What’s Up With The Denver Nuggets?

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.

Lawson's showed signs of life recently, but he's got a ways to go to help turn things around in Denver.

Lawson’s showed signs of life recently, but he’s got a ways to go to help turn things around.

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.

Was trading for Iggy the right move for Denver? I'm not convinced just yet.

Was trading for Iggy the right move for Denver? I’m not convinced just yet.

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.

How many times have we seen Karl make this face on the bench? Yell at 'em, George!

How many times have we seen Karl make this face on the bench? Yell at ’em, George!

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.

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Lakers Win Game 7, Advance

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.

Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Steve Blake and Ron Artest all got the chance to shine thanks to Kobe Bryant being a team player in Game 7.

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.

Ty Lawson and the young Denver Nuggets played a valiant series and have a promising future despite the disappointing loss.

Nuggets Obliterate Lakers In Game 6

Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets wasted no time in showing the Lakers they meant business in Game 6, which quickly turned into a complete rout of an ill Kobe Bryant and the complacent Los Angeles Lakers. After starting the game on a 13-0 run, the Nuggets never looked back, taking care of business at home with a 113-96 victory and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in LA on Saturday.

Lawson led the Nuggets with 32 points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting 5-of-6 from downtown. Kenneth Faried had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Corey Brewer had 18 points off the bench, Danilo Gallinari finished with 12 points and seven rebounds and Andre Miller backed up his terrific Game 5 performance with a 12-point effort in Game 6. And although Arron Afflalo only had six points and JaVale McGee only had two, Timofey Mozgov not only continued his excellent defense on Andrew Bynum, but he even pitched in eight points as well. It was as close to a perfect effort as Denver can conjure up, but that’s the way it looked at the end of Game 5 too. For the Lakers, the only player really worth mentioning was Kobe Bryant, who scored 31 points while playing with a stomach virus (Quick side note: Do NOT compare this game to Michael Jordan’s Flu Game. This was against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and his team lost by about 20. MJ’s legendary performance was in the NBA Finals against Stockton and Malone and his team won thanks to that incredible performance. The two aren’t even remotely close). Ramon Sessions was LA’s second leading scorer with 14 points. Andrew Bynum had another underwhelming night with 11 points and 16 rebounds while Pau Gasol disappeared completely with just three points and three rebounds on 1-of-10 shooting.

Ty Lawson started out hot and put the Lakers away early. If the Nuggets have another fast start in LA, the Lakers could be in trouble.

At the start of the playoffs, I predicted Denver would give Los Angeles all they could handle, but I picked the Lakers to win the series in six games. I said the Lakers’ size would overwhelm the Nuggets’ bigs and that stopping Kobe, Bynum and Gasol over the course of a seven game series would be too much for the balanced Nuggets. It seems as though I (and everyone else in the NBA analyst department) underestimated just how effective Denver’s depth and frontcourt defense could be; despite dropping the first two games, the Nuggets have roared back in this series and now carry all the momentum and confidence into Game 7. The Lakers will benefit from having a rocking Staples Center trying to rouse them out of their apparent apathy (everyone except Kobe, that is). They will also be getting Ron Artest back after missing the last seven games (for his ludicrous elbow on Sixth Man of the Year James Harden). But after the effort we’ve seen from this Los Angeles squad in the past few games and because Artest will likely be rusty, it’s hard to pick against the Denver Nuggets.

Kobe is the only guy in purple and yellow who looks like he wants it. Bynum has allowed himself to be taken out of the series and instead of reasserting himself with a dominant performance, he’s completely faded out of the picture. Credit Mozgov, Faried and McGee for their aggressive and physical defense on him, but Bynum was the best active center in the league coming into the playoffs, and his effort and performance since dropping a triple double in Game 1 has been absolutely disappointing. But as bad as Bynum has been, Pau Gasol has been completely appalling. Game 6 will be the one that truly reveals how absent Gasol has been, but the truth is, he hasn’t had an impact on a single game in this series. Gasol is the Lakers’ third most important player and without him scoring, the Nuggets can focus all their attention on shutting Bynum down. Gasol has phased himself out, missing easy shots and being pushed around by Denver’s motivated post players. Unless Gasol and Bynum completely turn things around in Game 7, the Lakers will become just the ninth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1. Now I’m not fully predicting Denver will win Game 7 on the road against the uber-competitive Kobe Bryant. Kobe has time to rest up and prepare for an elimination game, and you know he’ll be doing everything he can to motivate his teammates, which will make them dangerous in front of their home crowd. No doubt, the Nuggets still have their work cut out for them. But as lethal as Kobe can be, this series may be out of his control if his teammates fail to show up again. And do you know who the last team was to lose a series after leading 3-1? The Los Angeles Lakers.

Kobe Bryant has done all he can do in this series, but his teammates don’t seem to share his motivation.

Denver Survives Late Rally, Forces Game 6

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.

JaVale McGee dominated Bynum on both ends of the floor.

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.

Yeah, Kobe’s performance last night was extremely impressive. But when his team needed it most, he came up short three times.

LA Steals Game 4 On The Road

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.

If you had said before Game 4 that Steve Blake would be the difference, would anyone have believed you?

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.

Danilo Gallinari led the Nuggets with 20, but his absence on a key play with less than a minute to go ultimately killed his team.

Nuggets Dominate Lakers At Home

The Denver Nuggets finally came out and played with some energy and competitive fire at home in Game 3, jumping to an early lead that they kept throughout the rest of the game, winning 99-84 and cutting the series deficit to 2-1. Ty Lawson had a breakout game with 25 points and 7 assists and Denver held Andrew Bynum to zero points in the first half. The Nuggets actually outscored the Lakers in the paint and once they finally started a game on a fast note, they looked like a tough playoff team that could potentially give LA a run for their money.

A huge factor in Game 3 (and the series as a whole) was how the Nuggets handled being outsized in the post by Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. But JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried had phenomenal games on both ends of the floor. McGee had 16 points and 15 rebounds off the bench while Faried had 12 points and 15 boards. Preventing Bynum from getting involved early was key in Denver expanding their lead to 24 points in the first half as they used a variety of double teams and off-the-ball pressure to keep him from getting looks. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 22 points, but outside of Bynum, Kobe, Gasol and Ramon Sessions, no one else contributed much for the Lakers. Arron Afflalo still failed to have a great game, but he pitched in 10 points to go along with Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller’s 13 points apiece. The Nuggets did everything they needed to to compete: they limited the Lakers’ post scoring, got off to a fast start and overwhelmed LA with their overall depth.

JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried were monumental in getting Denver a much-needed win.

Whether or not Denver can keep this up is a different story. The Lakers were able to cut the lead to eight in the fourth quarter and Bynum isn’t going to let himself be taken out of the series just because of a few double teams. If the Nuggets can take care of business at home and tie the series at two games, they could pose a threat to the Lakers. But knowing Kobe Bryant and how well LA has been playing lately, Game 3 can’t be just be a one-time thing for Denver; the Nuggets have to come out strong and play with the exact same energy to let Mike Brown’s team know they mean business.

Ty Lawson’s electric play in Game 3 has to continue for Denver to have a chance. Keep in mind that Lawson has had a speed advantage over Sessions this whole series, but it wasn’t until the Nuggets frustrated Andrew Bynum that Lawson was able to put it to good use. If Denver can get swarm Bynum and prevent him from getting touches again, he will get frustrated and lose interest on both ends of the court. That means that only Kobe Bryant can beat Denver, especially based on how poorly the Lakers’ bench has played in the last two games. Kobe beating a team by himself isn’t impossible, but as long as the Nuggets focus on Bynum and have a decent shooting night, they should at least be in the game at the end.

Kobe Bryant is dangerous in the playoffs, but he can’t do it without Andrew Bynum.