On Tap: The Denver Nuggets

Kurt —  November 2, 2005

(For those readers new to Forum Blue & Gold, we do a preview of each game, giving you some things to look at both from the Lakers and their opponent. This is the first of at least 82 — hopefully more.)

I am pumped. Let’s get this season started.

Unlike some major college football power starting the season against a creampuff to sharpen their skills, the Lakers get a tough opening day assignment: Play up in the rarified air of Denver against a team that went 32-8 to close out last season and got their best outside shooter back for this campaign.

At least we get the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back, they lost to the Spurs last night. The Lakers also face a Nuggets team without Nene, who went down with a bad knee sprain — and maybe worse — in that opener. For his sake, especially since it’s a contract year for him, I hope it’s nothing serious.

Denver presents a difficult challenge for the Lakers because they go right after the expected weak spots of the Lakers defense — point guard and depth in the paint. (Whether or not those will be Laker weaknesses we shall see, but they are what needs to be improved from last season.) Even with Nene out the Nuggets roll out a very athletic front line of Carmelo Anthony at the three, Kenyon Martin at the four and Marcus Camby at the five, with Eduardo Najera off the bench.

Carmelo may be the one guy who benefited most from George Karl’s arrival. Early last season Melo’s numbers were down because he was out on the perimeter doing his Brian Cook imitation. Karl sent him back under the basket and told him to drive and not settle for the 15-footer — the result was his points per 40 minutes jumped from 21.9 before the All Star break to 27.6 after (got that stat from Hollinger’s book). That leads me to think the Lakers need to hire Karl for a day to have that same conversation with Kwame Brown.

One of the challenges Karl faces this season is how to get his three point guards — Andre Miller, Earl Watson and Earl Boykins — all plenty of playing time. Look for one of them (my guess is Miller) to spend some time at the two. The two was the glaring weak point for Denver last season, but this season Voshon Lenard is back — before he went down at the start of last season this was a good outside shooter, a career 38.6% from beyond the arc and a career eFG% of 49.5%. In the preseason he has gotten off to a slow start in the preseason (46.4% and 30% from beyond the arc) but if he finds his stroke he’ll bring back some points at the two.

For what it’s worth (and that’s not much), Denver was maybe the best team in the league in the preseason, compiling a 7-1 record. They had an offensive rating of 103.9 (points per 100 possessions) which is slightly better than last season, plus they had a team eFG% of 51.3 and shot 38.5% from three point range. More importantly, they held teams to a rating of 96.2, which would have been second best in the NBA last season, kept opponents shooting 45% and 26% from beyond the arc. All of which meant they still couldn’t beat the Spurs, who were 2-7 in the preseason.

Just like you don’t know what Denver’s (or San Antonio’s) preseason numbers mean when the games start to matter, we don’t really know what to expect from the Lakers. Their defense looked better and the offense smoother as the preseason wore on, but we really won’t know how that translates to real games for a while.

Which is why I can’t wait for tip-off. Let’s get this season going!