After the Denver Nuggets sensational comeback against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, I tweeted out that I take back every negative thing I've ever said about backup shooting guard Corey Brewer. Because without Brewer's effort on Thursday, the Nuggets don't even come close to winning that game. And Brewer's awful performance against the lowly Sacramento Kings on Saturday night notwithstanding, it's time to commend Brewer for having delivered a solid season all-around.
Brewer has developed into one of those intangible, off-the-bench, "glue" guys that help make decent playoff teams become legitimate conference finals contenders. Always in motion, Brewer wreaks havoc defensively with timely steals, hands-in-the-face defense and disruption of opposing teams' passing lanes. And on top of that, Brewer has made an assortment of clutch three-point shots this season, giving the Nuggets opportunities to win games that they otherwise would have no shot at winning.
And while you might credit Brewer's improvement to being part of the 2010-11 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, I credit Brewer's resurgence to his current head coach - George Karl. (Brewer played all of about 21 minutes during the Mavericks 2011 playoff run and was DNP-CD'd from Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals all the way through the entire NBA Finals ... hence why the Mavericks didn't think twice about trading Brewer to Denver - along with Rudy Fernandez - for a second round pick in 2011.) And as Nuggets fan should know well by now, Karl has done this before. Many times before.
Head coaches get judged in a lot of ways, most notably based on their playoff record (where Karl's success rate doesn't come close to his remarkable regular season success rate). But sometimes it's important to look at the not-so-noticeable things that a coach does, and Brewer seems to be the latest of many admirable reclamation projects for Karl as the Nuggets head coach.
For whatever reason, historically the Nuggets haven't been blessed with too many able shooting guards over the years. Even lauded two-guards who once donned a Nuggets jersey - like T.R. Dunn and Bryant Stith - couldn't shoot particularly well from the outside. Instead, the Nuggets seem to get other teams castaways at the two-guard position: Be it throw-ins in trades (like Brewer) or picked up off the free agency scrap heap. Regardless of how they've gotten to Denver, Karl has masterfully salvaged a number of would-be disappointing two guards - evident by both how well they've performed in Denver and by how poorly they performed pre- and post-Denver.
Karl's first reclamation project as Nuggets head coach was shooting guard Greg Buckner. Buckner bounced around from Dallas to Philadelphia before landing in Denver as an afterthought free agent in 2004 on a contract paying less than $900,000. As a Nugget for two seasons, Buckner started in 68 games, played about 22 minutes per game (a career high) and rewarded Karl's trust by posting career highs in field goal percentage, points per game (PPG), and steals per game (spg) and helping the Nuggets compete in the playoffs twice. After signing back with Dallas in 2006 as a free agent, Buckner was out of the league altogether in just three seasons at the age of 32.
Karl's next reclamation project was DerMarr Johnson, a former sixth overall pick of the Atlanta Hawks who never recovered from a tragic car accident in 2002 (that almost paralyzed the 21 year old two-guard) ... and wasn't that good even before the accident. Washing out with the Knicks after the accident, the Nuggets took a flier on Johnson as a free agent for just $745,000 in 2004 and Karl somehow, someway got three semi-productive seasons out of him. Between 2004 and 2007, Johnson started 68 times for the Nuggets and in 2004-05, Johnson actually averaged a respectable 7.1 ppg on 49.9% shooting in 17.4 minutes of play per game. Signing with the San Antonio Spurs as a free agent in 2007, Johnson was out of the NBA for good after just five games at the age of 27.
As Johnson was vacating his spot as the Nuggets "how is this guy in the NBA?" shooting spot, a unheard of Frenchman named Yakhouba Diawara filled the void from 2006 through 2008, playing 18.4 mpg in 2006-07 and contributing a career high 4.4 ppg. With Diawara starting 19 times that season, Karl somehow got the Nuggets into the NBA playoffs for the fourth consecutive time. Diawara signed with the Miami Heat in 2008 and gone from the NBA just two years later at the age of 27.
Carrying the mantle of shooting guards who can't shoot in Denver was Dahntay Jones in 2008. A former Duke University standout and a first round draft pick (20th overall), Jones career appeared to be over in 2007 when the lowly Sacramento Kings cut him after he produced just 3.2 ppg in 25 games in 2007-08. Jones ended up playing on the Nuggets 2008 summer league squad, and the Nuggets agreed to sign him to a one-year, $926,000 contract. Not only did Jones make the team, but he started 71 times for Karl and the Nuggets in the 2008-09 regular season and in all the playoff games during that team's magical Western Conference Finals run. Karl coached Jones into becoming a defensive stud at the two-guard spot, where - playing alongside Chauncey Billups - Jones had the unenviable task of guarding the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Brandon Roy and the other star shooting guards of that era. The Indiana Pacers would overpay for Jones the following season and Jones is now eking out his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks, where he plays just 11 minutes per game.
Hoping they had their next Dahntay Jones, the Nuggets signed Gary Forbes for $473,000 in 2010. Forbes was a 25 year old, undrafted rookie who had played all over the globe (literally) before becoming a Nugget for the 2010-11 season. Under Karl's tutelage, Forbes played respectably in 63 games, started in 11 and averaged 5.2 ppg on 45.4% shooting. Playing over 12 minutes per game, Forbes contributed to the Nuggets regular season success that netted another 50-win season. Forbes signed with the Toronto Raptors for the 2011-12 season for $1.5 million and after playing in just 48 games in Toronto, Forbes was traded to the Houston Rockets where he never played and since been waived. And he's only 28.
Overlapping with Forbes was another Karl salvage job: Arron Afflalo. A highly touted shooting guard out of a very successful UCLA program, Afflalo somehow slipped to 27th overall in the 2007 draft, where the Detroit Pistons nabbed him, and he never really got consistent playing time in two seasons in Detroit. Absolutely stolen in exchange for a second round pick by former Nuggets vice president Mark Warkentien in 2009, Afflalo contributed for Karl almost overnight. In three seasons under Karl, Afflalo saw his offensive production rise from 8.8 to 12.6 to 15.2 ppg before being traded last summer in the Dwight Howard trade that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver.
(On a side note, Karl and his coaching staff should also get credit for turning would-be big man Stiffs like Francisco Elson, Johan Petro, Johan Petro, Shelden Williams and now Kosta Koufos into productive NBA players, with Koufos being the most amazing case to date.)
Of course, not every near forgotten shooting guard touched by Karl has turned to gold. Even Karl's coaching prowess couldn't make an NBA player out of busts like Rodney White, Julius Hodge, Von Wafer or Sonny Weems. And while we thought J.R. Smith had his best years under Karl, it's looking like his best seasons will be happening on Mike Woodson's watch in New York. Oh, and the jury's still out on Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier.
But for the most part - and I excitedly enter Corey Brewer into the conversation as the latest example - Karl should be commended for salvaging so many un-salvageable shooting guards while here in Denver. Because without the spending power of the bigger markets, the Nuggets margin for error is small when it comes to building a competitive roster. Simply put, you don't make the playoffs for 10 straight seasons without taking other teams castoffs and turning them into key contributors.
And with Brewer's free agency looming, Karl may have to do it again next season.