It feels so good to see the Nuggets on the court again. Even though it's still the preseason, watching these Nuggets on the floor over the last few days was akin to wandering into an oasis in the desert.
After one of the most tumultuous offseasons in the history of the franchise, the Nuggets are finally starting to clear some of the haze surrounding how they will approach their playing style under Brian Shaw. While it is unfortunate that the Nuggets will not play again until Monday, October 14th against the San Antonio Spurs, the first two games have given us plenty to chew on in the meantime.
Pushing the Post
One thing that stood out the most to me over the first two preseason tilts was how often the Nuggets fed the ball inside to JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson and even Anthony Randolph. Under George Karl, it was rare to watch the ball get passed to McGee or Faried on the block, as much of the offense was predicated around penetrating guards finding bigs on cuts to the basket or cleaning up the garbage from an oft-errant Brewer or Iggy outside shot. With Brian Shaw, however, it's clear that he has placed a much stronger emphasis on post play. Throughout both games, the Nuggets got the ball into the post far more often that we've seen over the last decade.
So far, we've seen mixed results. While McGee appears to be startlingly comfortable logging heavy minutes with his back to the basket, I'm a bit concerned that Shaw appears to be attempting to graft the post system he oversaw in Indiana onto a Nuggets team without a true frontcourt post player. This isn't a knock on the Nuggets' bigs' overall skill, but simply an acknowledgement that the Nuggets best post player still looks to be Andre Miller (natch). In Indiana, Shaw worked with David West and Roy Hibbert, two bigs that could dominate in the post regularly. The Nuggets just don't have a player on that level that will allow them to feed the ball inside and regularly expect to score. Somewhat ironically, the talents of former Nugget player Nene seem ideally suited to this offensive framework.
I'm heartened by the fact that JaVale has shown a nifty array of sweeping hooks and decent footwork in two games against Pau Gasol, one of the best post defenders in the league. Faried and Hickson struggled mightily to create space or good looks, resulting in rushed, contested shots that frequently caromed off the rim.
It remains to be seen if the relentless post attack will continue through the season, but if Brian Shaw hopes to have success through pushing the ball onto the block, Faried and Hickson must show that they're capable of scoring when they are isolated low or on the elbow.
Screens and Sets
Another big departure from the "Karl system" appears to be the frequency with which Shaw wants to utilize the pick-and-pop and down/back screens. This dovetails nicely with the front office's offseason acquisitions of players who can knock down a 15 foot jumper.
I watched the Nuggets routinely send Hickson, Arthur, Foye and Robinson in motion and around a screener (usually Mozgov, Faried or McGee) to take a jumper, which was usually open. It was quite apparent that this was a fairly new concept in execution (if not in theory) for many of the Nuggets players, as there were a few times where they started to roll to the basket without completing the screen. Still, the Nuggets were able to routinely get shots off from midrange with somewhat decent results, as Hickson, Arthur and Mozgov all were able to produce after being freed from their defender through a pick.
The Nuggets don't appear to want to use the BOOB (Baseline Out Of Bounds) plays as often - if at all - in the half court, either, another product of acquiring midrange shooters. After all, the Nuggets now have players capable of knocking down 12 to 16 footers regularly, so they don't need to have players literally stand out of bounds to draw their defenders beneath the basket. Shaw may eventually develop a sort-of hybrid system in which the Nuggets camouflage between pick and pops and dishing to a rolling screener to the basket for an easy dunk or layup, something which seems like it could be devastatingly effective given the ability of nearly all of the Nuggets to drive and finish.
Over the first two games, the Nuggets turned the ball over a ghastly 41 times for an average of 20.5 per game. While 28 of those 41 turnovers came in the first contest, the Nuggets cannot regularly turn the ball over and hope to remain efficient offensively. To be sure, the volume of turnovers is at least in some part due to the players still becoming familiar with one another and understanding how they can best work together on the court.
So far, the biggest culprits in turning the ball over have been Randy Foye (7) and J.J. Hickson (6). Though both players cut down on their mishandles in the second game, they are clearly still trying to get comfortable with their roles in this offense and the teammates surrounding them. Keeping turnovers down will be vital as the Nuggets appear to be slowing down their offense (even if only slightly), reducing the number of available possessions.
There are still 5 preseason games yet to play, with 4 of the 5 against playoff teams also looking to test their mettle (Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Chicago) and how their offseason will translate to the floor. These will be excellent opportunities for Brian Shaw's system and overhauled roster, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the Nuggets will continue to incubate their new gameplan as the regular season draws ever closer.