Free agency isn’t over just yet. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on why the Chicago Bulls, who are reportedly interested in Antawn Jamison, should be looking at acquiring Al Harrington.
In this second segment of “What’s Up With…?” we’re taking a look at a team that was supposed to contend with Oklahoma City and Los Angeles in the Western Conference: the Denver Nuggets. At 11-11, the Nuggets are currently clinging to the eighth spot in the West and they aren’t struggling nearly as much as their fellow, supposed contender in the Los Angeles Lakers. However, this season has been pretty disappointing for Denver fans thus far and the question has to be asked this year just like I asked early on last season:
What’s up with the Denver Nuggets?
In taking a look at why Denver is struggling so much to start this season, there are three main problems that I see. There are minor problems, such as Danilo Gallinari’s largely inconsistent shooting and Kenneth Faried’s production falling off the map recently. But the first major problem has been Ty Lawson. Lawson has started to turn his season around with a couple of dominant performances, but there’s no denying he started off in a bit of a slump this year. After averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals last year, this was supposed to be Lawson’s breakout season. Instead, Denver’s point guard has seen dips in his points and rebounds, averaging 14.7 points, 7 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 2 steals. Not scrub numbers by any means, but not a breakout year either (and keep in mind those averages were slightly raised by more impressive performances in the past week). What happened to the dynamic and lightening-quick point guard that decimated the Lakers in the postseason last year and almost send Kobe and company home early? He’s looked timid at times and almost reluctant to take the same jumpshots he was consistently draining last season. Lawson looks like he’s breaking out of his slump, but if he regresses at all, or even takes a night off, Denver will continue to struggle.
The second major problem is the trade the Nuggets made over the offseason, a trade that a lot of Denver fans were excited about. In exchanging Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in the very unbalanced Dwight Howard deal that sent Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Denver was supposed to get back a defensive presence and a decent amount of offense in Andre Iguodala. But with Iggy in a Denver jersey, the Nuggets are 26th in the league in points allowed, giving up 100.7 points per game. To his credit, Iguodala has adjusted his game to fulfill whatever Denver needs from him on the offensive end (namely, scoring), but the balanced game we saw from him in Denver is gone while Afflalo’s having his best season so far down in Orlando. Many thought Iguodala would be the piece to elevate Denver to title contenders in the West, but instead, it’s looked like Iggy has disrupted the team’s chemistry with inconsistent offense.
The final problem is one that I’m surprised to see myself write, but it seems that George Karl doesn’t have a firm grip on his team’s success anymore. When Denver fans, some of the most loyal basketball fans I’ve seen, are complaining about Karl, you know something’s not right. Just a few years ago, this man inspired them when he beat cancer. This is the man who’s turned the Nuggets into a consistent threat in the West. But unfortunately, those days look like a thing of the past. Again, we could be overreacting here; the Nuggets are at .500 and still have 75 percent of the seaon left to fine-tune. But it’s in the subtle things that you notice how poorly Karl has coached this season. It’s in his refusal to start JaVale McGee, a guy who’s been incredibly efficient in limited minutes and could be an All-Star if Karl took the time to develop him over Kosta Koufos. It’s in a couple of bad losses (Phoenix, Orlando, Los Angeles) and a really underwhelming 0-3 start to the season. It’s in the team’s inconsistency that borderlines bipolarity. And it’s in that angry expression that’s constantly on Karl’s face when his team is struggling, a look that he wears while sitting on the bench and saying nothing. Karl needs to take a more hands-on approach with this group and that’s evident to anyone watching the lifeless disdain on his face whenever the opposing team goes on a run. I believe Karl is a tremendous coach and that he’ll turn things around, but he needs to take a different approach to get wins and appease Denver fans.
Like the Lakers, the Nuggets still have time to turn things around. To their credit, they have looked a lot better in recent games, but they’re still 3-5 in their last eight games. In their defense though, Denver’s had one of the tougher schedules in the NBA (UPDATED: one of my friends, an avid Nuggets fan, brought it to my attention that Denver has only played six home games this year. It’s hard to win games when 16 of your first 22 are on the road). But it’s hard to tell how good the Nuggets can be because twice this season they’ve put together a nice string of games with four wins in a row, but both times they’ve gone on to drop their next three in a row. Because of how close the race in the West always is, the Nuggets have a very good shot at keeping their playoff spot and an even better shot at moving up the chain if they start meshing. But like the Lakers, the time for saying, “We’ve still got time to fix things,” has just about wrapped up. Time will tell if Lawson’s recent resurgence is for real, but the Denver Nuggets haven’t looked like a contender in the West just yet.
Some credit goes to George Karl and the resilient Denver Nuggets for pushing their series with the Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game after trailing 3-1, but more credit goes to Kobe Bryant and the rest of his supporting cast after outlasting the Nuggets in Game 7 with a 96-87 victory. Pau Gasol had a breakout performance with 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and four blocks, Andrew Bynum responded as well with 16 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks, and even Steve Blake had a monster game with 19 points after knocking down five 3-pointers, but it was Kobe Bryant that moved the Lakers into the second round.
How, you ask? He completely deferred to his teammates. After a two-day stretch of speculation and talk about how pathetic Kobe’s supporting cast had become, Bryant allowed his teammates to prove everyone wrong by passing the ball. So even though his 17-point, 8-assist performance doesn’t look impressive on paper, it was his continued commitment to giving up the ball that allowed his teammates to excel. Yes, Kobe-haters, I understand your reluctance to praise a guy for simply passing the ball to talented teammates. But with the way this series was going, it had turned into Denver vs. Kobe, and Kobe wasn’t going to win that battle. So he deserves credit for getting in his teammates’ ear and then allowing them to display their heart and commitment to winning a championship. That being said, Ron Artest’s return (I’m still not referring to him as “Metta World Peace) made a big difference on both ends of the floor. Without Artest, I’m not convinced the Lakers win Game 7. Artest made the invaluable contribution of shutting Danilo Gallinari down, who finished with only three points on 1-of-9 shooting. He also guarded Andre Miller, who had a similarly frustrating offensive night with three points on 1-of-10 shooting. But Artest’s impact didn’t stop there, as he knocked down four 3-pointers and ended up with 15 points in his first game back.
For Denver, it was yet another disappointing first round loss. Al Harrington had a breakout game with 24 points off the bench, while Ty Lawson also put up 24 in addition to six assists and five rebounds. Arron Afflalo pitched in 15 points, but other than that, Denver’s offense struggled despite balanced distribution. Gallinari and Miller were taken out of the game by Artest. Kenneth Faried had just six points to go with his 10 rebounds. McGee finished with six points as well, but grabbed 14 boards. The Lakers outplayed the Nuggets in every way necessary to get the series win in Game 7: they cut down on turnovers, they scored inside the paint and they had 14 blocks and 10 steals compared to Denver’s nine rejections and five steals. But the biggest factor was 3-point shooting. Los Angeles hit 11 3-pointers and shot just under 46 percent from downtown while Denver made seven and hit less than 27 percent of their 3-point attempts. Gasol and Bynum’s resurgent performances definitely hurt, but Blake and Artest knocking down shots from the outside gave them little chance to pull off the upset. However, the Nuggets have a very bright future with, especially if they have room to resign JaVale McGee, who had a breakout series despite falling short in Game 7. They have young and talented players like Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried and experience veterans that give them depth and defense. Look for Denver to be a tough playoff team next year if they can bring everybody back.
Looking ahead, Denver probably matched up better with the Thunder because of their depth and clever defensive strategies. The Lakers’ struggles against the Nuggets provided a blueprint for how to beat LA and you can be sure OKC made note of it. If Gasol and Bynum disappear in the second round like they did in the first, the Thunder’s overall talent will completely overwhelm the Lakers, especially considering that OKC has home-court advantage and a real reason to come out strong against LA after Artest gave James Harden a concussion just a few weeks ago. Unless Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have a stellar series, the Thunder could run away with this one.
Kobe Bryant knocked down five 3-pointers in the second half and dropped 43 points, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the balanced attack of the Denver Nuggets. A collective effort from a number of unsung heroes helped the Nuggets stave off a late rally from Kobe and the Lakers to give them a 102-99 victory on the road and force a Game 6 in Denver on Thursday. With the series now shifting back to Denver and the Lakers only up 3-2, the Nuggets are on the verge of making this series very interesting.
Last night’s win was probably Denver’s best in the series so far, despite the fact that Kobe nearly took it over at the end. The Nuggets completely controlled the game until Kobe started to get hot and knocked down four 3-pointers in the game’s final minutes. But even with the Staples Center going ballistic, Denver’s veterans and developing talents alike kept their composure and did what they needed to to send the series back to their home court. Andre Miller was absolutely phenomenal for Denver, leading them with 24 points and eight assists, including a few clutch baskets and free throws that kept the Nuggets on top down the stretch. JaVale McGee had another breakout performance and completely outplayed Andrew Bynum, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds. McGee and Kenneth Faried, who had 10 points and nine rebounds, helped limit Bynum and took care of the boards for a Denver team that was expected to be at a huge disadvantage in the paint. Arron Afflalo finally had a decent offensive outing, finishing with 19 points and five rebounds while Danilo Gallinari, who had an off shooting night, still pitched in 14 points of his own. But perhaps one of the most underrated performances of the night came from Timofey Mozgov. Although Mozgov failed to score a single point and registered only one block, his defense on Andrew Bynum was paramount. Even though none of his efforts showed up on the stat sheet, Mozgov kept Bynum from getting close to the basket and combined with Faried and McGee to completely take him out of the game.
For the Lakers, it was a pretty bad night. Other than Kobe, no one but Bynum and (surprisingly) Matt Barnes reached double digits in scoring. Bynum posted 16 points and 11 rebounds, but he looked completely frustrated and allowed Denver to take him out of his game, which became pretty evident after his purposeless shove on Kenneth Faried that led to a technical foul. But although Bynum is a big area of concern right now after being outplayed by McGee on both ends of the floor, the Lakers have even bigger problems: Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol. Sessions was supposed to be the missing piece to the championship puzzle for LA, but he’s failed to have a significant impact so far. He hit a big 3-pointer to pull the Lakers that much closer to a comeback victory, but other than that he was pretty absent. The biggest problem in this series has been Pau Gasol though. Gasol used to be Kobe’s second-hand man and a dominant, skilled force in the paint. But now that Bynum is around, Gasol has been moved out of the paint and functions more like a facilitator. Gasol only put up nine points and 10 rebounds and has been putting up similar numbers for this entire series. Credit Denver’s post players for not allowing scoring in the paint but Gasol has got to get himself more involved on offense if the Lakers want to win.
Kobe played lights out and the Nuggets still got the win. So far, a lot of credit has to go to George Karl for developing this squad into a competitive team. They don’t have superstars, but they have veterans, developing talent and plenty of depth. The Nuggets have done what they needed to do to stay competitive in this series: they’ve prevented Bynum and Gasol from having a field day down low, they’ve utilized their advantage at the point guard position, and they’ve overwhelmed the Lakers’ starting five with balanced scoring and overall effort at every position. And even though Kobe went off in Game 5, the Nuggets won because they limited production from everyone else. Andre Miller and JaVale McGee have been huge and have to continue their high level of production to keep Denver alive. Al Harrington has struggled but all it takes is one good shooting night and the Nuggets could make this series very interesting if it goes to Game 7 in LA. And just as a side note, last night was further proof the Kobe will never go down in history as the greatest player in the NBA. Although his barrage of 3-pointers was impressive and he finished with 43 in a pretty stellar performance, his last three shots, which all could have tied the game, sounded something like this: “CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.” I don’t remember Michael Jordan missing that many shots in the playoffs with the game on the line.
Denver was poised to even the series up at two games apiece and head back to LA with a renewed sense of hope, but an unlikely hero emerged and the Lakers stole Game 4 with a 92-88 win on the road. Los Angeles now leads the series 3-1 and will look to send this balanced Nuggets team home with a win at Staples Center in Game 5 tomorrow night. With Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all on the floor, everyone thought one of these guys would provide the dagger as the audience felt the game start to slip away from Denver. But in the end, it turned out to be none other than Steve Blake who decimated the Nuggets’ chances in the game and possibly the whole series.
Kobe led LA with 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists, Bynum had 19 points and seven rebounds and Gasol finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists. But it was Blake’s 10 points off the bench, which included the 3-pointer that put the Lakers ahead by six with 18 seconds left, that proved to be Denver’s undoing. It was Jordan Hill’s 12 points and 11 rebounds that kept the Lakers from being overwhelmed by Denver’s depth. And even though the Nuggets’ bench still outscored LA’s, the fact that the Lakers’ supporting cast even contributed gave them the upper hand.
Denver did a good job of containing Andrew Bynum again, using double teams to get the ball out of his hands. Kobe had an all-around great game, but the Nuggets were able to prevent him from going off in the scoring column by holding him to just 10-of-25 shooting. But their lack of offensive production from some of the guys who gave Denver a Game 3 victory eventually hurt them, especially when Blake and Hill started making shots. Ty Lawson, who had a stellar performance in the Nuggets’ first game at home, finished with just 11 points. Kenneth Faried had just six points and seven rebounds. JaVale McGee, who was a hero in Game 3 for guarding Bynum and still finding energy on the offensive end, could only tally eight points and four rebounds after getting tired early in the second half. Al Harrington struggled with his shot and missed a few big 3-pointers. And Arron Afflalo, who seems like he won’t show up in time for the end of the playoffs this year, could only muster six points. Danilo Gallinari finally had an efficient shooting night, leading the Nuggets with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but he only got significant help from Andre Miller, who had 15 points off the bench.
A few key plays killed Denver down the stretch, but the Lakers earned the victory and the Nuggets didn’t have what it took to prevent a crucial Game 4 from slipping through their fingers. Gallinari getting laid out on a clean pick by Gasol led to a wide open 3-pointer for Ramon Sessions that put LA up by three, which proved to be insurmountable and was an extremely unfortunate break for the Nuggets (Gallo looked like he flopped, but Gasol did raise his shoulders and pop him in the throat. But then again, the pick was definitely clean and didn’t warrant a foul call. This debate could go on and on so we’re just going to chalk it up to a bad break for Denver/good play by the Lakers and leave it at that). Whatever the case, Denver couldn’t get the job done and will go home sooner than expected unless they somehow win Game 5 in LA against the cold-blooded killer and closer that is Kobe Bryant. This would require an inordinate amount of team chemistry, improved shooting, no production from LA’s bench and similarly stifling defense on both Kobe and Bynum. This is a tall order, but it should be worth watching if George Karl can rally his balanced team to keep this series competitive.
The Lakers started the postseason off on a strong note with a convincing 103-88 win over the visiting Denver Nuggets in Game 1. LA has been on upset alert since the Western playoff matchups were determined, but Kobe Bryant and company left no doubt that the Nuggets will need to bring everything they’ve got to have a chance in this series.
Kobe finished with 31 points, but most of them came in garbage time. In fact, for the majority of the game, Denver did an adequate job of keeping him contained. So where did the Nuggets go wrong? Well, allowing guys like Steve Blake and Devin Evanks to score nine and 12 (respectively) by halftime is a bad start. Jordan Hill had 10 points as well. Andrew Bynum dropped a triple double, but his 10 blocks were the biggest part of that statline as he completely clogged up the middle. However, the worst part was Denver’s defense allowed all this to happen while Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, who both had been playing lights out coming into the postseason, each shot 3-for-11 from the floor (6-for-22 combined). That can’t happen if Denver wants to contend in this series.
LA definitely had everything going their way. Kobe dropped his expected 20-30+ points, Bynum and Pau Gasol did their thing down in the paint and Ramon Sessions and the bench contributed a perfectly appropriate amount with Ron Artest sitting out. Kenneth Faried had a hard time getting shots up and Lawson couldn’t even come close because of Bynum’s presence in the middle, which was directly connected to his poor shooting night.
There are only two bright spots for Denver after such a one-sided defeat. The first is that Danilo Gallinari played well and finished with 19 points. If the Nuggets are going to keep the series close, they need Gallo to score like he did. The second positive note is that Denver’s bench showed their worth and pitched in some buckets to keep this one from being a complete blowout. Andre Miller, Corey Brewer and Al Harrington played fine and finished with a combined 33 points off the bench. Unfortunately, it was Denver’s starting lineup that didn’t get the job done today.
That being said, Denver really has to enter Game 2 with a sense of urgency and get a road win to have a chance for the upset. The Lakers smell blood in the water after such an easy victory and Kobe Bryant is a cold-hearted killer. Unless Lawson and Afflalo regroup and play lights out in Game 2, this balanced Nuggets squad might fall short of their playoff potential before anybody even gets a chance to see it.
The Sixth Man of the Year Award is an interesting NBA award because while it might be very revealing about a season, that doesn’t necessarily mean it says a lot about the recipient’s career or even the recipient’s team that year. For example, Lamar Odom won the award last year as a Laker; but LA was swept in the playoffs and now Odom hardly sees the floor as a Maverick. However, this year there are four main candidates that have made their case known as the Sixth Man of the Year Award, exemplifying great team and individual play while coming off the bench. And if the award goes to who I believe should win it, the Sixth Man of the Year Award will not be awarded to a one-year-stint-of-a-player. Here are the main candidates:
1) James Harden – In my mind, James Harden is a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Similar to former award-winner Jason Terry, Harden comes off the bench because he prefers doing so, despite the fact that he easily could start for his team. Harden is averaging 17.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 3.8 apg and is the third-leading scorer for the West-leading Thunder. He leads the offensive attack while the starters get a breather, making the Thunder a constant threat to make a run even without Durant or Westbrook in the game. His 3-point shooting, knack for attacking the basket and his epic beard have helped him become a fan favorite in Oklahoma City. Little talked about is his much-improved defense that has helped lock down scorers and quietly given his team multiple victories. Harden leads the NBA in points off the bench and has transformed himself into the third member of OKC’s Big Three. I really don’t see this award going to anyone other than the black King Leonidas.
2) Lou Williams – Williams is probably Harden’s closest competition for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He leads the Sixers in points at 15.8 ppg while chipping in 3.5 apg as well. Williams has also been Philly’s best offensive threat in close games in the 4th quarter this season. Like Terry and Harden, Williams has developed a flow coming off the bench with fellow bench factor Thaddeus Young, but unfortunately for Williams, his stats don’t measure up to Harden’s. The whole “leading scorer of the Sixers” thing sounds nice on paper, but you also have to consider that this Philly squad only averages 93.8 ppg, which is 22nd in the league.
3) Jason Terry – You can never really count Jason Terry out of the running as Dallas’ big-time sixth man. The Jet is putting up 15.3 ppg and 3.5 apg, shooting 38% from beyond the arc and coming up big in the fourth quarter for an inconsistent Mavs team. Dallas’ inconsistencies plague Terry in his case for winning this award again, as the Mavs look like world-beaters one night and old, frail men the next. However, you can’t ever count out this 2008-09 Sixth Man of the Year, who might have just enough magic left in the tank to help the Mavericks make another unpredicted playoff run.
4) Al Harrington – Harrington has been a pleasant surprise for Nuggets fans this year, averaging 14.4 ppg and 6.5 rpg off the bench. The Nuggets really should be more successful than their record and current standing in the West suggests, but injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Nene (while he was still there) created problems in Denver. Harrington was relied on heavily during that stretch and proved to be a valuable asset off the bench that the Nuggets still take advantage of regularly.
Honorable mentions: Thaddeus Young 12.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg (Sixers), Jamal Crawford 13.8 ppg (Blazers), Mike Dunleavy 12.2 ppg (Bucks), Nate Robinson 10.5 ppg 4.1 apg (Warriors), OJ Mayo 12.1 ppg (Grizzlies), Anthony Morrow 12.6 ppg (Nets), Leandro Barbosa 11.7 ppg (Pacers)