Youthful Nuggets show they have a long way to go in season opener
Masai Ujiri was watching the Nuggets' opener at home in Denver. An important meeting and other business had kept the team's GM from meeting his players in Philadelphia for their first game of the season on Halloween night.
Maybe it was for the best that he watched the game 1,700 miles away. His team missed 55 of 88 shots, committed 22 turnovers and suffered 11 blocked shots during their 84-75 season-opening loss against the 76ers. When his team suffers, he is the type to suffer with them, taking each possession to heart and empathizing with each mistake.
"They came out with the stat that we're the third-youngest team in the league this year,'' he said. "And we know that young teams barely win in the NBA.''
He was not assuming that his team is doomed to fail this season. Instead he has wanted his young players to prepare for hard times in order to learn from them instead of being buried by them. Their second-oldest player is Andre Iguodala, the 28-year-old who was traded by Philadelphia over the summer. On Wednesday, his return was greeted by boos in Philadelphia before he could make his debut to the cheers he is certain to hear in Denver. "I hope it's a good night for him,'' Ujiri said earlier in the day. "When you look at how hard he plays and how he played so long for the organization, then you hope the best for him.''
The Nuggets fed their opening possession to Iguodala on the right block as he heard the boos mount quickly all around him. They sounded like family to him. He had been hearing them for the last eight years in Philadelphia. Iguodala posted up his replacement, Evan Turner -- the third-year swingman who is now being asked to do many of the tasks done by Iguodala -- and turned around to drill a midrange jumper over the top. As Iguodala sprinted back to the defensive end he listened emphatically to the quiet.
But there were fewer of those silences than he and his team wanted and needed. Iguodala would miss eight of his remaining 12 shots and contribute four turnovers. He had an impact on the game of minus-19 points during his 35 minutes, and no doubt he could imagine thousands of fans taking joy in his disappointment.
"Some people look at (our) talent and talk about how good can the team be? Or where do you fall in terms of the standings? But I don't know,'' said Ujiri as he looked ahead to the season. "I couldn't tell. I just know that we have a young team and that the history of the NBA says it is those veteran teams that are going to do well. Those veteran teams know how to play on the road, they know how to play under pressure, they know how to play when they're tired. They know how to play when the schedule is bad.''
The young Nuggets open this season with 17 of 23 games on the road.
"Our guys have to learn that,'' Ujiri said of the older teams' tricks. "And that's the truth. (Kenneth) Faried is coming off his rookie year. JaVale (McGee, the 24-year-old center) is just starting out. Gallo is really young.'' He was referring to 24-year-old Danilo Gallinari, who arrived two seasons ago in the trade for Carmelo Anthony that set this team onto its promising new path. Ujiri's stream of examples led him to Kosta Koufos, the center who had been playing better than expected in preseason. "People are talking about how Koufos has improved,'' Ujiri said. "But Koufos is only 23.''
He was not trying to be negative, but realistic. The Nuggets have generated hope for a breakthrough year because the West -- apart from the heavily favored Lakers and Thunder -- appears to be in transition, and Denver's roster is loaded with young athletes with the athleticism and drive to thrive in coach George Karl's up-tempo offense. There isn't a clunker on the roster. "We have to get players that run, that are athletic and obviously that are willing to be coached,'' said Ujiri of the approach that he and owner Josh Kroenke have taken since Anthony forced them to trade him to the Knicks. And yet, for all of the Nuggets' inherent explosiveness, the final score Wednesday made it appear as if they walked it up the floor Opening Night.
In fact, they were playing too fast and too hard. These opening weeks on the road, combined with the leadership of 36-year-old point guard Andre Miller and Iguodala, the versatile All-Star who won an Olympic gold medal this summer, are going to provide the Nuggets with a boot camp during which they'll learn to manage their energy and put it to good use. Ujiri found himself recalling the day this summer when the trade for Iguodala was consummated. Ujiri happened to be in London that day. He was staying in the same hotel as the U.S. Olympic team when Iguodala knocked on the door to meet his new GM. "He was very excited,'' said Ujiri. "He said that he had been working out with Melo, and they were talking, and that Melo had told him, `You're a George Karl-type player.'''
Anthony, a traditional superstar, was not of that type. Iguodala, who defends on the wing and doesn't necessarily need to score, is suited for what the Nuggets are trying to build through the coaching of Karl. But it was going to take time for the parts to mature. It wasn't meant to happen on opening night in Philadelphia ... which was not to dismiss the possibility that it could happen Friday in the next game at Orlando. Ujiri was making plans to meet the team there. As much as he was preaching realistic goals, he remained, at heart, as hopeful as anybody.