I sure hope that super mascot Rocky's corpse-like descent into Pepsi Center on opening night wasn't a bad omen for the entire 2013-14 season that's upon us. Lifeless resulting from having the "wind knocked out of him" during the pre-game harness stunt, Rocky descended from the rafters looking like a limp scarecrow and then his body crumbled when hitting the Pepsi Center floor.
Not long after, a lifeless Denver Nuggets team crumbled on the Pepsi Center floor themselves, giving up 113 points to a rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers team while mustering just 98. Add that performance to an opening night loss in Sacramento to a crappy Kings team, and pessimism is in the air throughout Nuggets Nation (one has to only check out my text messages, emails and breakfast conversations with season ticket holders to get a snippet of the sour fan perspective in Denver right now).
As fans, we too often tend to see things in black and white terms. Our team is either "awesome" or it "sucks". Last season, after the Nuggets stumbled to an 0-3 start, I wrote that those three losses could cost the Nuggets a key playoff seeding. I was wrong two ways: not only did the Nuggets' 0-3 start not cost them a playoff seeding, but their impressive 57 wins and third overall seed meant nothing as they fumbled away a first round playoff series victory to a team that won 10 less regular season games.
(The more prescient column from that time was my November 19th article when I wrote: "... our Nuggets seem to get Stiffed when the game slows down and/or becomes a half court style of play because it demands that the Nuggets do two things they don't do particularly well: make outside shots and defend three-pointers.")
And yet last season, despite the 0-3 start followed by a 4-6 start, the 2012-13 Nuggets managed to put together the greatest regular season in their NBA history, reeling off 53 wins against just 19 losses from late November onward. Point being, we should know better by now than to write off an 82-game season after just two games. So with that in mind, here are some general observations from Games 1 and 2 ...
... missing Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler is killing the Nuggets. Gallo and Chandler are good for at least 30 points combined per night and give the team terrific presence at the small forward position. Without Gallo and Chandler, Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw is forced to play small with a third guard at the three-spot which hurts the Nuggets both offensively and defensively, but perhaps more defensively.
... defending the three-point shot continues to plague the Nuggets. The 2012-13 Nuggets hovered among the NBA's bottom third last season in opponent's three-point percentage and through two games this season, the Nuggets are at the top of three-point percentage allowed at 51.2%. Assuming the athletic Randy Foye and Evan Fournier get more minutes around the arc, perhaps they can be coaxed into getting to the opposing three-point shooters faster.
... instead of giving Fournier less minutes, he should get more minutes. The young Frenchman is off to a bad start, but so what? We know pretty well where Foye's ceiling as a player is (11ish ppg, 3ish apg, 1ish spg), but Fournier's ceiling is an exciting unknown that we'll never discover unless the kid gets meaningful minutes. Despite Fournier's 2-14 shooting start, he should keep seeing floor time.
... the Lawson / Robinson pairing scares me. Otherwise known as the "DM Lineup" according to my uncle Marty (aka the Nuggets Curmudgeon), referencing what he calls the "Double Midgets", the combination of the 5'11" (but really 5'9") Ty Lawson and the 5'9" (but really 5'7") Nate Robinson may be good for five thrilling minutes per game, but that can't be the Nuggets long term solution in the backcourt, can it? Moreover, the double point guard lineup has never really worked in the NBA. Remember the Sam Cassell / Gary Payton disaster that George Karl deployed in Milwaukee? The long term solution should be Lawson combined with Foye / Fournier while Andre Miller pairs with Robinson off the bench for half court settings.
... JaVale McGee can't be this bad. As has been well documented by both the writers and readers of this site, McGee and his $44 million contract have been worthless through two games. But again, it's only two games. Does the Hakeem Olajuwon big man camp come with a money back guarantee if your starting center averages 5 points and 2 rebounds per game? (More on this issue shortly.)
... Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee can't be on the court at the same time. On Friday night, Faried thrived playing alongside backup center Timofey Mozgov whereas when sharing the court with McGee he only seemed to get in McGee's way ... and vice versa. Unless Shaw can come up with something creative, Faried and McGee's games just don't pair well together on a basketball court - probably because each needs to be in the lane and neither can hit a mid-range jump shot to unclog the middle.
... don't give up on Faried being a sixth man yet. I've long believed that it doesn't matter who starts a game but rather who ends a game, and given that a) Faried doesn't play well alongside McGee and, b) the Nuggets could use a jolt of energy off the bench, I don't have a problem with Faried being a sixth man. When Shaw announced that Faried wouldn't start, I was hoping that Faried would take on a role akin to what Dennis Rodman was in his Detroit Pistons days: a voracious, energetic rebounding force off the bench. If only Faried could play defense a tenth as well as Rodman ...
... Mozgov looks good thus far. If there's one shining light on the Nuggets' roster it's been the play of Mozgov, the much maligned backup center last season. Blessed with an NBA center's body by birth, Moz still has a long ways to go development-wise, but it's been good to see him reward the coaching staff's faith in him by putting up decent numbers out of the gate.
... Robinson is the new one-man comeback. He may be part of the "DM" duo, but the diminutive Robinson has already shown why his two-year, $4 million contract might be a bargain by NBA standards. Yes, the Nuggets got their asses whooped by the lowly Blazers at home on Friday night, but were it not for Robinson the Nuggets would never had a shot at the comeback they had in the fourth quarter.
... (file this under the broken record category) the Nuggets need a big man coach on the bench. In fairness to Brian Shaw and his staff, I barked up this tree with Karl and his staff for several years. But it's a legitimate question: How can a roster featuring two raw but talented centers in JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov and four raw but talented power forwards in Kenneth Faried, Anthony Randolph, J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur not have a former four or five-man on the coaching staff?
I watched Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler go at it the other night and noticed all the intricacies of the center position that those two appear to have mastered, such as hooking arms on rebounds, setting one's feet properly under the basket, timing put-backs just right, placing one's derrière in the right spot on box outs, and so forth. McGee and Mozgov seem to possess none of these traits, and it's alarmingly frustrating.
Like all NBA teams these days, the Nuggets have at least 37 or so assistant coaches, support staff, consultants, stat men, scouts and so on. Why couldn't one of these positions be given to an ex player who played in the post? Currently, NBA benches are littered with former veteran big men like Ed Pinckney, Jack Sikma, Kim Hughes, Bob McAdoo, Rasheed Wallace, Mark Bryant, Herb Williams, Corliss Williamson, Kurt Rambis, Juwan Howard, Popeye Jones, Kenny Gattison and Mark West.
And I have the perfect hire for the position: Wayne Cooper. The 6'10" Cooper, who most recently served as "vice president basketball" (whatever that means) in Sacramento, was released by the Kings this past summer when new owner Vivek Ranadive and new GM Pete D'Alessandro took over. A former Nuggets center, Cooper was a more-than-competent defensive big man for the Nuggets from 1984 through 1989 when Denver was winning a lot of games. Coop's best season as a Nugget was 1985-86 when he averaged 13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 2.9 bpg while starting 78 games for a thrilling Nuggets team during the franchise's second Golden Era.
And having attended the Wayne Cooper / Fat Lever basketball camp as a kid, I can assure you that Coop knows his post play. (Okay, that line was a joke.) But regardless, the Nuggets need to address the fact that half their roster plays in the post, their head coach supposedly wants to play inside-out basketball and yet no one on the Nuggets coaching staff is over 6'6".
... don't write off this season. The Nuggets have too much talent to sink out of the playoff picture. Forgetting Gallo momentarily, just getting Chandler back could be huge for Denver's need for self-starter scoring. It's no doubt been a tough two games to sit through, but patience is in order as the NBA season is not a race, but rather the ultimate of marathons.