The Fundamentals: Nuggets challenging the conventional contender wisdom
By Rob Mahoney
Even after 15 consecutive victories, the Nuggets -- and their playoff prospects -- remain drenched in public skepticism. No team is easier to write off with tired platitudes, and thus every conversation regarding Denver's merit inevitably comes to address the ways in which the team fails to line up with the playoff standard.
That separation from the traditional contender mold is undeniable. Since trading Carmelo Anthony two seasons ago, the Nuggets have evolved along a track that fully differentiates them from the rest of the league to the point that playing against Denver is a challenge unlike any other in the NBA. The fruits of their ingenuity and insistent efforts have slotted the Nuggets as the third seed in the Western Conference, and better yet: a possible, improbable fringe championship contender.
Let's consider the most common, general criticisms of the Nuggets and their style before dismissing them out of hand. First and foremost is the lack of a superstar player, much less the two or three stars traditionally considered requisite for contention. The Nuggets have no all-world dynamo in the vein of LeBron James or Chris Paul, and nothing even remotely close. Even Denver's best players are borderline All-Stars lacking a skill set even vaguely reminiscent of those who have led their teams to championships. This is reason enough for some to disregard Denver as a regular-season wonder, and it's hard to argue against the empirical precedent of star-driven teams. (Ninety-two percent of the champions from 1956 through 2005 had a recent All-NBA first-team selection, according to 82games.com.)
Yet most of what a superstar provides for a contender can be boiled down to an economy of function. It's convenient to have a vast collection of those necessary skills and attributes distilled into one player, but a superstar is only as necessary as those underlying qualities afforded. Typically, chief among those traits is the capacity to create efficient offense -- something of a superstar hallmark in today's NBA. It's no longer sufficient for a star to pile up points, as it's all the more crucial that he does so without the ill-advised attempts or raw shooting volume that might offset the impact of his scoring. True offensive anchors are able to maximize their points per shot attempt, typically by getting to the basket, scoring from beyond the arc and getting to the free-throw line.
Denver is successful in two of those ways despite the lack of a standout star -- so much so that it ranks fourth in the NBA in points per possession.
The Nuggets' offense can be defined by its insistence on getting to the rim. Every player in the lineup works in concert to advance the ball closer to the basket on a second-by-second basis. The bulk of that work is accomplished by pushing the pace with unbelievable abandon -- an effort that results in all kinds of looks around the basket as the Nuggets overwhelm flat-footed opponents in the open court. Denver has a great understanding of how much it can give up in the way of defensive rebounding in order to jump-start its fast break, with Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala quickly topping the ranks of the NBA's premier leak-out scorers. Further, point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller waste precious little time dawdling in the transition between defense and offense, consistently challenging opponents to keep pace.
When things slow down, coach George Karl has remedied Denver's spacing and shot-creating issues in the half court by dialing up the movement and involving the big men in tons of screening action, as Grantland's Zach Lowe illustrated in his breakdown of the Nuggets' offense last week. The Nuggets incorporate so many dribble hand-offs and so much off-ball cutting that their possessions can seem like a desperate scramble, though most every action is a valuable step in bringing the play closer to the rim. That might be easy enough to counter if the Nuggets weren't collectively flying around the court to set screens and cue curls, but no Denver player stands still long enough for opponents to really capitalize on any particular matchup or exploitable area of the court.
Denver just keeps churning, and as a result leads the NBA in shot attempts at the rim. To put it in perspective, here's a look at the Nuggets' attempts in the restricted area during their 15-game streak compared with the rest of the NBA's top 10 in that category over the same stretch:
Every Nuggets game is an all-out assault on the basket (Denver has outscored opponents in the paint in 52 consecutive games), with no regard for the mid-range jumpers that some teams rely on as an inefficient crutch. As a result, Denver also ranks a fantastic fifth in free-throw rate -- an area of performance typically reserved for those teams with stellar individual shot creators. True to form, no Nuggets player averages more than five free throw attempts per game, though virtually every component of Denver's regular rotation manages to get to the line at a respectable clip.
Every player at Karl's disposal can either handle a drive or finish inside, providing a solid skill foundation for a furious fast-breaking team that brings a similar aim and frantic approach to its half-court sets. The end result isn't perfect, as the Nuggets ultimately rate as an above-average half-court offense. But when that slight success is paired with a brutal and relentless transition game, there's reason enough to believe that even a postseason dynamic wouldn't unsettle an offense this potent.
Another one of the most common critiques of the Nuggets' balanced roster is the question of who will take the last shot. It's a good question, but one that's hardly been relevant this season. While Lawson, Iguodala, Miller and Danilo Gallinari have all done their fair share of good work in the clutch, it's Denver's success overall that makes this more or less a moot point for the moment.
According to NBA.com, the Nuggets rate as one of the best offensive teams in the league in clutch* situations by way of their shooting percentages. Only four teams -- the Heat, Clippers, Lakers and Blazers -- have posted a higher effective field-goal percentage in clutch situations than the Nuggets, in part because Denver brings the same aggressive transition drive and flurry of half-court movement to its late-game offense. While other teams get bogged down with simplified isolations, Denver continues to execute its fluid, motion-heavy offense until clock management becomes an unavoidable issue. Not only does that make the Nuggets far less predictable in crunch time than any other team, but it also allows Karl to manipulate matchups by relying on the same screen-heavy actions to instigate beneficial defensive switches. Even without a specific player to go to in end-game situations, Denver creates advantages by continuing to be more aggressive in its playing style.
*Clutch, in this case, is defined as any possession with less than five minutes remaining in which either team is ahead by no more than five points.
Plus, Denver is consistently underrated as a defensive team, in part because it allows 101 points per game (No. 24 in the league) as a result of its fast-paced style. But in assessing per-possession performance rather than the far-too-broad per-game scope, the Nuggets are 11th and have improved a lot over the course of the season.
Quantitative measures aside, though, I don't think we consider enough just how defeating playing against the Nuggets can be. Denver is rivaled only by Miami in exploiting live-ball turnovers and may be the best in converting a defensive rebound into a transition opportunity. Those factors, while seemingly small, can create a mental fatigue that dwarfs even the physical toll of playing against the Nuggets at altitude.
When this team is operating at peak or near-peak levels, its success in transition is so consistent that each missed shot from an opponent seems as though it will result in a Denver dunk. Every pass is an opportunity for a turnover that would surely result in Nuggets points. Every opponent's deep drive into the paint is a voluntary surrender of good defensive positioning against a transition chance. As Denver works through every possession at a dead sprint, doubt and hesitation begin to creep into the minds of its opponents, which only pulls them further and further into the Nuggets' trap.
The general trends of playoff basketball (slower pace in general, time for proper tactics and scouting, lower turnover rates) will make things more difficult, but Denver's style is ultimately wearying for opponents to defend in full-court and half-court situations alike. Neither matching aggression nor offsetting tentativeness is the remedy for the Nuggets' oppressive style, and yet opponents so often fall into a rhythm of trying to play too cautiously or too wildly in their attempt to control the game. In that, the Nuggets' approach -- so often cited as a reason for some inevitable playoff failure -- is an incredible asset, and one that isn't likely to be quelled solely by teams tightening up in a postseason setting.
It's easy to pick out all the things that the Nuggets are not -- an elite defensive team, a traditional star-driven operation, a grind-it-out offense -- and it remains to be seen whether a team this unconventional can apply its style to a certain playoff series. It's not perfect, but this Nuggets team has the kind of nuance in its offense that could more fully make up for the lack of a traditional star, and an altogether more consistent philosophy that breaks down opponents from opening tip until the final minutes.
• While the Nuggets have been able to translate their open-court success into half-court production, not every team -- and certainly not every player -- has managed to conquer that balance. Dallas' Darren Collison remains a rather extreme example of the contrary, as he has come to rely on fast-break scoring opportunities more than any other player in the league.
According to NBA.com, 33.9 percent of Collison's points have come on the fast break, which in itself wouldn't be so disheartening if Collison hadn't also been so underwhelming as a half-court playmaker. Even after four NBA seasons, Collison still lacks the level of spacial recognition necessary to make aggressive drives to the rim and good, cross-court reads, all of which makes him woefully inconsistent when executing against a set defense. Power to Collison for getting a few freebie layups and jumpers per game, but his fast-break reliance -- and the play of the Mavs' point-guard rotation in general -- remains one of the key reasons why Dallas is below .500.
• The Thunder continue to debunk the common thinking that quality teams have to take care of the ball. Oklahoma City ranks 29th in turnover rate, with the five-man group of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin and Kendrick Perkins ranking as the highest-turnover high-usage lineup in the league, guilty of giving the ball away on 18.2 percent of its possessions. Most teams would not be able to thrive with so many squandered possessions, but it remains an incredible testament to the Thunder's shot-making ability that they still rank second in points per possession while surrendering so many turnovers and grabbing an average amount of offensive rebounds.
• Offensive rebounds are great, but there's particular value in a player who can collect a board at the rim and immediately convert that action for easy points. It's for that reason that I'm intrigued, strangely enough, by Philadelphia's Spencer Hawes and Sacramento's Jason Thompson -- two big men who aren't considered bulk rebounders and won't be found on the offensive rebounding leaderboard, and yet fall in the top 10 in tip-in makes. Hawes, in particular, makes a significantly greater percentage of his put-back tries (65 percent) than any other high-frequency rebounder in the league, while Thompson has essentially matched Tyson Chandler in tip-in buckets despite grabbing more than 100 fewer offensive rebounds than the New York center.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Atlanta's redundant (and successful) backcourt
Hawks coach Larry Drew has spun his roster 'round and 'round in search of successful lineups, to the point of sacrificing stability and consistency for experimentation's sake. (How else to describe his strange love for marginally useful players?) Regardless, Drew has struck improbable gold with the combination of Devin Harris and Jeff Teague, as the Hawks have outscored opponents by an incredible 9.5 points per 100 possessions -- relative to Atlanta's season average of 1.1 -- whenever that pair is on the floor.
There's obvious value in having a pair of ball handlers on the floor, and in that regard Harris makes for a more helpful piece than the alternatives of DeShawn Stevenson, Dahntay Jones, et al. Yet it's genuinely curious why the pairing of Teague and Harris beats opposing starting lineups with such regularity, particularly considering their hardly complementary skill sets.
2. Denver's fine line
The Nuggets had a scare in their 114-104 win over the Thunder last week when Wilson Chandler departed with shoulder injury, but he's rebounded quickly from a joint separation and is listed as probable for Monday's game against New Orleans. As good as Denver is, Chandler's absence was a reminder of how vital depth is to the Nuggets' operation. There's no star to shoulder more of the scoring burden when a player goes down, and no seldom-used reserve who can step into more minutes. Denver is running deep for a reason, and if a player like Chandler were to go down for any significant stretch, it would hurt the team more than most realize. We often associate depth with a capacity to absorb injury, but teams like the Nuggets can ill afford to lose such a productive and versatile player.
3. The most wonderful time of the year
The NBA's own March Madness has begun, as lottery teams find new and exciting ways to make themselves even less competitive and decent players rattle off unsustainable levels of performance. Andray Blatche may be the most infamous example of a flighty player going off on a massively productive spring, but impending free-agent guard Gerald Henderson is making a run at this year's crown, averaging 23.8 points (on 52.8 percent shooting), 4.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists for the Bobcats over the last nine games. Henderson is a fine player, but this is a classic example of the kind of nuttiness that typically defines the league's lottery teams around this time every year. Enjoy it, and don't get swept away.
4. Only Charlotte ...
Speaking of the Bobcats, leave it to Charlotte to surrender a season-high 15 points to Miami's Norris Cole -- who is likely the worst rotation player in the NBA -- on Sunday. Virtually all of those points came in an already-decided fourth quarter, but it takes special circumstances (optimal wind conditions, certain alignment of the planets and stars, a matchup against the hands-down worst team in the league) for Cole to have that kind of showing.
5. Now stepping out of Rick Carlisle's doghouse: Brandan Wright
Mavericks coach Carlisle has never been all that predictable with his rotations, but he's proved particularly hook-happy with his young players this season. Collison has been a frequent victim, as was Rodrigue Beaubois before his injury. But Carlisle's treatment of Wright has been especially curious, given the limitations of the Mavs' other options at center alongside Dirk Nowitzki.
Wright is a PER darling, but enough of a liability on defense to justifiably draw Carlisle's ire. That makes him a weird fit with Nowitzki, but one whose production helps to offset some of his limitations. Even without a go-to move, a back-to-the-basket game or the benefit of capable playmakers, Wright has averaged 17.1 points per 36 minutes on a tidy 61 percent shooting from the field -- numbers that have helped boost Dallas' fast-paced offense, even if Wright can't patch up the Mavs' porous back-line defense.
And after a few months of cycling between decent minutes and scarce playing time for the fifth-year big man, Carlisle has finally thrown Wright into the starting lineup over the last two games to good effect. Wright was far more successful against Boston last week (23 points, eight rebounds) than he was against Utah (seven points, four rebounds) on Sunday, but that's to be expected with a situational, unseasoned talent like Wright. Yet at this point, committing to Wright is Carlisle's most sensible play; Elton Brand and Chris Kaman figure to sign elsewhere in free agency after a haphazard season in Dallas, but Wright remains one of the few pieces on the roster that could conceivably be re-signed.
6. Utah's downward spiral
A quick word of acknowledgement for the Jazz, who have just done their damnedest to ensure that the Lakers make the playoffs. Injuries and bad luck have played a part in Utah's implosion, but losses to Dallas and San Antonio over the weekend completed a month-long stretch in which the Jazz won just three of 15 games, every one of them crucial to Utah's dimming postseason hopes. It's all a very charitable effort to prevent the Lakers' season from ending in a disastrous trip to the lottery, but I'm afraid the Jazz's work isn't quite finished. With L.A.'s back-to-back losses to Washington and Phoenix, Utah may have to drop a few extra games down the stretch to preserve a postseason trip for the Lakers.
7. A late entry into the corner-three derby
Shane Battier leads the league in corner threes attempted per game (2.8), but a new challenger has entered the race for that crown. Chase Budinger has missed 59 games for Minnesota, but he returned last Thursday after rehabbing a torn meniscus to provide a much-needed boost to the Wolves' miserable three-point shooting. In the three games since his return, Budinger has already attempted nine corner threes -- making four -- to vault him toward the top of the rankings. It's going to take a lot more concerted work to keep Budinger rolling with that kind of momentum, but parking him in the corner has already done wonders for the Wolves' spacing and given long-range help to a team that ranks last in three-point percentage.
8. The league's best lineups, superstars be damned
Also implicated in the discussion of whether NBA teams need superstars are the Pacers and Grizzlies, two of the best examples of how sound a lineup can be without a single transcendent talent. Both franchises have gone about constructing more balanced lineups as a means of accounting for the lack of a dominant player, but as a result Memphis and Indiana boast the two most effective high-usage lineups this season. Considering the lack of depth on both rosters, this shouldn't be surprising.
The combination of Paul George, David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson has outscored Indiana opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, operating at the level of a top-three offense and a league-best defense. Memphis' new starting five of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince skews a bit more to the defensive side, allowing just 87 points per 100 possessions -- 8.5 points better than Indiana's season average -- and besting opponents by a comparable 13.4 points per 100 possessions. The Heat and Thunder predictably account for the rest of the NBA's top five, but both the Grizzlies and Pacers -- superstar-less though they may be -- figure to fare well in the playoffs when rotations tighten up and their high-powered starting lineups gain maximum advantage. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.