there's a way to play a fluid, relentless, perfect style of offensive basketball. It's the kind of thing fellow coach Paul Westhead believes, an adherence to an ideal form of basketball that was so masterfully captured in the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary about him, "The Guru of Go" — a belief that no opponent, regardless of talent or strength, can withstand a truly uncompromising, unforgiving, nonstop game.
It's a noble ideal, one that often results in phenomenally exciting play, but it's also one that tends to get coaches fired. If Karl's theory again proves unfounded — if Denver goes one round and out one more time, and for the ninth time in 10 years — could he be next against the wall? If nothing else, the journey toward finding out ought to be pretty damn fun to watch.