Like former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Nuggets head coach George Karl struggled to put wins together in December when the chips were down.
Towards the end of his iron-fisted rule over the Broncos, Mike Shanahan's biggest flaw (other than having no business being the franchise's general manager in addition to head coach) was his inability to win games in December when the injuries started piling up and the games meant the most. Shanahan always had excuses, often citing injuries, weather, whatever he could grasp onto. But the bottom line was that the Broncos lost games in December that cost them their last three seasons before this one.
Most unfortunately, Shanahan's successor Josh McDaniels appears to be afflicted with the same disorder as his predecessor, and I fear the inability-to-win-in-December disease has found its way over to our beloved Nuggets and head coach George Karl, as well. Beset by a few injuries and some back-to-back games, Karl's Nuggets have now lost seven of their last 11 games, including tonight's sorry loss at Sacramento to a team missing its best player.
Luckily for Karl and us fans, unlike football the NBA season continues well beyond December and the Nuggets don't have to play again this month.
But how did we get here?
One month ago on November 29th, the Nuggets were embarrassingly defeated at home to the NBA's second-worst team; the Minnesota Timberwolves. After that game, some suggested it was a symptom of worse things to come. Others proposed that the game was the wake up call the Nuggets needed to take playing basketball seriously again. I said only time would tell.
Well, a month has passed and after reeling off four impressive wins to rebound from that Minnesota debacle, the Nuggets - it bears repeating - have dropped seven of 11 games. Worse, the Nuggets have done so while exhibiting a lack of spirit, focus and respect for the game of basketball. And frankly, five of those seven wins aren't all that impressive considering that they were home games in which the opponent was on the second of a back-to-back. In other words, the Nuggets won most of the games they were supposed to win while blowing a few more that they should have won (again, like tonight at Sacramento).
And yes, Kenyon Martin missed a pair of games during that stretch and Chauncey Billups has now missed all or part of the last five outings. But while the Nuggets have made excuses, their Western Conference rivals - many of whom are just as banged up if not worse - have either leapfrogged ahead of them or have almost tied them in the conference standings. (If you want to revisit my column where I pointed out how other teams have overcome their injury woes, it's right here.)
Last I checked, a team comprised of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo and Chris Andersen should be able to beat an inexperienced, sub-.500 team sans its best player (in tonight's case, that would be Tyreke Evans, who never touched the floor with his warmups off). Even on the second of a back-to-back.
But time has told us that this season's edition of the Nuggets are a loose - at best - resemblance of last season's Cinderella squad. This team needs a shot in the arm and it needs to come from management in the form of a (meaningful) trade, a better game plan from Karl - injuries or not - and a more serious, dedicated effort from the players themselves.
Starting with Karl, again tonight he inexplicably played Afflalo - who's a contributor from my vantage point - early only and didn't reinsert the two-guard late into the game. We saw this with how Karl rotated Dahntay Jones last season when I produced my "starting pitcher" analogy (i.e. Karl treats his starting two-guard like a starting pitcher; once he's out, he's out for good). If J.R. continues to struggle (and we'll get to him shortly), I have to believe that a down-the-stretch backcourt of Lawson/Billups and Afflalo is preferable to a Lawson/Billups and Anthony Carter back court. Am I missing something here? Furthermore, I don't see why Renaldo Balkman and/or Joey Graham aren't getting any small forward minutes early when Melo gets himself into foul trouble. On the second of a back-to-back, Karl played just eight guys tonight and those eight players were visibly exhausted towards the end.
Meanwhile Melo, our former MVP candidate, has to stay out of foul trouble and instead get the other team in foul trouble by taking the ball to the rack early. Especially when Billups is out and his coach is keeping the lineup tight. Melo had seven free throw attempts tonight, but only three from shot attempts (versus team penalty fouls). The Nuggets poor record sans Billups has just proven to everyone - me included - that the Melo MVP talk was foolish and very premature.
J.R., most unfortunately, has reverted. He's an erratic mess. Check out his shooting stats in his last ten games: 1-9 (tonight), 3-12, 9-23, 15-25, 2-12, 11-17, 9-14, 5-14, 0-8, 5-16. How can you count on a guy that shoots like that?
J.R. is also part of a larger problem: the inconsistency of the Nuggets bench. Just like J.R. still shows flashes of brilliance, so does Birdman, who has had five plus-ten rebounding games in December. He's also had sub-six rebounding games an alarming eight times, including tonight's paltry two-rebound effort. Was Andersen even on the floor? I was about to start a trade-Birdman-for-Brockman petition by game's end.
And speaking of trades, management needs to get creative and either a) bring in another body (preferably a big) from one of the NBA's "have not" teams, b) explain to Karl that he's allowed to play more than eight guys per game or, c) do both.
Management, Karl and the Nuggets players have an entire week to figure out what's gone wrong here, get healthy, stop making excuses and get back to playing spirited Nuggets basketball. Their next game is another tough one: at Utah on a Saturday night. I say, good, the Nuggets need to keep getting tested and start passing them.
Good riddance to a shoddy month of basketball. Hopefully Karl and the Nuggets can shake off the Denver sports December curse and deliver a January of respectable basketball we can be proud of.
Stiffs of the Night
-The Nuggets Bench: We just witnessed one of the more pathetic performances from the Nuggets bench in some time. 1-9 shooting from J.R. Smith to go along with four untimely, careless turnovers, six (mostly stupid) fouls and a technical foul. A mere two (two?!) rebounds from the Birdman in 20 minutes of playing time. Come on. A.C.'s 2-6 shooting, five rebounds, three assists night put both J.R. and Birdman to shame.
Non-Stiffs of the Night
-Andres Nocioni: The always feisty Nocioni stepped up big time in Evans' absence, played tough defense on Melo and racked up 21 points on 6-7 shooting (4-5 from three) to boot. I'm dying to know what he whispered in Nene's ear as Nene went to the free throw line around the five minute mark in the fourth quarter, leaving Nene with a "I can't believe he just said that" smirk on his face. It must have been a South America thing.
-Jon Brockman: The aforementioned Brockman was better than advertised as he punished the Nuggets with 10 rebounds and five hard fouls in just 16-and-a-half minutes off the bench. Even though he's on the opposing team, I officially love this guy. (And you had to love Altitude's Scott Hastings quote on Brockman during the telecast, saying: "He's really 6'6", but in a 6'9" guy's body." Huh?!)
-Carmelo Anthony and Nene: It's tough to play two-on-five, but that's essentially what Melo and Nene did on the offensive side of the floor tonight. If one good thing can be taken from tonight's loss, pick-and-rolling with Nene works. Duh.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Robert Durrell