Preview & Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Darius Soriano —  November 30, 2012

Records: Lakers 7-8 (8th in the West); Nuggets 8-8 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (8th in the NBA); Nuggets 103.0 (10th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.3 (5th in the NBA); Nuggets 102.3 (19th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Steve Blake (out); Nuggets: Wilson Chandler (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are in a holding pattern of mediocrity dictated by wild swings of inconsistency. There’s really no other way to explain a team that ranks in the top 8 of both offensive and defensive efficiency while posting a losing record through 15 games.

Injuries have exposed this team’s lack of serviceable depth. Darius Morris and Chris Duhon have been pressed into duty, and while they’ve played hard, they’re also not every day contributors that can be relied upon. What looked like a promising preseason by Devin Ebanks has devolved into an end of the bench stint that’s surely influenced by his arrest for suspicion of DUI. This has left the Lakers thin on the wing and relying on Antawn Jamison to play small forward for several minutes each game. This is a role he’s no longer suited to play.

Meanwhile, at the top of the roster, the Lakers aren’t getting nearly enough from Pau Gasol. I’m a staunch supporter of Gasol’s game but he’s floundering while trying to find his niche in a system where he’s asked to put himself in positions to be successful through aggressiveness rather than the scheme itself putting him in those positions. The balance of when to space the floor and when to dive to the post has not yet been found and there are questions as to if they’ll be found at all. Dwight Howard and his still recovering back has shown flashes of his dominating presence, but emblematic of his team it’s not been a consistent enough occurrence.

Ultimately, this team is one that’s been constructed with ball handling and needed direction from a floor general in mind, and that’s absent. It’s hard to judge how this team will play from night to night because they’re so dependent on qualities that aren’t natural to the players that are asked to perform them. Kobe is not an every play pick and roll ball handler. Gasol is not a natural jump shooter or a defender in space away from the basket. Jamison is not a classic floor spacer. Ron is not a career marksman. When these players perform to their ceilings at these skills, the Lakers look as good on the court as they do on paper. When they don’t, they struggle to score and to stop their opponent from doing so.

Patience is in order but the wildness of this team’s ups and downs only encourages the hyperbolic responses evaluators are prone to hand out. These are difficult times, but that’s typically the case when you really don’t know what you’re going to get when a team takes the floor. In the end, context is needed in describing what ails this team and time is needed to really know what’s what. Though, I do understand many are tired of waiting.

The Nuggets Coming in: Denver has lost two consecutive games — including a heart breaker last night to the Warriors — but only by a total of 3 points. What may be becoming a theme for the Nuggs, they let a game where they led comfortably slip away and now find themselves sitting at .500 (a place the Lakers would like to be, for what it’s worth).

This is the first time the Lakers are seeing the Nuggets this year so it’s best we catch up with all their changes and what ails  them this year. Gone is Aron Afflalo and Al Harrington and in is Andre Iguodala. Of course this swap was part of the deal that brought the Lakers Dwight Howard and sent Andrew Bynum to the 76ers. The result of these changes has been a bit different than many expected. Denver’s worse on both sides of the ball and while they’re playing just as fast as ever, their lack of three point shooting has created a void in their half court sets when the game slows down.

What’s resulted is a lot of pick and roll plays that head into a crowded paint and penetration and kicks that lead to more penetration and kicks. On some possessions the Nuggets’ half court offense reminds me a man holding up a mirror and then looking into another to see an endless reflection.

So, like the Lakers, the Nuggets are underachieving a bit in comparison to preseason expectations. They too are trying to find their stride with a reshaped roster and pieces that don’t always fit precisely. By the end of the year they’ll likely be much better, but for now they are very up and down and in search mode for what works from night to night.

Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is a very good resource for Nuggets news and notes. Give them a visit.

Keys to game: Normally I’d say that on the second night of a back to back the Nuggets should be tired and ripe to be taken advantage of. But the Nuggets aren’t a normal team. Their pace numbers are middle of the pack this year but they still want to get out and run, exploiting defenses in the process. The Lakers are particularly vulnerable in transition and the Nuggets will muster the energy to attack them this way tonight, regardless of how tired they may or may not be.

This doesn’t mean the Lakers should ignore their own desires to push the ball. The Pacers stifled the Lakers’ transition game and turned the contest into a slugfest where both team struggled to score. The Lakers would be wise to open the game back up against a Denver team that’s not nearly as disciplined defensively as the one from Indiana.

The way to run is to get defensive stops and secure rebounds once a shot is missed. This is where the Lakers’ biggest challenge lies. Denver leads the league by rebounding nearly 35% of their missed shots. The Lakers have been prone to lapses in this area and if they aren’t sharp tonight, they’ll suffer as Faried, McGee, and others hit the glass and extend would be empty possessions into ones that produce points via put backs or trips to the foul line. Rebound the ball and you can run the other way and set up your own offense.

In terms of getting those needed stops the Lakers will need to pack the paint and make shooters prove they can knock down the long ball over the course of the entire game. Mind you, I’m not saying cede open jumpers — closeouts are certainly needed — but perimeter defenders must be under control and not give up driving lanes in order to run at a three point shooter. Make them earn it. This is especially true in the P&R. The Lakers must hang back and not let Lawson, Iguodala, and Gallo get to the paint where they can compromise a defense and set up good looks for themselves and/or easy opportunities for the big men via dump off passes or offensive rebounding opportunities.

Offensively, the Lakers need to be quick but not rush their shots. Denver is not an elite defensive team and over the course of the game they will allow open shots if the ball and player movement is sharp and quick. The Lakers mustn’t get caught up trying to attack a set defense (ahem, Kobe) and instead need to move the ball and find the open man who will have an easier time scoring. Once those players get the ball, they need to be ready to attack and not just look to get the ball back to #24 so he can shoot again. Against the Mavs the Lakers did this the entire night and won easily; against the Pacers they did not and it was a dog fight all night.

Beyond this, the Lakers simply need to play hard and believe in what they’re doing on both sides of the ball. Energy and confidence aren’t stats kept in the boxscore, but in the games they’ve lost the Lakers haven’t had much of those things. Tonight they just need to come out and play hard, smart basketball and things will likely go well. Here’s to it happening.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on ESPN nationally and on TWC Sportsnet locally. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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