HoopsHabit – Grading The Denver Nuggets’ Offseason

The Denver Nuggets have cleaned house this offseason, losing coaches, front office personnel and key starters and role players. Here’s my HoopsHabit article grading some of their offseason moves

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HoopsHabit – How The Denver Nuggets lost Andre Iguodala

The Denver Nuggets had said their top priority during the offseason was to resign Andre Iguodala. But Iggy turned them down for a smaller contract with the Warriors. Here’s my HoopsHabit post on how and why it all went down.

HoopsHabit – Can The Denver Nuggets Contend In The West In 2013-14?

They’ve lost their head coach, GM and are in danger of losing two critical free agents in Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer. Here’s my HoopsHabit article with a look ahead to next season and what to expect from the Denver Nuggets

HoopsHabit – Top 5 Candidates To Replace George Karl As Head Coach Of The Denver Nuggets

No one but the smartest of Nuggets fans was expecting George Karl’s departure, but now that he’s gone, who will become the next head coach in Denver? Here my HoopsHabit article are the top five candidates

HoopsHabit – “How The Golden State Warriors Have Won Without David Lee”

Pulling a typical George Karl In The Playoffs move, the Denver Nuggets fell to the No. 6 Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry’s monster third quarter performances. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how the Warriors were able to win without David Lee

Western Conference First Round Predictions

Now that the playoffs are just a few hours away, let’s take a look at the high-octane first round matchups in the Western Conference and make some predictions about the keys to each series and who will advance to the next round.

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets

The big headline here is obvious: James Harden, who has developed into a superstar for the Houston Rockets after being traded just a week before the start of the season, will face off against his old team in a potentially high scoring series in the first round. And most people are pretty excited about the way things worked out with the Rockets and Thunder squaring off while the Lakers moved up to the seven spot to play a long-time playoff rival in San Antonio. But I was actually really bummed the Rockets lost and dropped to the eighth spot in the West. Why? Because the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely advance in four maybe five games. This series will not be close. I know people fall in love with the stories that accompany playoff series, and I would love to see Harden come out firing and exact revenge for being given away so unceremoniously. But this is Harden’s first year being the go-to guy for his team, which he’s acknowledged himself. Just watch the last few minutes of the Rockets-Lakers game the other night if you have any doubts that Harden still has room to grow and needs to be more confident and clutch when his team struggles down the stretch.  Oklahoma City owns the season series against Houston 2-1, which makes it seem like Houston has a remote chance here. But in the two victories, the Thunder won by an average of 26 points. In the one defeat, OKC lost by three. That doesn’t leave me very optimistic that Houston has a realistic chance of unseating the top seed in the West.

Keys to the series: Defense. Since Kevin Durant and company actually play defense and lead the league in blocks, the Rockets’ high-powered offense won’t be able to overshadow their weak defense in a seven-game series. The Thunder have another advantage because they know how Harden plays and Thabo Sefolosha is perfectly capable of limiting him even if he does get hot. And we haven’t even mentioned Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook yet. Do the Rockets have anyone even remotely capable of stopping these two from averaging 30 points a game? Is Jeremy Lin going to be able to stop Westbrook’s penetration? Does anyone have the size on the wings to slow down KD? The answer to both those questions is no. Harden and the Rockets’ 3-point barrage may carry them to one fluke victory, but I fully expect this series to disappoint many people’s high expectations.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 4 games

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers:

I wanted a Rocket-Spurs matchup. San Antonio is banged up and has had a hard time stopping James Harden this season, which could have extended the series and even lead to a possible upset if the Rockets caught fire and the Spurs continued to limp along. But I will say that a Spurs-Lakers postseason series is always good for the NBA’s ratings. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ recent hot streak doesn’t give me a lot of confidence they can knock off the Spurs in this first-round matchup. Yes Tony Parker hasn’t looked like himself lately and yes, Manu Ginobili’s health is as frail as a 70-year-old woman these days, but if they can manage these injuries, I don’t think the Lakers can compete here. As vulnerable as San Antonio seems right now, a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant has a very small chance of winning this series without help in the form of Spurs injuries and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol absolutely dominating the interior like we haven’t seen all season. Tracy McGrady may finally get his first playoff series win.

Keys to the series: Coaching, injuries and intangibles. Mike D’Antoni got coach of the month in the Western Conference for the month of April. I find that hilarious, because the Spurs have a HUGE advantage on the coaching front in this series. I’m calling this right now: Gregg Popovich will win a close game for his team (or Mike D’Antoni will lose one). As far as injuries are concerned, this series will hinge on whether or not Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can stay healthy. Steve Nash’s health may be a factor here, but if Parker and Duncan play like they have for the majority of the season, Nash’s presence won’t make much of a difference other than having a negative impact on the defensive end trying to stop Parker. As far as intangibles are concerned, this refers primarily to Steve Blake. Blake has been on fire recently, but can we expect that to continue against a quality team for a seven-game series? If LA wants to shock the world, Blake and guys like Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark have to step up and knock down threes. I don’t see that happening consistently enough to make up for Kobe’s absence though.

Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors:

There’s legitimate concern that Denver is vulnerable with Danilo Gallinari out and Ty Lawson barely getting over that lingering heel injury just recently. But the Nuggets and all their interchangeable parts are built like Medusa: you cut one head off, three more take its place. They are the only team in the NBA that could challenge the Clippers for the title of “deepest bench in the NBA” and their up-tempo offense and home-court advantage will be too much for the young Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry may take a game or two on his own, but the Nuggets went 38-3 at home this year. THEY DON’T LOSE AT HOME. Denver won the season series 3-1 and the one game they lost was by one point on the road.

Keys to the series: Home-court, experience and shot selection. As well as Mark Jackson has done since taking over the Warriors and even though Golden State’s hot shooting may help them win a game or two, don’t forget that this is the first playoff series for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes. Denver has been here before and looks poised for a playoff run even without Gallo. Then add in the fact that Denver doesn’t lose at home and that they lead the league in scoring (106.1 ppg) and fast break points (20.1 ppg) and it’s hard to see Golden State pulling off the upset. The Warriors score in transition as well, but most of those buckets come from threes, which don’t always stay consistent in the postseason. Denver scores in the paint and plays defense, two areas that are huge in the playoffs.

Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 6 games

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies:

This should be the best matchup of the first round, with the Grizzlies and Clippers going head-to-head for the second year in a row. Lob City advanced in a thrilling seven-game series last year and the teams are just as evenly balanced as they were last year. This is a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. The Grizzlies play stifling D and have an advantage in the interior with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Clippers are deep, fast and have the leadership of Chris Paul to guide them. I expect this to be a pretty close series and there will be plenty of lapses in scoring, but the majority of theses games will be exciting to watch down the stretch and come down to the wire.

Keys to the series: Tempo, bench production and turnovers. The Clippers want to get out and score in transition. The Grizzlies need to get out and score in transition. Chris Paul is a master of managing a game’s tempo and will play a huge role in this series against Memphis’ stifling defense. The Clippers have a lot of bench options for scoring like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, but they need to score on the Grizzlies’ D for that to be an advantage. Blake Griffin also needs to do more than just dunk, but that will be difficult considering his limited post game and the dominating interior defense he’s up against. The Grizzlies need Jerryd Bayless to continue to play lights out on the offensive end and they need to turn the Clippers over so they can score on the fast break. If Lob City limits the turnovers and can score more than 90 points per game, this will be a tough series for Memphis.

Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games

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.