Preview & Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Kurt —  February 27, 2009

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets - Game Three
Records: Lakers 48-10 (1st in West) Nuggets 38-20 (3rd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.4 (1st in league) Nuggets 109.2 (9th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (7th in league) Nuggets 106.6 (10th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Nuggets Billups, Dahntay Jones, Melo, K-Mart, Johan Petro

Jordan Farmar’s beard: Jordan Farmar has apparently given up shaving for Lent. I’m not sure there’s another reason for sporting his new beard. But Mimsy made a great point in the comments:

There has been a depressing lack of facial hair on the Laker bench since Turiaf left. Morrison’s porn stach is all well and good, but we needed for a real beard. Farmer stepped up and did what was necessary for the team, and should be commended. Plus, the beard makes his ears look smaller which means he now looks more like an Earthling and less like a Vulcan. Since extra-terrestrials have been banned from playing in the NBA for some time now, that will also cut back significantly on administrative costs for the team.

Lakers without Bynum. When someone suggested in the comments after the OKC game that the Lakers were better off without Bynum, there were some interesting comments from Reed and Darius, that deserve a bigger audience. So, here they are.

Reed first:

I don’t think the Lakers are better without Bynum either, but they are much more cohesive, fluid, natural, purposeful (searching for the right combination of adjectives…). Without Drew, I think the team feels more comfortable in a few ways. There’s a sense of familiarity born of last year’s title run. The roles are more clearly defined, leading to increased individual (even if not team) consistency – Kobe gets 30, Pau 20 and 10, Lamar 15 and 12, and so forth, with little variation. With Drew, sometimes he’d be option #1 down low and sometime Gasol, Odom’s role wildly fluctuated based on need, Kobe didn’t need to score as much, etc. The offense also moves more fluidly without Bynum as all 5 players can typically pass and shoot from outside, whereas Drew leads to a lot of possessions where he slowly operates on the block (and very effectively). The pace is also more consistently up tempo without Drew. So, again, things are more uniform without Drew – consistent pace, defined roles, free flowing offense, etc. There’s real appeal in that and it works, this year and last. But Drew gives the team real upside. When he’s firing, he transforms our defense from okay/good to great and presents an overwhelming physical presence that few teams can deal with on offense.

Now Darius:

I would also add to what Reed is saying about fluidness on offense. Bynum is not nearly the level passer that Gasol is from the hub of the Triangle and that makes the ball stall more and leads to uninspired cuts from our other players as they rarely get rewarded from that movement when it’s Bynum that’s doing the posting. In addition to this, LO is replaced by Pau in the starting group and Pau is not as mobile nor the cutter that LO is so we don’t get the same type of off ball motion out of Pau that we get from LO (this is also true when it’s Pau posting and Bynum is the one that would be moving off the ball). So, with Bynum in the game, we end up with more post iso’s. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because as Reed pointed out, our bigs are very efficient scorers on the block.

One last point I would make is that both LO and Bynum are mostly isolation players when they have the ball in their hands, they just do it in different ways. LO loves to attack off the dribble and Phil likes to put him in positions where he can drive against PF’s that don’t have the skill to stay in front of him (for example those top of the key iso’s where we go to a 1-4 set and Odom can drive hard to his left hand with shooters all around him). Bynum on the other hand has really come into his own as a player that can score against very good defenders in the post. My point really is this: Do you want a player that can create off the dribble or another player that can score on the block with consistency? The funny thing is, (I want) and we really need both. When you look at our team, Kobe and Farmar are the only players that can create for themselves or others off the dribble besides LO. And Kobe and Gasol are the only players that can score in the post with consistency besides Bynum. This is why we need Bynum back and why we also need Odom on this team. They bring dimensions to our team that aren’t prevalent outside of one or two other players. In the end, I’d love for Odom to keep his aggression level high when Bynum returns while also hoping that Bynum is ready to score on the block the way that he was when he got injured. It’s this diversity, with a full roster, that makes us such a complete offensive team.

The Nuggets Coming In: Last playoffs we got so much great info on the Nuggets from the blogger Jeremy that I reached out to him, at his new blog Roundball Mining Company, and asked him a couple of questions.

The conventional wisdom is that this year’s Nuggets team is a better defensive squad than last year’s team. But, the squad’s per possession numbers are identical to last year’s numbers. Is this a better defensive team? Also, is their transition defense as inconsistent as it looks at times?

The Nuggets have been subjecting their fans to a return of the enver Nuggets jokes with the play over the previous couple of months. No matter how you slice it, their defense has been mediocre at best the past couple of months. They put together a three game stretch against Miami, Orlando and Philly that lead me to believe they may be getting back to playing defense the way they did to start the season. It proved to be a fluke though as they have posted single game defensive efficiencies of 123.4, 121.3, 127.4 and 121.7 since then.

The area where the defense has improved is they are all paying attention. Last season players like J.R. Smith, Allen Iverson and Carmelo would routinely lose track of their man and then be shocked to discover that he had just scored a layup. That does not happen anymore this season. The problem has primarily been an issue of communication and defending the pick and roll.

Earlier in the season you almost never saw two Nuggets both running at the same shooter. Now that is much more common. Tell me if I am wrong, but it I always thought that teams should get better executing what they do as the season progresses and not worse.

As far as defending the pick and roll they have been relying almost exclusively on switching, which makes me nuts. You are voluntarily creating two mismatches when you switch plus it is lazy and I think establishes a culture of passivity. After the Celtics completely demolished them due largely to the switching of screens Denver tried playing much more aggressive against Atlanta by trapping the ball handler coming off the screen. If you are interested in reading how that went you can do so here, but the summary version is the Nuggets ended up giving up many open shots.

Ultimately, I think the conventional wisdom is correct that this version of the Nuggets is a much more capable defensive squad than in the past, but only if they are performing at their peak. When they float through games just going through the motions, they get absolutely picked apart.

As far as their transition defense, they have been very porous as of late. One reason for that has been that the guards are not stopping the ball in transition. Both Chauncey and Anthony Carter routinely are left standing at the three point line while the opposing point guard is in the lane to finish a fast break. The other reason is just a lack of want to. They are just getting beat back on defense. Several times against Atlanta they had Hawk players pass them going down the floor, even after makes, resulting in fast break points.

I am still holding out hope that as the season progresses and the pressure ramps up Denver will revert back to their early season defensive mentality, but there is no guarantee that they will. That means there is no guarantee that they will continue to remain amongst the top teams in the Western Conference and thus if they do not get their defensive act together, they will be staring at a sixth straight first round playoff exit.

The Nuggets seem to be the most heavily tattooed team in the league. Are they? Is there anyone they need to pick up to ensure that crown?

The Nuggets players talked about this very issue during training camp. They believe they are the tattoo kings of the NBA. Kenyon Martin arrived with his classy neck kiss lip tattoo, Chris “Birdman” Andersen now has wings tattooed under his arms. I am sure Carmelo and J.R. Smith had some new ink done, but good luck finding it.

Unfortunately, the front office made a big tattoo mistake acquiring the plain wrapper Chauncey Billups for the inked up Allen Iverson. If they want to make sure they hold onto the most tattooed team in the NBA title I think they need to bring in Stephen Jackson. His praying hands holding a gun tat would put them over the top.

Keys To The Game: I think Jeremy gave us just about everything we need to know — the Lakers can run on the Nuggets and should push the pace. When that is not there, some Kobe/Gasol pick-and-roll at key moments would lead to mismatches and baskets. Those two things should get the Lakers the points they need.

The Nuggets defense is predicated on steals and blocks (they lead the league in both per game). You can turn that aggressiveness against a team with back-cuts and interior passing, something we can hope to see tonight.

Last meeting the Nuggets decided Kobe was not going to beat him — they threw hard doubles at Kobe early and way out on the wing. They wanted the ball out of his hands. If he passes out of that and the rest of the Lakers move and pass, again that aggressiveness can be turned into easy baskets for other Lakers.

Normally I’d be talking about the second game of a back-to-back, but the only person who should be tired is Adam Morrison, who is not used to that much run. The rest of the Lakers should be fine.

Where you can watch: 6 p.m. start, with KCAL 9 here in LA having the game. Which means John Ireland and his hair.