Enemy: Denver Nuggets
3SOB Forecast*: 45-37
What’s the story in the Mile High City?
Finding themselves in a situation not dissimilar to the one facing our Grizzlies, turnover in the higher ranks of the organization has driven the Denver Nuggets into a liminal period. As it was the case in Memphis, the head coaching position had been vacated shortly after what was a very successful year on the whole. In some respect, the Nuggets’ playoff collapse in the first round provides some grounds for justification of relieving George Karl of his coaching duties, but in another, his Coach of the Year recognition makes the news puzzling from the outside looking in.
Karl’s demise was arguably contributed to by factors that were actually determinants of his success last season. A prototypical agency problem manifest itself in Denver, where the organization wanted to focus on developing some of its long-term investments, but Karl could not sacrifice a portion of the “win now” mentality to make more time for them in the rotation. For example, a major point contention was Karl’s preference towards Kosta Koufos over the more heavily-invested in, but far less polished JaVale McGee. Koufos, who signed a 3 year $9 million extension prior to last season, maintained the starting gig and logged 22.4 minutes per game, while McGee played off the bench at an 18.1 mpg clip.
The expanded workload for McGee is the first of a few cosmetic changes expected to come for the Nuggets this season. Though he honed his craft under Phil Jackson and Mike Vogel, new head coach Brian Shaw is expected to leave his triangle offense roots behind him and keep up a fast paced attack in Denver, under his own conditions.
If I could, I would advise Shaw to avoid the pitfalls that cost Karl his job, but the new powers-that-be calling the shots were certain to strip the roster of all temptation to dive into them. Koufos was traded on draft night to our very own Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur. Beyond the center position, defensive stoppers and Karl favorites Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer were shown the door to their own free agency, so in their place, there should be plenty of time for Shaw to spread around between the youthful group of Evan Fournier (who I’m irrationally high on), Quincy Miller, and Jordan Hamilton. If he can maintain some semblance of health, veteran Wilson Chandler will see a healthy share of time at the swing spots as well.
Speaking of health, a notoriously absent name from the discussion of the swing positions is that of Danilo Gallinari, who is slated to miss the beginning of the season. Gallo suffered an ACL injury in April, which although it turned out to be less severe than anticipated, will likely keep him shelved until December. With the Nuggets’ roster being as crowded as it is, Gallo may find himself stationed elsewhere come February if the young guns prove themselves worthy in his absence.
Who are they cooking with?
Last season, the Nuggets dominated the paint in a rather unconventional manner. When you think of a team, the bulk of whose offense resides in the restricted area, powerful post play of teams like the Grizzlies come to mind. The Nuggets, however, trotted out the pedestrian likes of Kosta Koufos and Kenneth Faried as their starting frontcourt, but led the league by a giant margin, with a whopping 54.7% of their points coming in the paint. For reference, the Pistons were second in the league, at 49.1%, while our Grizzlies clocked in at 46.1%. At the end of the season, they set an all-time high with their mark of 57.3 points in the paint per game.
So how did they do it without a traditional back-to-the-basket frontcourt? A precise formula comprising a combination of dribble-drives, off-ball cuts, putbacks courtesy of Faried and McGee’s relentless athleticism, and an overall breakneck pace, preached by Coach Karl, created the yield. While some major factors have been removed from the equation this summer, the engine behind it, emerging guard Ty Lawson remains. Lawson, himself, took 47.1% of his shots at the rim last season and converted 54.3% of them.
The Nuggets amassed 2002 assists last season, which put them at a powerful third place in the league, but when assist rates are pace adjusted, they fall to the middle of the pack with 60% of their made field goals coming off of helpers. While we do not know for sure what type of system Coach Shaw will implement in Denver, one would anticipate that the loss of Iguodala, whose assist ratio of 26.4 per 100 possessions used was third on the team, coupled with the additions of trigger-happy guards Randy Foye and Nate Robinson, will increase the pressure on the star guard, Lawson, to create for others more often, and divert some of his attention away from scoring the ball.
Maybe it’s the homer in me, but I believe that Arthur could be a real wild-card for the Nuggets this year. Finally able to spend an off-season working in his game, rather than rehabbing, he should find himself incredibly useful in Denver as a pick-and-pop power forward — something that Denver has lacked in its arsenal in recent years. His ability to spread the floor and keep the defense honest as a the screener enables Lawson, who took 47.1% of his shots at the rim last season, the chance to get to the rack even more. Defensively, Arthur and the also newly acquired J.J. Hickson add to the already fleet-footed rotation of big men, which should if anything eat the opposing pick-and-roll game alive.
How do the good guys stack up?
Denver last season gave the Grizzlies problems at altitude with their uptempo style since the Grizzlies bench couldn’t compete with the Nuggets depth. While the Nuggets still have depth the Grizzlies have greatly improved their bench which should give the team more legs strength at the end of games in Denver. With a new GM, new Head Coach and particularly a new starting center, Denver will look very different than last season’s team.
Losing Iguodala and Brewer will hurt their perimeter defense but they should be more explosive offensively with the return of Gallinari. Randy Foye should help some with perimeter shooting but his overall game isn’t up to the level of the players the Nuggets lost. JaVale McGee will be interesting as the starting center. His size and athleticism could give Gasol headaches but the real question is while McGee cause more headaches for Denver as he causes for their opponents. Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson are a dangerous combo in the backcourt but one has to wonder what role Andre Miller will have. Overall it looks like the Nuggets lost more than they gained from last season which should give the Grizzlies the edge in games.
Kalen Deremo (of Roundball Mining Co.):
For the most part, the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are two equally matched teams. They both have a few All-Star caliber players (the Grizzlies more than the Nuggets), a nice supporting cast and two well-respected rookie head coaches. But where the Grizzlies and Nuggets differ most is in the front court. The Grizzlies have perhaps the most lethal front court in the entire NBA while the Nuggets have nothing but question marks heading into the 2013-14 season. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are tough, technical sound, veteran All-Stars who have reached their primes and understand their roles in the NBA, whereas Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are soft, one-dimensional, offensively inept youngsters still looking to carve our their niches in the league.
When the Grizzlies and Nuggets meet up, fans should expect (and likely will receive) a good game. After all, each team has an exciting mix of players to look forward to. However, Memphis has a sizable advantage in the front court, and should they chose to exploit it, the Nuggets will then have a difficult time finding an equally advantageous mismatch to capitalize on.
When and Where do they square off?
December 28th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
January 3rd: 8:00PM at the Pepsi Center
March 31st: 8:00PM at the Pepsi Center
April 4th: 6:00PM at the FedEx Forum
For more Nuggets content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Roundball Mining Company.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.