After many requests from fellow Denver Stiffs readers (mostly SDcat), I find myself finally caving in to the suggestion that I create a Denver Stiffs "Column of Doom." Now before we get started, be aware that this is only a place where darkest of souls thrive. Where the happy are obliterated with pessimistic daggers carved of scrutiny and brashness. Once you read the "Column of Doom," you will never be the same. It will take your heart, pull it straight through your chest and suck on the dripping blood like a Boulder frat boy sucks on a keg-stand at Initiation. In basketball terms it's not a place for those who think a 6-6 record is a sign of great things to come. In the "Column of Doom" 6-6 is just as good as being in the lottery. So, if you think you can handle the eerie road that lies ahead, please be my guest. If not, I advise you to turn around now, and avoid being eaten alive by my lucid analysis of what the Nuggets season means thus far.
Ok, so for those who continued reading, welcome to the underworld. It's pretty dark, not too much lighting except for the fire that burns the souls of those not worthy, but other than that it's kind of cozy. Similar to Dante's Inferno (and Alcoholics Anonymous), the "Column of Doom" will be chronicled in stages. The first stage, where we begin our journey, is that of pure analysis. So for those making the scenic plunge into the depths of "The Column" for the first time, no need to worry. We'll take it easy on you for a while.
I first want to start off by looking at last night's game against Portland, then we can kind of go from there on where the Nuggets season might be going by looking at a few things including how it's went so far. I used this sort of process to determine how well the Nuggets would be doing by Dec .15 when free agents who signed this past summer become available through trades in my "Winter of our discontent" column I did recently (which I don't think anybody got the title of) and it didn't seem to work that great. But I'm holding out hope this one might be a little more accurate. And yes, we do have hope in the underworld; though most of the time it's hoping that Satan doesn't assign us to Hitler duty, but that's a whole-nother story.
Alright, so last night's game in Portland was kind of a microcosm of what the Denver Nuggets' season has been up to this point in time. We started off great, even jumping out to an early lead and finished the quarter off on a 17-0 run. Things couldn't have gone any better, on the road, against Portland; traditionally one of the league's best home teams. This was very similar to how the first game of the season played out when we stomped Utah on our home floor to open up the 2010-11 campaign. Basically you couldn't have asked for any more. Sadly, the Blazers responded by going on a 13-2 run of their own to start the second, which eliminated most of the hard work we did to gain the initial lead in the first quarter. This was very similar to the New Orleans loss on the road in the second game of the season following that great win against the Jazz, because just when you thought things were going to go our way, they took a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Still we bounced back, equivalent to the win on the road at Houston, and both teams finished close to end the first half, equalling the Dallas loss and conversely Clipper win since we did finish the half with the lead. To start the third quarter we came out on a small run, which symbolized the win at Dallas, but that was the last point we'd ever really be in it as we looked like a defeated team by the mid-part of the third quarter. It's no news to those who watched the game how it ended, which was very similar to the way the last six games of our schedule have: in losing manner. In those games we're 2-4, and have looked almost unwatchable in the last three.
Maybe the most shocking part about last night's game was the way in which we lost. Heading into the fourth quarter we were actually ahead by two points, 71-69. Then, like we've done so well the past few games, we began to melt down when it really counted. We began jacking-up wild three's with plenty of time left on the shot clock, committed more turnovers than points at one point in time, went four and a half minutes without scoring a bucket (in which George Karl didn't call a timeout), played horrific defense, allowed Portland to snag one offensive rebound after another, had our only 24 second shot clock violation of the entire game, and yet, in the midst of all this were still only down by seven points with three minutes left to play. We all know that we went on to lose the game, but considering how bad we had played, being down by seven points with three minutes to go should have been a wake-up call. Instead, we hit the snooze for another two minutes and in doing so handed the game to Portland on a silver platter.
For those with occupying the idea that Portland played a tough game and was really the better team last night, think again. Other than out-rebounding us by a large margin they still shot 40% from the floor, 50% from the line, had the same numbers of assists and steals as we did and scored only 17 points in the fourth quarter. In terms of turnovers, if it weren't for the ghastly eight we committed in the final quarter alone, we would have actually had less than they did the entire game. So, no we didn't lose this game in Portland, we gave it to them when we decided 12 points and eight turnovers was enough to get it done in crunch time. Lats night's game wasn't just another loss. It was a gift-wrapped early Christmas present from George Karl to his oh-so favorite player and now coach of the Portland Trailblazers, Nate McMillan. It was 83 measly points we put up, then said "Hey, if you can outscore that, you can have the win!" 83 points is Minnesota Timberwolves basketball, not Denver Nuggets basketball. 83 points, with the type of firepower we have, is something else than just a bad game: it's a sign of things to come.
What 83 points reminds me of is a George Karl coached team anywhere from late 2006 to early 2008, prior to Chauncey Billups arrival in Denver. It's a team with too much talent to be playing the type of basketball we have been lately. Remember when Andrew began his rise to stardom in the Denver area by starting the website firegeorgekarl.com? Does anybody remember why he did that? For those who don't, let me remind you. It was largely because we were an underachieving, sloppy, misguided and disinterested team that played a brand of basketball that was nothing short of laughable to the rest of the league. The big problem was, we had as much talent as any team in the NBA, yet continuously squeaked into the playoffs each year (sometimes even on the very last game of the season) to then get humiliated and have at least one player blow up during the series. "Why am I suddenly reminded of this, after three years have passed?" you might ask. Well, if it weren't for the way we have been playing this year that is soooooo eerily similar to those "streetball" days of the latter part of the previous decade, I would have likely erased them from my memory. But you see, the memory is a funny thing. Because like a mentally damaged war veteran who's been at home for several years, when you suddenly hears gunshots and screaming coming from the TV, things just start to come back to you whether you like it or not.
Think back to when Chauncey first arrived. After years of laying there, dying on our death-bed, we finally got the cure to our disease we had long been waiting for. He came in, and immediately transformed our culture. No longer did we ever play disinterested, and lackadaisical. Instead, Chauncey was calling out plays every time he went down the floor. He was coaching JR after timeouts in one of his best years as a pro. He was always on the sidelines educating everyone on what they needed to do better, and how they could help the team in certain ways. We forget that when Chauncey first arrived, he was the one who was coaching, not George Karl. It was because of this, we finally realized our true potential as a team and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals only to see the Lakers beat us because of a bad inbounds play, and what I felt was a clear display of a superiority complex, which was a direct reflection of George Karl. The thing we have been most quick to forget is what happened just one year later. It was only just one year after that historic Western Confrence Finals appearance that Chauncey couldn't quite continue his work as a coach and as a player, and once again, we fell into our old habits of losing in the first round to inferior teams.
To me, the "Chauncey Billups Effect" is finally wearing off. We're once again seeing what it's like to be on a George Karl coached team these days. I do admit that the FIBA World Championships play a large part in Chauncey's performance this year, but it doesn't excuse the way Nene has been playing, or JR's recent induction into the Doghouse, or the lack of playing time Shelden has received despite how depleted our front-court is, or the overall underachieving nature of this team in so many ways I can't even name them all. People say it's early, and that once K-Mart and Birdman get back we'll be a different team; and while I do agree with that to some extent, it doesn't excuse how we're playing at the moment. Just because you're injured doesn't mean you have the right to go out there and lose games you should win. The Lakers don't lose games because Bynum is out, the Jazz don't lose games because Okur is out, the Thunder don't lose games because Jeff Green is out, the Blazers (as we are well aware) don't lose games because Roy and half of their startling lineup is out. But for some reason or another, it's totally ok for the Nuggets to lose games because of injuries.
We look at this season and think, with all that's going on, once we get fully healthy we'll be able to do some damage come playoff time. But what we fail to do when we make that presumption, is acknowledge that we're no longer in 2008/2009. Two years have gone by since that Western Confrence Finals appearance and since then Birdman and K-Mart have had significant injuries to their knees, Chauncey has played in a FIBA World Championship, Melo has basically demanded a trade, JR has been introduced to the far corners of the Doghouse for the first time in his career and everyone has grown older several years older. Since then every other team in the West has made significant changes as well. The Lakers are back to back World Champions, coming off a game seven victory over the Boston Celtics, the Spurs, Jazz, Blazers, Thunder, Hornets and Mavericks have all re-tooled drastically in order to improve their chances at dethroning the Lakers. Don't you think those teams feel they have just as good of a chance as we do at making the Finals? Don't you think, that if we were truly better than them, our record would show it after 12 games into the season? Don't you think, that if we were really that championship caliber team we've been so excited about seeing since that run to the Western Conference Finals, that we'd be beating teams like the Pacers, Suns, Blazers and Bulls? Don't you think we might be a little better than 6-6? That's all I'm asking.
To continue with the questioning, at some point in time you have to ask yourself when K-Mart and career role player Chris "Birdman" Andersen get back, how much better will we really be? We're not talking about Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, or maybe missing a player the caliber of say, Kevin Garnett even. We're talking about Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen. At some point that has to register in our heads.
Being the die-hard Nugget fan that I am, I will continue to watch this team every possible chance that I get, no matter what the circumstance. Just because I feel that this team isn't the same team of 2009 doesn't' mean I won't be rooting hard for them to win every single night they step on the floor. I hope you will join me. All I'm asking is that you accept this team for who it is, not for who it was two years ago. Right now we have the biggest shift in franchise history hovering over our heads and any given moment, we have a coach who spends more time with his head in his hands that he does actually coaching and a new front office that has to decide whether or not to trade Carmelo Anthony by mid-February or keep him at the risk of losing him for nothing. We're 6-6, and although we do have what should be a helpful bunch of games at home upcoming, we also have the constant growing notion that the Melo Drama might actually be getting worse and affecting the team chemistry which could lead to a potential disaster. Though I do not believe this will happen, we do need to acknowledge this as a possibility, not push it under the rug and act as if everything is fine. It clearly isn't, something is not the same with this team as has been during the Chauncey Era of Denver Basketball. Though nobody seems to be able to put a finger on it - it might be a variety of things - it's important that we keep based in reality. We're the 2010/2011 Denver Nuggets; a team off to a shaky start with a copious amount of potential problems down the road. We are a .500 ball club as currently constructed.
Though things may change in the future, and we can continue to pray that they do, lets not lose sight of what we are, right now.