Three M's for our topic today, my friends, and I'll try to keep the intro short. Mick, Moltke and Music, and what these things taught me about life and basketball... and then I'm going to ask for your help, as I get a little lost at the end. And I get by with a little help from my friends. But let's leave the Beatles for another day.
Mick, you've already surmised, is Mick Jagger, the gentleman originally singing the lyric that introduces this article. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1969, making it a scant year younger than I am. Growing up with the song, which was a persistent staple amongst family and friends, I've always heard the lyric as more uplifting than most.
Why, you probably didn't ask? Well, I've always firmly believed that getting what you need is always/forever/persistently more valuable than getting what you wanted in the first place... And that often along the path to striving for what we're absolutely positively sure is the best thing for us, we're often lucky enough to stumble across something that's much much (much) better. Not a controversial opinion to be sure, but still one so rarely displayed these days across sports, entertainment, and politics. To bolster my opinion, see: the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who in many ways needed a title after last year's horrible Finals collapse, and sacrificed everything pro players might want: minutes, glory, SportsCenter Top 10's, personal time and a list too long for me to continue. And to be fair, I‘m still in self-debate as to if the Spurs' title was a "want" or "need".
Moltke is Helmuth von Moltke, a German Field Marshal from the 1800's, who I know diddly-squat about, save that he is attributed the phrase:
"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
Which, when well understood, is a trait I've always admired in people; the ability to adapt to a situation, uh, situationally. Redundant? Redundant. But again, there's a lot of narrative on the big four-or-five-lettery sites about the Spurs, and how they've re-made and re-tooled themselves during Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan's lengthy careers together (with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli not far behind). These four gents have spent well over a decade learning to play several styles of hoops together. That constant adaptation to their situation, garnering five titles in those fifteen years, is a source of amazement to me - though I'll give my esteemed colleague Jeff Morton his due in tacking in the caveat of the some sheer luck in the Spurs' personnel situation (no Tim Duncan = none of this conversation). But even so, those personnel are amazing in part due to their ability to adapt. Chicken, egg. Egg, chicken. You two get to know each other. Mike, this is a Denver Nuggets site, right? Bear with me, I swear I'm getting there.
Music. I was fortunate enough to have spent eight years of my life singing for a living, and no, not the Happy Birthday song at your local chain restaurant. This is not because I'm a brilliant (or even particularly good) singer, but more because I was blessed with a very low voice. Just good luck, and some of the most fun years of my life, fortunately spent with the best friends I've ever had.
All of that happiness started because I stumbled into singing in High School. I was fortunate enough to attend a high school who had a Greg Popovich-esque Music Director who won or almost won the State Title (shockingly, there is such a thing) for nearly two decades at my alma mater. What was singularly consistent to his approach with a wide variety of kids (three-year high school + almost 20-year tenure = whole lotta turnover) was recognizing the strengths of his team, er, choir, and playing to them. If the altos were badasses that year, he researched and found music that showed them off perfectly. An amazing lesson to be taught when you are young, the success you can have by adapting wisely to the cards you are dealt. There were a few other tricks up his sleeve to refine/improve us, but that's a whole ‘nother article. His ability and methods to adapt to his strengths invariably left his choirs amongst the best around. By the way, that director's name is Dr. Herb Goodrich. Thanks, Doc. You taught me a lot.
The commonality for me amongst my three M's: A constant admiration for those who are able to adapt to their circumstances or surroundings and quickly succeed. There have been several successful examples of this type of practice in the NBA these past few seasons, but let's just call out a couple amongst the teams who have battled for the title these past two years: The Spurs' long-haul adaptations to the NBA's shifting offensive rules has been amazing and well-documented. The Miami Heat's shift to their swarming/disruptive defensive tactics of the previous two years was their new hallmark, along with their being credited with the evolution of SmallBall as we know it. I'd also mentioned another adaptation in a previous note, but this season's Spurs are also the first team in the modern era to have every player average less than 30 minutes per game, the duality of which pays off in fresh legs for their Big Three, and loads of minutes leading up to the playoffs for a deep and now-experienced bench. Adapt, adapt, adapt.
The Nuggets have made adaptations of their own over the past few years, including George Karl switching to a drive-and-dish Princeton-esque offense and Brian Shaw's mid-year swing last year back to something more uptempo and opportunistic on offense. Not long after Shaw's tempo shifts, he and the staff added changes to simplify both their half court and defensive sets, which in turn GREATLY improved the confidence of the team and its ability to execute their core sets. That shift then gave them the chance to focus more on their fundamentals, and as the skills, interaction and confidence started to mesh, wins came more easily to close out the season. Adapt, adapt, adapt.
That said, the beginning of last season, and that initial stretch of players and coaches getting their bearings were kludgy, painful and tiresome, which left a resounding cry amongst the Stiffs Community (myself included) of, "What's The Plan?!" So, forgive the indulgence, but some of this article is simply me reminding myself that we have more adaptations to come and the requisite growing pains attached. With a new season comes a new battle plan, leaving me wondering what changes might take the Nuggets to the next level. I believe we're all interested in achieving that next level (or why are we chatting about it so much?), and so I tried to formulate a plan tailored to this season's Denver Nuggets. With the lessons learned above, I'm trying to adapt my plan to my people, and also frankly admit where my lack of knowledge exposes my lack of a plan. I leave it to you all to tell me where I've lost it.
I'll start with what, in my opinion, is the easier part... offense. My gut tells me our adaptations on offense could be minor. Even Coach Shaw saw the fruits of a young and speedy team that loves to run, and seemed to be headed towards this: a willingness to take the fast break whenever it's readily available, but persistently taking the time and energy to develop a more-solid half court set. Early last season, our half court game was the ugliest duckling around, with slow rotations, confused players and poor morale. But as the season wore on, and Shaw simplified what he was asking of the team, a small ray of hope began to shine through by season's end. This sudden and somewhat surprising reality was predicated on time, patience and the recent low-post emergence of both Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov on offense. Suddenly, with the added trio of JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur, the Nuggets have several scoring-threat options at the four and five. I'd be hard-pressed to remember a time when the Nuggets could point at a quintet of low-post scoring options.
Now the Nuggets find themselves in a position where any of those five guys can be enough of a scoring threat to open up the floor in both the post and pick-and-roll games. With adaptations to be made every year, it would then seem that one of the keys for this season may be to refine and expand the pick-and-roll execution and options - for the bigs and guards alike. The good news is that this is not a massive overhaul. That evolution began partway through last season, and should continue its maturation naturally in the course of the team spending another year together, getting to know each others' games and tendencies.
Add to that growth the hopefully-healed-up duo of Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson, there could be a real potency and speed to what is still a very young crew, with the speediest player at the helm in Ty Lawson. Even with the mass backlog in the All-Star Game voting, you'd think even a minor shift forward in the Nuggets overall offensive stats would make Lawson difficult to ignore for next year's game. If my personnel is young, fast, and playing at altitude... why wouldn't I run everyone I could out of the building?
When it comes to defense, a larger shift seems necessary. For the Nuggets to have any hope of taking serious steps forward, what progress they are able to achieve on defense will be key. Not only key to returning to the playoffs, but to someday compete for a title. Without a "superstar" on the squad, a cohesive and top-10 defense could at least propel this team back to respectability.
But... here's where I start to stumble. Defense is a subject where I'm still learning about the vagaries of the game, right as the Nuggets seem to be doing the same. So I don't know what our personnel best lends itself towards... Are we more suited to the trapping/disruptive style that George Karl favored (a style recently "exposed" in these Finals, albeit with an out-of-gas Heat squad)? Or could we actually give some thought to a defensive style that seems even more in en vogue these days? In that case, I think of the more-orchestrated units of the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs as examples. A defense that moves as one, and with a plan. Beyond that, what are our other options?
Seeing as I cannot answer that last question, I'm not yet the guy to know what sort of system our personnel would best allow for. Depending on which of the Stiffs faithful I cast my lot with on a particular day, there are moments I worry the Nuggets couldn't defend a strong opinion, let alone an offense like the Spurs. But... I've seen evidence to the contrary...
One of my favorite stretches of the late 2013 campaign was the 15-20 games prior to the injury of Danilo Gallinari (wow, that sounds like a bad 70's film, "The Injury of Danilo Gallinari". Shockingly, I digress.). Prior to Gallo's ACL tear, George Karl had moved to a lineup of Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala as three of the five guys who closed out games (often with Ty and Andre Miller on court as well). Watching Gallo, Wil, and Iggy shut down their respective opponents one-on-one, you could see what a smothering defense could be... and how it might impact a fast-break offense, tying directly back into our offensive game plan above. Can you imagine a smothering Denver defense leading to fast break after fast break?. The heart skips just thinking about it.
But does our current lineup allow for such things? Next season, we will have a two of those three excellent defenders back in the fold, but theoretically at the same position. There are a couple of other players on the team who are at-least-effective defenders in their own right. What will our personnel allow us to do? What will they be most effective at doing?
So... there's my discussion for the day. You see this year's "battlefield". More open offensive rules, the evolution of SmallBall across the league, our place in a tough conference, our advantage at altitude... What else do you see?
And then, you see our side's "combatants" (for the most part anyway, with trades and drafts still being the unknown elements we're all palpitating/salivating over). What do we best build with the cards that we're now dealt? Our young, fast offense has seemingly taken a direction and shape, hasn't it? And is that style what it's best suited to? My gut says yes, but convince me.
As to the defense, again, what are the best options that our players give us? I want the Ferrari I see the Bulls and Spurs driving, but I think I understand just how Far-arri the Nuggets are from that right now, and don't know if what I have is the parts for a 4x4. Or a Yugo. Hence my bringing it to the Stiffs. So... help a guy out. I figured if I tried sometimes, I'd find I get what I need.
What say you, Stiffs?