By Rob Mahoney
The Nuggets aren't just a team built to win, they're built to overwhelm. Collective speed gives Denver a chance to run its opponents off the floor. Incredible depth (coupled with a unique home-court advantage at Denver's elevation) pushes foes to their breaking point. Versatile offensive talent is arranged to provide a scoring deluge and compensate for the Nuggets' defensive shortcomings. Denver has the potential to be a regular-season juggernaut, if nothing else, and dominate through the consistent application of George Karl's strategic ideals.
Yet after three games, the divide between the Nuggets' actual and theoretical performance could not be more vast. Denver is still positioned to have a successful season, but its 0-3 start is largely attributable to its failures to score consistently. That's a bit shocking, to say the least; with much of last year's core returning to execute a similar gameplan and the addition of do-it-all wing Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets were set to extend the potency of their breathtaking offense. But after losses to the Heat, Magic and Andrew Bynum-less Sixers, Denver concluded the first week of the season ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency. Denver is scoring a full 10 points fewer per 100 possessions than it did a year ago, and the blame falls solely on the Nuggets players themselves. This is their own doing, largely because this team bears so little playmaking resemblance to the one that earned the West's fifth seed in 2011-12.
Assists are hardly the most conclusive measure of an offense's performance, but, for the Nuggets, they're a tell-all. Denver's roster was constructed as something of a superstar alternative; rather than lean on one single player to create the bulk of a team's offense through scoring, passing or drawing double teams, the Nuggets were structured to lean on a number of solid creators relatively equally. It's a wonderful model given how difficult it is to acquire one of those top offensive talents, and it has produced impressive results. The open court has been kind to the Nuggets, and it has afforded them the platform to share the ball, stretch their legs and create those instances of one-on-one advantage that are so crucial to efficient scoring. But once those initial attempts on the break are rebuffed, this year's team tends to fall into a distressing pattern of overextension. Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala are all very much guilty of trying to do far too much, and in the process have taken most of the rhythm out of Denver's snappy offense.
According to NBA.com, the Nuggets have thus far racked up fewer assists per 100 possessions than all but four teams -- an incomprehensible drop given that they ranked second in the league in that same measure last season. The kinetic power of Denver's offense is glaringly absent, and Lawson, Gallinari and Iguodala have attempted to fill the void with forced play action and over-aggressive drives. One can't help but applaud the effort of that trio, but in ignoring their individual limitations, those three have taken away some of the best looks that the Nuggets' offense can create.
A bird's-eye view of Denver's shot chart may not reveal a drastic difference from last year in terms of shot creation and selection, but the quality of those shots has certainly changed. The Nuggets are converting their three-point attempts at a miserable rate (.246) because of how many contested looks they wind up taking. Opponents are blocking 7.3 of Denver's shot attempts in the restricted area per game this season (up from 5.1 last year) because out-of-control drivers have ignored the potential of the extra pass. The Nuggets have dropped to dead last in free-throw rate after getting so much mileage out of the charity stripe a season ago, in part because players like Kenneth Faried aren't making deep catches and forcing opponents to foul. Well-intentioned over-dribbling has made the Nuggets common and predictable, even though their collective talent makes them anything but.
If Lawson, Gallinari or Iguodala insist on imposing their way to superstardom, Denver's offense will struggle. But if all can concede to the system and some collective utility, then these Nuggets shouldn't be long for such doldrums.
A few parting thoughts on where Denver stands offensively:
• Although "run and gun" makes for such an easy rhyme, Denver's reserves are proving that one doesn't always go with the other. Perimeter shooting is a pretty glaring problem once Gallinari and Lawson are taken off the floor, and though Andre Miller is able to keep the Nuggets' athletic wings up to pace, many of Denver's lineups don't have the kind of outside threats to allow for efficient scoring. It's often overlooked given the total potential of their offense, but the Nuggets will rely on a rotation full of iffy three-point shooters this season, and will need Wilson Chandler and/or Corey Brewer to make an Iguodala-like jump in three-point percentage if they want to play to that style.
• On a related note: This team still has absolutely no idea what to do with Wilson Chandler. In his 36 games as a Nugget, Chandler has been far more valuable in the abstract than on the court; he's often listed on Denver's laundry list of talented wings, as if no one has noticed his horrendous play since being traded from the Knicks back in early 2011. There are a number of mitigating factors (mid-season trade, the lockout season, mid-season arrival after playing in China) that offer Chandler the benefit of the doubt, but his early-season usage doesn't suggest much of a hardened gameplan. Chandler is one of those odd in-between players that requires a bit more attention than one might initially think, and until the Nuggets find a more specific use for his talents, he'll continue to drift toward rotational irrelevance.
• Gallinari may not have his offensive game calibrated correctly, but those wild drives to the rim have provided one specific advantage: free-throw attempts. While Denver struggles on the whole to mimic its foul-drawing performance of seasons past, Gallinari is thus far averaging 11.5 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. That almost validates his 25.8 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from three and, if nothing else, at least indicates that Gallo seems to have some understanding of his perimeter-shooting struggles.
• Kenneth Faried's early-season shooting* has been a pleasant surprise (he's shooting 52 percent on jumpers), and should give the Nuggets a valuable outlet once the rest of their offense settles down. Faried's not doing anything fancy, but his ability to flare out of the lane -- usually along the baseline -- for a mid-range jumper really does help space the floor for Denver's other range-less bigs.
*Consider this your necessary disclaimer about small sample size. Faried doesn't exactly pile up attempts as it is, and obviously gets many more attempts at the rim than anywhere else.
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
• Jerryd Bayless has had a rough scoring start to his tenure with the Grizzlies, but managed some unusual success as a passer. Through his first two games with the Grizz, Bayless is averaging almost 10 assists per 36 minutes -- a big jump relative to both last season's mark (6.0) and his career average (5.5). This could very well wind up as a two-game quirk, but keep in mind that Bayless has never before had the chance to play alongside this much offensive talent. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay provide consistent offensive targets, and should validate much of Bayless' drive-and-dish work with converted jumpers and finishes at the rim. That may not be enough to sustain his current mark, but it does position him for a new per-minute career high.
• Qualified players who have yet to commit a turnover: Jason Thompson (85 minutes), Roger Mason (64 minutes), DeShawn Stevenson (63 minutes) and Rashard Lewis (54 minutes). Jamal Crawford gets an honorable mention for posting a career-low turnover rate (3.5 percent) and a career-high usage rate (26.8 percent) in three games for the Clippers.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Jeff Teague in flight
The early-season Hawks have been an absolute treat; unburdened of Joe Johnson's shot creation, an incredibly athletic squad is in gear to initiate fast breaks quickly and finish them expertly. Jeff Teague has been terrific in both efforts, but today I come to praise neither his production nor helpful deference, but his explosive highlight potential. As Ben Golliver highlighted over the weekend, Teague's most jaw-dropping play yet came on a sequence that wouldn't officially register as a shot attempt:
2. Rashard Lewis, an NBA player once again
The Heat's decision to sign assumed-washup Rashard Lewis was met with both skepticism and curiosity; though a role as an open spot-up shooter seemed perfectly suited for Lewis at this stage in his career, his body of work over the last three seasons gave ample reason to doubt his ability to produce for any team going forward.
Yet here Lewis is, quietly providing valuable minutes and accurate perimeter shooting (he's converted 5-of-8 attempts so far) for a Heat team that needs both. It's very early yet, but so far Lewis is providing enough shooting and rebounding to make him a preferable rotation alternative to both Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, and he's doing just enough on defense to avoid being a problem for Miami's rotations.
3. The balance of the Celtics' reserve backcourt
Coaches across the league are still working out the quirks of their rotations, but one element to keep an eye on is the allocation of ball-handling responsibility in Boston. Rajon Rondo will obviously be controlling the offense whenever he's on the floor, but the Celtics' reserve options are substantially less declarative. For the moment, Doc Rivers seems to be letting both Leandro Barbosa and Jason Terry take turns as de facto point guard, though I'm not sure the playmaking skill there is equivalent; I have a sneaking suspicion that Terry will assume more and more ball-handling responsibility for the Celtics' second unit as the season churns on. But it will also be fascinating to see how Avery Bradley's eventual return -- and Courtney Lee's possible move to the bench -- might impact the role distribution among Boston's subs.
4. Serge Ibaka, improving on the perimeter
A rim-protecting big man is a valuable commodity in the NBA, but a rim-protecting big man capable of handling himself on the perimeter in a crunch is the pro basketball equivalent of the holy grail. Ibaka still has a long way to go before his rotational speed and instincts are really up to snuff, but it's good to see him handling switches on the perimeter with a bit more balance. Over the last few seasons, Ibaka's block-chasing made him one of the easiest bigs in the league to lose with a pump fake. Yet in a few select situations so far this season, Ibaka is staying grounded when guarding perimeter types, and using his length and height as an effective deterrent.
5. The Brooklyn Knight
After further reflection, I'm actually impressed with just how ridiculous a mascot the Nets and Marvel Comics were able to concoct:
I also can't wait to see this guy in action in his first mascot basketball game. All-Star weekend can't come soon enough!
6. Jeremy Lin's next step
Jeremy Lin and James Harden have a fun, out-of-the-box chemistry going in Houston, and provide a consistent pressure on opposing defenses with their alternating drives. But while Harden generally excels at finishing with contact, Lin struggles; the Rockets point guard does a splendid job of twisting and sneaking through the heart of opposing defenses, but tends to leave his contested attempts just a bit short.
This, ultimately, is a good problem to have. Lin fights toward the rim relentlessly, and though he's only converted 49.4 percent of his attempts from the restricted area so far this season, he's positioning himself to rack up free-throw attempts and potentially improve on those finishes down the line. He may never be a finisher of Harden's caliber in those situations, but Lin has a proven creativity in his drives to the hoop and the ability to generate shots deep in the paint. All that remains is the added benefit of repetition, and a little quirk or two in Lin's driving game could provide more consistent makes.
7. Golden State finds a silver lining
Andrew Bogut may not be playing like his usual self just yet, but the Warriors do have an interesting prospect waiting in the wings with Festus Ezeli. The 6-foot-11 rookie looks to have the makings of a fine interior defender; already he does a lot of early work to nudge his man out of the post, and impressed with his poise while defending an elite opponent in Blake Griffin. On-ball post defense is a rare calling card for first-year players, but Ezeli may be a useful spot defender for opponents with more conventional back-to-the-basket threats. Team defense is a different story; though Ezeli seems to have a fairly good feel of where to be, he's sagging a bit too far back in pick-and-roll coverage to provide the Warriors any Bogut-like value in that regard.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Marcus Morris didn't show all that much of their potential last season, though for very different reasons. Aminu, for his part, seemed to lack a specific use within an NBA offense; he had a few randomly distributed skills, but no consistent way in which to implement them outside of the occasional fast break or broken play. Morris, in his rookie minutes, tried to do far too much. He forced a lot of shot attempts on fadeaways and leaners, and overshot his way to inefficiency. Yet both have looked to be very much in control during the first week of NBA action, and seem to be decent fixtures in their respective teams' long-term rotations. Aminu hasn't completely rectified his tendency to float within the offense, but has done an outstanding job of using his athleticism to his advantage as a cutter. Morris has accomplished a very different goal through similar means; by deferring to the playmaking of Lin and Harden and moving more without the ball, Morris has put together some unexpectedly productive games.