Are George Karl's Denver Nuggets for Real?
Zach Lowe [ARCHIVE]
February 12, 2013
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George Karl saw his team's crazy early-season schedule, with 17 of their first 23 games on the road, and settled on a goal: Be two or three games over .500 on January 1. Then, when that road-heavy slog is over, go nuts and reach 40 wins by March 1.

The season has unfolded almost exactly as Karl envisioned. The Nuggets were 17-15 at the end of December, and after blitzing to a 9-1 mark in their last 10 games, they could still hit Karl's 40-win target by sweeping their next seven games. "We just blew up in January," Karl says. That seven-game sweep is unlikely, since five of seven come on the road, but that's the point: Are the Nuggets, at 33-19 and with a .500 or better record against every other Western Conference power, a real title contender? Or are they a very good team that can only beat top competition consistently when the circumstances — home-court advantage, fast-break mania — flip in their favor?

Whether they can beat two of the Thunder-Spurs-Clippers trio in the playoffs depends on two huge questions, notwithstanding the possibility that Denver uses its bevy of midpriced assets to swing a major trade. Rival executives say Denver is projecting calm ahead of the deadline, and the vibe coming from there since the summer has been one of satisfaction with incremental progress and patience with this young core — in part because the team does not want to add much to its current payroll, according to GM Masai Ujiri. Those two questions:

1. Can Denver get its half-court efficiency closer to its transition efficiency? The Nuggets rank sixth overall in points per possession, but no team gets a larger share of its offense from fast breaks, per Synergy Sports.The notion that those run-outs will evaporate in the playoffs isn't quite right; Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are still exhausted from trailing Denver fast breaks in last season's first round. But they're not as easy to come by when teams are focused on higher stakes, and Denver's offense mostly ranks average or worse when you isolate half-court play types — pick-and-rolls, cuts, spot-up chances, etc.

That so-so half-court efficiency gets at the most popular talking point surrounding Denver: They don't have a superstar whom they can give the ball in crunch time and count on to either create a decent look or draw a double-team. That may be a problem against dialed-in defenses, but this season the Nuggets have actually been solid offensively in crunch time, per NBA.com's stats database.

2. Can the Nuggets build a top-10 defense? They're 13th in points allowed per possession, and their work on that side of the ball was the primary reason — along with the related issue of an unreliable three-man big rotation — I didn't buy Denver as a real contender at the start of the season. And while the "go-to guy" thing is the sexier talking point, Denver's so-so defense is the larger issue.

The offense and defense questions are intertwined, especially when it comes to Denver's shoddy work on the defensive glass. Denver ranks just 23rd in defensive rebounding rate, a problem that gets at a key tradeoff the Nuggets try to balance: Their rebounding issues are linked to their tendency to leak out for fast-break chances before a Nugget has secured the ball, a blatantly irresponsible thing for traditional teams. But Denver, given its blah half-court offense, may need those fast-break chances in order to survive.

Denver also needs turnovers to fuel its transition attack, and more than perhaps any team save the Grizzlies, it is willing to gamble in order to snare them. Those gambles come with a cost: Teams are lighting up the Nuggets on spot-up opportunities, both 3-pointers and drives. Denver has allowed the most 3-point attempts in the league overall, and the second-most from the corners — about 7.9 per game. Its high pace of play explains part of that, but only a small part. And all those offensive rebounds naturally lead to kickouts and open 3s. Denver is 29th, ahead of only the pitiful Bobcats, in points allowed per opposing spot-up chance, according to Synergy Sports.

What's going on here?

First: Denver's pick-and-roll defense is very shaky. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried are below-average defenders, which is why Karl has been hesitant at times to play them together; Denver is about plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions overall, but minus-4.2 so far when that pair shares the floor; the decline is drastic on both ends. "The numbers are telling the truth on those two," he says. "It's not a great defensive lineup. It's not a good offensive lineup, either." Kosta Koufos has been Denver's steadiest big-man defender, and Karl says Koufos also has a better understanding of how to space the floor on offense.

Faried and McGee are jumpy and unsteady on their feet, and they have trouble containing point guards on the pick-and-roll. Faried has a tendency to stand up straight, with his arms at his sides, and that makes it easy for point guards to hit the roll man on pocket passes, as Nate Robinson does here:

And once that roll man has the ball in the paint, help has to come from the perimeter.

But it's not just Denver's big guys. Denver's perimeter defenders have trouble directing opposing point guards toward the sideline on pick-and-rolls. Even when Denver tries to execute correctly, opposing point guards can use screens to get into the middle of the floor, turn the corner, attack the paint, and draw help. Denver thus allows a ton of open 3s that look like this play, on which George Hill gets to the middle and kicks to Paul George.

Denver has to send crisis help like this more often than most good defensive teams, and Denver compounds things by helping in an ultra-aggressive manner that creates more leaks if it fails. Denver's players, hunting for turnovers, have greater freedom to go for steals in the paint and lunge into passing lanes on kickout passes instead of simply closing out shooters. Look at Professor Miller lingering on Chuck Hayes at the elbow, even though Hayes is in no position to do anything dangerous:

Again: Some of this is by design. Ditto for Denver's rampant switching, a tactic they lean on even more when Professor Miller and his slow feet enter the game. Karl wants to re-create the glory days of his mid-1990s Seattle teams, which reinvented NBA defense by attacking offenses in unconventional ways. Gambling and switching are part of that, and Karl promises to do more switching as the season goes on. He's even asked Iguodala and Miller about playing Julyan Stone, a long-armed and very tall guard, in key late-game defensive situations, and both have been receptive, he says. The goal is to create a lineup with as many athletic, similarly sized players as possible — a lineup that can switch like mad, chase steals, and cover for gambles. "When we are switching...
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