With JaVale McGee's rebirth in Denver - and I don't think that's too strong an adjective to use - it seems that the Nuggets may be looking at their best true center (with all due respect to Nene) since perhaps the legendary Dikembe Mutombo.
In his first-ever playoff series, McGee showed brilliance in the critical Game 3 and Game 5 tilts against the Los Angeles Lakers. He played solid defense against Andrew Bynum, controlled the glass (29 rebounds total in those two games) and was very efficient from the floor, shooting 17-24 from the field. How is it, then, with such a dominant performance against one of the best frontcourts in the NBA, that rumors continue to swirl that McGee might not be the starting center this coming season?
In a word: chemistry.
Of the Nuggets' options at center - Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, McGee and, yes, Anthony Randolph - McGee has shown that he clicks best with Andre Miller, lob passer extraordinaire. 'Dre, of course, plays backup to Ty Lawson, and so it seems that pairing McGee with Miller off the bench is the Nuggets' preferred option. At times, Lawson still seems to not know how or when to look for McGee on the court, and I've witnessed some questionable body language from McGee after Ty continues to bypass him for other scoring options. Despite this, I feel that McGee has shown a mental resilience in Denver that he had not displayed in his time with the Wizards. The slumped shoulders and head-shaking of McGee disappeared quickly on those possessions where he was not a factor.
Something about keeping McGee out of the starting lineup when he's clearly earned it, however, rubs me the wrong way. Let's be clear: McGee is far-and-away the best offensive center on the roster, but defensively McGee is on-par with Koufos and Mozgov, when using the ORTG and DRTG metrics. Karl has stated that, "It's all about how many minutes you play, who you play with, how well you play and how well we play (when you're on the court)." McGee himself has said that, "My only preference is to be able to help my team win."
While I would agree that the chemistry between Lawson and McGee is not the same as it currently exists between Miller and McGee, but the only way for that relationship to be developed is to play Lawson and McGee together. How else are they going to get on the same page now and in the future, particularly as the organization appears to increasingly look at Lawson and McGee as the cornerstones of the franchise? If Karl continues to avoid or limit the shared court-time of Ty and McGee, what happens when 'Dre retires or (knock on wood) gets hurt?
There are arguments to be made for playing Kouf or Moz in the starting lineup, as well. Both Koufos and Mozgov have shown that they can run with Ty, and are solid defensive presences in their own right. Keeping Andre and McGee paired, and coming off the bench, allows for a change of pace at both the point and center positions, slowing the game down while still giving the Nuggets transition opportunities with Miller's deadly lobs. McGee also covers up Miller's cement shoes on defense, patrolling the paint and forcing opponents to adjust their attacks at the rim with his shot blocking ability.
This is a nice problem to finally have, isn't it?
The Nuggets have three quality seven footers, who could start for a few NBA teams, and our problem is figuring out who goes first. I'm of the opinion that the Nuggets need to give Lawson a few minutes each game working with McGee, even if McGee does not start, to help cultivate that ever-important chemistry. I also think that JaVale has earned the starting job, chemistry be damned, but can recognize that he's probably more effective coming off the bench with 'Dre - for now.
Playing Ty alongside McGee provides an unparalleled mix of speed, size and athleticism that allows them to run opposing defenses ragged, but there must also be some plays drawn up (uh-oh) that allow them to fully utilize the others' strengths. Back picks, down screens, drive-and-dishes, high pick and rolls - if the brain trust of the Nuggets can get these guys playing together at a high level, they truly have a two headed monster, to say nothing of Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari lurking on the wings.
Training camp and the preseason (starting this Saturday!) should give us a much clearer insight into the Nuggets' reasoning behind whomever gets that starting role. If McGee can break out those new Olajuwon post moves he learned over the summer and show that he can be effective alongside Ty, I see no reason why he should not be the starter, but some of my fellow awesome Stiffs writers disagree. Time will tell.
The best part is, we won't have to wait very long to know.