The Denver Nuggets’ offseason has been a train wreck, but this team is closer to the playoffs than you might think. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on why the Nuggets need Ty Lawson to step up as a leader to make it to the postseason.
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
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.
The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?
To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.
- Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.
- Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
- Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).
So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night, it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.
The Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed their full offensive power on Los Angeles in Game 1 last night, throttling Kobe and the Lakers in a 119-90 victory that left no doubt OKC means business in the postseason in this growing rivalry matchup. The last time these two teams met, Ron Artest gave James Harden a concussion with a vicious elbow to the head that earned a seven game suspension. After tonight’s beatdown, there’s no doubt that the Thunder haven’t forgotten.
Russell Westbrook lit up the Lakers’ defense in the first half, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds while Kevin Durant came alive in the third quarter, scoring 13 points and leading the Thunder on a 15-2 that put them up by 29 points and left no hope of coming back for the weary Lakers. Durant finished with 25 points and eight rebounds while James Harden had 17 off the bench. Everyone came to play for the well-rested and clearly eager Thunder team in what quickly turned into a rout. Thabo Sefolosha had seven, Serge Ibaka had six, Kendrick Perkins had four and the Thunder bench outscored LA’s by a huge margin, 50-26. Everyone contributed, with guys like Daequan Cook, Nazr Mohammed and Derek Fisher putting up a decent amount of points. The lead got to as many as 35 and it was such a complete blowout that the Thunder will able to rest their starters with a minute left in the third quarter and complete backups like Cole Aldrich and Royal Ivey got to play significant minutes in the fourth.
For the Lakers, nothing went right. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum led LA with 20 points each, Ron Artest had 12 and Pau Gasol chipped in 10. Unfortunately, Kobe went 7-for-18 and even though the Lakers out-rebounded the Thunder 43-41, they committed 15 turnovers while the Thunder only had four. The Lakers looked exhausted by the time the second quarter came around and the Thunder were relentless in knocking down jumpers. OKC shot 53 percent from the field on the night. But what should have been just a bad game got even worse when Lakers’ sub Devin Ebanks was involved in a tussle late in the fourth quarter and was ejected. As Ebanks walked to the locker room, he struck a chair on the bench and took his shirt off in a disgraceful manner reminiscent of Andrew Bynum in the playoffs last year. Ebanks’ actions seemed to be a slight reflection of what the entire Lakers team was feeling after getting thoroughly pounded in Game 1. Even though it’s just one game, last night’s rout showed just how vulnerable LA is and how deadly the Thunder can be, especially when they’re knocking down shots.
For OKC, they really don’t have many areas to improve, although an injury to Kendrick Perkins might raise some concern. Perkins left the game after a dunk that left him gingerly limping down the court. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Perkins could have returned but he’ll be reevaluated today just to be safe. But that was really the only negative of the night and considering how well Nick Collison played on the defensive end against LA’s inconsistent bigs, the Thunder don’t have much to worry about at this point. For Los Angeles, there have to be a lot of major improvements for Game 2. Kobe has to play lights out. Bynum and Gasol can’t disappear and have to have big games. Ron Artest has to keep knocking down outside shots and find a way to limit Kevin Durant. Steve Blake has to be useful like he was in the first round, which will require him to take more than one shot. But most importantly, Ramon Sessions has got to show up. Sessions has been a complete no-show for the Lakers this entire postseason. What happened to the guy that was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle? Sessions has been non-existent on offense and even worse on defense. It’s a tough job to try and stop guys like Ty Lawson and Russell Westbrook every night, but LA has been getting abused by quick point guards so far and Sessions and Blake are the direct cause of that. Mike Brown has got to find a way to emphasize the defense he is so well known for and the Lakers have got to completely regroup for another tough Game 2. But if the Thunder shoot like they did in Game 1, this series could very well be over in four or five games.
In what will be the most competitive second round series of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking on the Los Angeles Lakers as this growing rivalry continues to gain steam. Although Los Angeles has definitely shown that it can play with just about anybody when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol show up, the Thunder should be big favorites to win this series in convincing fashion.
Los Angeles is coming fresh off a hard-fought Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets that reinvigorated life into Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest. The game revived Gasol, Bynum and Steve Blake’s confidence as Kobe Bryant looked primarily to facilitate. A confident Laker team is a dangerous one, but Denver provided a blueprint for the Oklahoma City Thunder on how to beat LA: If Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can play physical and aggressive defense against Bynum and Gasol, they will disappear again and the Lakers will be left with just Kobe to fend off the offensively proficient Thunder. Kevin Durant started shooting the ball better at the end of the first round and Russell Westbrook played consistently well throughout the series. Just like the Nuggets, the Thunder will also have an advantage at the point guard position, as Westbrook will be able to use his speed to get by Ramon Sessions and Blake. The only difference is that Westbrook can actually finish better than Ty Lawson at the basket, meaning the Lakers will really have their work cut out for them to stop a speedy point guard’s penetration. Meanwhile, Durant is a much better scorer than Artest faced in Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, so he’ll have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. You can expect Durant and Westbrook to get their 20-30 points per game, but the X-factor, as always, will be James Harden.
When Artest elbowed Harden in the head in their last meeting, the Lakers were able to come back from a double-digit deficit at home because Harden was not on the floor. Harden has been the glue that holds the Thunder together and the voice of reason that attacks the basket when Durant and Westbrook start jacking up too many jump shots, evidenced by his complete takeover of Game 4 against the Mavs. Harden also has emerged as a quality defender and has been able to slow Kobe down a little bit in their previous meetings. But even if Harden didn’t have such a significant impact coming off the bench for OKC, the concussion he sustained at the hands of Artest would still serve as the galvanizing force that motivates this dangerous team to hit the Lakers with everything they’ve got. Oklahoma City is a tightly-knit unit and you can be guaranteed they wanted to play the Lakers just to have this chance for revenge.
The Thunder should be big favorites to win this series. Ibaka and Perkins shut down Dirk Nowitzki in a convincing sweep of the defending champion Mavs in the first round and should be able to limit Bynum and Gasol to some degree, especially if they lose motivation again. Steve Blake proved to be a dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes, but I seriously doubt he will continue to play at such a high level, especially against a more talented team like the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook should be able to put up their regular numbers and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year will do damage off the bench. But most importantly, OKC has a real reason to come out and squash LA because of Artest’s ridiculous elbow to James Harden and his ignorant comments about not apologizing or shaking his hand just a few days ago. Durant, Westbrook and Harden should come out incredibly focused and look to make a statement after being eager with anticipation to get back on the court. You combine all of that with Oklahoma City’s home-court advantage and you’re looking at pretty difficult odds for the Lakers. If LA struggled with a physical and quick team like the Denver Nuggets, they’re going to really have problems against a team with a similar DNA that has even more talent. The only concern is that OKC’s time off might result in them being rusty for an important, tone-setting Game 1, but something tells me the Thunder will rise above it and play as the superior team that they are.
Prediction: Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in 6 games