Preview & Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Kurt —  November 21, 2008

Records: Lakers 9-1 (1st in West) Nuggets 8-4 (2nd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.3 (4th in League) Nuggets 103.5 (20th in League)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 95.3 (1st in League) Nuggets 100.6 (5th in League)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets : Chauncey Billups, Dahntay Jones, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene

Live Blog Tonight: That’s right, if your Friday night includes a computer and television set… well, I’m sorry. But we’re going to try to make it better. FB&G is doing a real-time live blog for the Lakers and Nuggets. And this will be in the BLD style (same software) so your comments can be approved and added to the discussion, taking place in real time. Myself and a few regulars will be in, but it’s going to be a big party and all are welcome.

And, this is the one time we’re violating the drinking and commenting rule around here. At least I am. Everything starts at 7:30 (Pacific, I can’t start drinking at 7:30 in Newfoundland).

Lakers notes: Does any player in the NBA have more arc on their shot than Vladimir Radmanovic?

Brett Edwards of NBA Fanhouse (and like a million other places) was at the game in Phoenix with media passes last night and passed along this:

After the game obviously (Radmanovic) was in good spirits, and his personality is such that he was very laid back about it, basically just saying “hey, the shots went in” and “I only get three or four shots a game, so if they miss, that’s it.” But overall he was real happy. Then I unintentionally killed his mood by asking if he thought his performance solidified his position in the starting lineup. I added on “or does it even matter if you start as long as you’re helping the team win,” but he was visibly unhappy with the question, gave a short response, something like “I don’t know why all the questions about me starting.” But I could tell it bugged him.

As for last night, the Suns are a good team but not a team with the personnel that can tear apart the Lakers defense. Steve Nash can’t get out and run in the new offense, Shaq allows defenders to stay in and protect the paint and all that plays right into the Lakers trap. Kevin Arnovitz over at TrueHoop did a great breakdown of the Suns last night and added this:

The easiest way to beat the Lakers’ strong-side pressure is spot up lethal long-range shooters on the far side. Nobody is better at orchestrating that kind of attack than Steve Nash. Unfortunately, other than Raja Bell, he doesn’t have any teammates on the floor who can hit a shot from beyond twenty feet. This gives the already stifling Laker defense even more freedom to strangle the Suns.

The Nuggets Coming In: I’m still not used to Melo without the cornrows. It throws me off every time.

The Nugs are 7-1 since the trade that sent AI east and brought Billups West. What’s different? I asked Jeremy of the brilliant Pick Axe and Roll for his thoughts:

I think it is important to start off by saying Chauncey Billups is not solely responsible for the Nuggets improved play. They started the season with a renewed team wide commitment to defense. However, the fact that his acquisition has pushed them to a higher level on both ends of the floor and made them a much more dangerous team is beyond dispute.

When I outlined who my ideal point guard would be for the Nuggets I proclaimed he would have to be a good shooter, a player who plays a pass first style, is quick enough to get in the lane, big enough to guard any opposing point guard, quick enough to stay in front of his man and dedicated to playing great team defense. The NBA player who most resembles a combination of all of those criteria is Chauncey Billups (Deron Williams is also a good match, but I do not think Utah was looking to move him to Denver).

The Nuggets have really stepped up their defensive pressure this season and their defense has risen to an even higher level with Chauncey on board. They have held six of their 12 opponents to sub 40% shooting nights so far this season and you may recall one of those six opponents was the Lakers. Their starting lineup is stronger defensively with Billups as they no longer start the diminutive Allen Iverson at shooting guard. That means the Nuggets will not have to send Anthony Carter or Kenyon Martin out to cover the Kobe Bryant’s of the league. As an individual defender, he is very strong and fights through screens well. As a team defender he has good instincts that allow him to freelance a little and he has already proven he trusts his new teammates to rotate and cover his roaming. The Nuggets are more stout defensively than even the most optimistic fans ever expected them to be.

Offensively Chauncey gives the Nuggets their first long range threat at the point since Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and his ability to hit the three has been a key addition to the offense. Paired with J.R. Smith the Nuggets now have two guards with good size, deep range and diverse offensive talents. Chauncey is also a very good in the post and does a great job of directing the offense with his back to the basket where he can spin and drive, shoot a soft turn around or pass to a cutter. He is not a great passer out of the pick and roll, but his ability to shoot has enhanced the Nuggets ability to run pick and rolls this season and they have been taking advantage of that.

In the half court with Allen Iverson on the floor the Nuggets had no true half court offense. No one ever really knew what AI was going to do with the ball. That caused them to stand around and wait for AI to make his move so that they did not get in his way. Now they are playing with more movement and are passing the ball much more readily. In the past the Nuggets would make two or fewer passes and shoot on a vast majority of their half court possessions. Now they are much more determined to work for a good shot and much of that is due to the presence of Chauncey.

As fun as it was to run and gun, it was not making them a contender and in fact I thought it was actually hurting them. Over the offseason I called for them to shift into more of a half court defensive oriented team, because that is the style of play that wins championships. I did not really expect them to do it, and if they did I figured it would take two or three seasons to make that transformation. Well, they pulled it off in a matter of months. The key to that transformation was Billups insertion as the point guard.

Now that Chauncey is running the show they are no longer in such a hurry to jack a shot up as soon as they cross half court. They will still run when the opportunity presents itself, but as I mentioned they have changed their approach in the half court. Thanks to that change their pace factor has dropped by more than five since last season from a league leading 99.7 to 94.3, still in the top ten, but there has been a noticeable alteration in philosophy.

Despite his sizable impact on the X’s and O’s of the game the most important thing Billups brings is his championship experience, leadership and confidence. It is shocking to look back and realize the Nuggets have not had a significant contributor on the roster who owned a ring since Avery Johnson joined the team during the 2001-02 season. Needless to say that was not a good team and he was far enough over the hill that he was already approaching the other side of the valley. I honestly cannot remember the last time the Nuggets had a key player who had already won a championship.

Chauncey’s championship pedigree has revealed itself in the way he pulls guys aside during games and gives them advice or encouragement and he also is very vocal in directing the offense and defense. This is a huge difference from the last few seasons where no one had the gumption, or the credibility, to do that in the past and you can see them growing together game by game because of it. Since his arrival the Nuggets have really morphed into a team instead of a group of talented individuals. You can see the impact Chauncey has had in the play of J.R. Smith. Smith has not shot well and his scoring has been absent over the last couple of games, but he is actually playing some of the best offense of his career. He is looking to set teammates up more than he is looking for his own shot. He is passing up open shots to swing the ball for even better shots and has become much more mature.

The trade has not only energized the team, but the fans are encouraged as well. I expected Denver to surprise most prognosticators and make the playoffs before the season started, but they were still just going to be first round fodder again. That was nothing to get excited about. Now with Billups the ceiling for this team has risen from sixth straight first round exit to a team with a shot at earning home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs that can make some noise.

However, at this point any talk of how far this team can go is pure speculation. Even though they are 7-1 with Chauncey running the show they have only played two tough games during that time. They lost at Cleveland, but then went into Boston the next night and out defended the champs in a game that some pundits called the best road win in 30 years.

Because of their relatively soft schedule since the trade the game against the Lakers is a big deal. If Denver can somehow defeat the conference champs on the road, a task they have not even approached achieving last season despite having four chances to do so, we will all know that this team is legit in a way they have not been in over 20 years. Even if they lose there is a key difference with this team from last season. They may not beat the Lakers in LA, but deep down I know they can and I could not have said that last season. The reason for that change is Chauncey’s presence on the roster.

Keys To The Game: AI may be gone, but these are still two teams that like to get out and run, so transition defense will be key. The team that does it better, and controls the boards, will probably get the win.

Defense in general will be big for the Lakers — the Nuggets did better than most teams with passing and breaking down the Lakers defense last meeting. And they are a better ball movement team now with Billups running the show. The Lakers need an outing like last night, not like last meeting, with good doubles and traps and smart play defending the weak side. And, unlike last meeting, close out on Anthony Carter. Please. That guy kills us every time.

Billups gives the Nuggets more options to defend Kobe (he had 33 in the first get together) so that means other players are going to have to step up. Bynum should be able to dominate Nene in the block, although to his credit Nene is having a breakout season (second best PER on the team).

Another hot shooting game from Radmanovic would be nice. But dare we expect that two games in a row?

Where you can watch:Fox Sports here in LA, nationally you’ll need League Pass or one of the several Web streams for the game.