What is a man whose title is Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations to do when the parts he has assembled don't fit the system that has been implemented? There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and it is up to Masai Ujiri to figure out a solution.
Rebuilding sucks, and make no mistake ... the Nuggets are the very example of a rebuilding team. Just not in the way that you envision; and one that stays competitive even when completely overhauling the roster. Only Ty Lawson remains from the teams that featured Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. If you remove Andre Miller from the equation you get one of the youngest teams in the league. If you remove Andre Iguodala (more on that later) then you have the youngest team in the league.
That is a rebuilding team. However, there is a disparate dichotomy developing between the pieces that Ujiri acquired and the offense the Nuggets are running. It started to dawn on me right about the time the Nuggets lost a close game to the Utah Jazz on Nov. 26th. Everyone laments there is a "lack of shooters" on this Nuggets team without acknowledging that Ujiri is the one who assembled a squad with no shooters. In fact, acquiring Iguodala meant that the Nuggets were trading away their best "shooters" (Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington) in exchange for a player who held a career stat line of 33.2% when shooting threes (outside of last season where he shot nearly 40% on three-pointers, which is looking more-and-more like an aberration).
The Nuggets have implemented a "dribble drive" offense (perfected and "invented" by Nuggets assistant Vance Walberg) being run with a primary player who is not someone who shoots at a high three point percentage in Iguodala. Meanwhile, this places that much more pressure on Danilo Gallinari to hit a high percentage of three point shots (Gallinari has taken a whopping 112 three point shots so far this year, hitting only 34 for a paltry 30% average). Gallo has not been able to do that at all this year, and additionally has had his "playmaking" wings clipped by spending far too much time focusing on three point shots and not enough time on creating. This mutual worry about the three has affected the performance of both players. Simply put, this offense has completely taken the best playmakers on this team out of the game.
While the Nuggets installed some aspects of Walberg's "dribble drive" last season, they were still running Karl's base isolation offense. The systems are similar, but the dribble drive is much more heavily dependent on the point guard and three point shooters. This would be alright if Denver had a wing player who could hit a lot of outside shots. While the "main" issue with this offense will always be Ty Lawson and his on-again/off-again aggressiveness; the lack of outside shooting has been another Achilles heel for this team.
An obvious solution would be to drop the rigidity of the system and relax a bit. Let the players be players and capitalize on their strengths (both Iguodala and Gallo are playmakers ... so let them make plays). However, this is unlikely to happen. This is unfortunate because I've become increasingly aware of Iguodala's rather (to my eye) lazy and disinterested play. This culminated in his worst game in a Nuggets uniform. A 2 point and 5 turnover performance on 1-9 shooting in Minnesota on Dec. 12th. The turnovers were so bad that he "could have" been credited with at least three more. The entire road trip from Iguodala was a display in lack of leadership from a veteran, and it was disappointing to watch.
Why did the Nuggets trade their best perimeter shooters for a player who isn't known for hitting the outside shot? Your guess is as good as mine. While the merits of the trade are indeed sound, and it would be unfair to pin the offense's struggles solely on Iguodala. It has become apparent that lack of shooters in the starting lineup has hamstrung this team severely. Couple that with a large contract handed out to a center (JaVale McGee) who isn't anywhere close to starting, and well, some of the bloom is off the rose for Ujiri's tenure in Denver.
The growing pains of rebuilding vs. winning are apparent. The Nuggets have shed a lot of dead weight, but have hitched their wagon to a system that doesn't suit the players who play in it. Will this change? Doubtful. This season the Nuggets will likely ride out with who they have on the roster. Any changes made will occur in the off-season as the Nuggets adjust to their new realities. If, however, the Nuggets want to make an adjustment there is a simple solution.
Adjust the starting lineup. Gallo needs to be moved to starting power forward. He plays better against slower players (and seems to be able to stay in front of the stretch power forwards), and this will allow the Nuggets to "stretch" their four spot. In turn you move Iguodala into the three spot and move either Jordan Hamilton or (god forbid) Corey Brewer into the shooting guard spot. Have Kenneth Faried spell Gallo as first man off the bench. Keep Ty and Kosta Koufos the same. This will unclog the lane exponentially and open up another shooter for three point shots. While rebounding will obviously decrease, the offense will be much more free flowing and "dribble drive" friendly. Also, with an additional outside shooter, Gallo and Iguodala will be freed up to make plays and become playmakers. If Iguodala is still engaged and interested that is.
This season is not lost for the Nuggets. Despite our glowing observations at the beginning of the season, yes, this team is rebuilding. Much like Ujiri we must balance pragmatism with desire to win. From now until the end of January, the nuggets schedule loosens up considerably and there will be time to experiment at home. Maybe, just maybe some beams of sunshine will poke through the clouds of mediocrity.
Twitter: @jmorton78 https://twitter.com/#!/jmorton78