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Familiar ugly issues continuing to haunt Denver Nuggets

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With the Nuggets stumbling out of the gate to a 1-3 start, an unfortunately familiar conversation has been had.

Doug Pensinger

Not all practice days the same for the Denver Nuggets. Yesterday, Nov. 6th, the doors opened to the media and upon entering the gym I asked, "Where are all the players?" Present at the time I entered the gym: Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic, J.J. Hickson, Alonzo Gee, Kenneth Faried, Randy Foye, Erick Green (in the attached weight room), and a few assistant coaches. Not in the practice gym: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson, Gary Harris, Darrell Arthur, and JaVale McGee. Brian Shaw was also absent, but I was quickly notified that some players and the Coach were watching film (you can see AAA and Lawson here) and Shaw would be up shortly.

The Coach was dressed appropriately in an all black sweatsuit. The 131-109 loss to the Kings on Nov. 5th was still fresh on Shaw's mind and he seemed to be in mourning. Shaw was asked about the game and brought up the 97 combined free throws the Kings shot in the past two games, and discussed how his team has been fouling way too much. Shaw discussed what the day's practice had been about.

"I just want them to kind of reflect on the events of the last couple of games," said Shaw. "Just think about having a sense of pride, coming out with a sense of urgency."

If that sounds familiar, it should. Shaw spoke last season about a lot of these same issues. It has been a year, yet here the team remains. I asked Shaw about his team and about a word that was painted in the Nuggets locker room at one point: togetherness.

"Just being honest, it seems a little shaken. If you look at our team, if you watched our team play these last few games, it almost looks like a team that doesn't really know each other," said Shaw. "The way we're playing out there on the floor."

So, the togetherness is a little shaken. That's not a good sign after just four games in an 82 game season. The honeymoon of the 2014-15 season is over, and it's up to Shaw to stem the tide. The Coach is still feeling the effects of having players on minute restrictions, but with the depth the team has - that excuse won't last long.

"Some of that is legit in that, you know, once again they haven't been able to develop a rhythm because even in practice, certain guys can only play so many minutes and same thing in the game," Shaw said. "We do have a couple of new faces, so they haven't been able to gel like you'd want them to gel at this point. But I don't want to use that as an excuse. We're playing poorly, we're not getting a lot of production out of several different positions. But we have to stay together as a unit.

"I have to do a better job of using my timeouts and a better job of substituting, especially when teams jump on us like they have been, to squash some of those runs," continued Shaw. "We're going to figure it out, we're going to try to stay positive, and keep it together. It's still early, so we're not going to get too down on ourselves right now."

Shaw has made a lot of noise about the opposition getting off to quick starts. One way he attempted to jumpstart his starting unit was to replace the ineffective, but vital, Danilo Gallinari with Wilson Chandler. New starter Chandler, who scored a combined 15 points in Denver's first three games, responded by scoring 14 points and 13 points in the home-and-away series against the Kings.

But Chandler's 8 points (3-5 shooting) in the first quarter against the Kings didn't amount for much as the Nuggets starters were down 21-10 when JaVale McGee entered the game for Timofey Mozgov and the Nuggets found themselves down 40-19 after the first quarter. With Hickson eligible to return from his five game suspension on Nov. 9th at Portland, it will be interesting to see how Shaw uses him and if he can push Kenneth Faried.

Faried has been pedestrian, at best, since opening the season with a 22 point and 17 rebound performance against the Pistons. The Manimal put up just 7 points and 6 rebounds against the Thunder, 10 and 10 at home against the Kings, and a dreadful (no pun intended) 4 points and 5 rebounds in Sacramento. Faried played just under 9 minutes in the first quarter against the Kings, 1:35 in the second, 4:51 in the third, and 6:13 in the fourth when the game was already decided. The Nuggets need the Manimal to show up and step up. He wants to take a leadership role with the team and hinted at averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds this season at media day, now is the time to put up.

Could Faried benefit from a better running game? Yes, he's the ultimate weapon when the team is in transition, but the Nuggets haven't been running much lately, or much at all this season.

"It doesn't look like we're running at all, because we're not stopping anybody," said Shaw. "Not necessarily because they're scoring baskets, but there's no flow to the game because we're fouling entirely too much. I mean, 97 free throw attempts in two games. It seems like every other time down the floor there is a foul and there's somebody going to the free throw line."

That may hold up as the case in those two Kings games, but the Pistons shot 31 free throws and the Thunder just 19. Why weren't the Nuggets running against them? How were the Nuggets unable to get a running game going against a severely undermanned Thunder team? Shaw has said he wants to run, but we're seeing far more half-court post-up play.

"The post stuff is only really supposed to come into play early when we're attacking," said Shaw. "Whichever big doesn't get the rebound or doesn't take the ball out, is supposed to rim run, and we give that a look. Because we're having to run a half-court set every time, because like I said we're taking the ball out after free throws, then we try to explore the best matchup."

Shaquille O'Neal, a guy Shaw is familiar with, was one of the best rim runners in the league. Shaq can be heard on TNT's Inside the NBA show periodically explaining how Dwight Howard can get easy baskets, and one of those ways is to rim run. That means the big runs right to the front of the offensive hoop in transition, like Shaq and Andrew Bynum used to do for the Lakers. Having bigs do that is smart, but it also clogs up the lane in any and all slow moving transition plays (keep that in mind for a minute).

Shaw continued on talking about his offense and the lack of attacking we've seen from the Nuggets.

"Once again, it also stems back to the aggressiveness or the lack of aggressiveness of our point guard," said Shaw. "Ty has to set the tone. He has to be in attacking mode all the time. You look at his numbers through these first four games, he had one good half I would say, is fair to say, in the second half of the OKC game. Other than that there not Ty-like numbers. Our offense is dependent on him.

"He has to be aggressive in the pick and roll plays, turn the corner, and make two guys come to him and make the appropriate play after that," Shaw said. "I think once he starts to be more aggressive and more assertive, it'll open those things up again."

Lawson has been the team's leading scorer for the past three seasons, topping out with a career-high 17.6 ppg last season. So far this season, Lawson is again leading the team in scoring, but he's averaging just 12.5 ppg and shooting a cold 38.2% from the field and an atrocious 14.3% from deep. Of note, Lawson's shots per game are way down right now, he's taking just 8.5 shots per game. That's his lowest amount of attempts per game since his second NBA season in 2010-11. The past two seasons he has been averaging 13 shots per game, and he needs to get back to that mark.

Lawson led the league in drives per game last season with 10.7, according to player tracking on NBA.com. And he ranks first in the NBA in drives per game this season with 12.8 per contest and ranks second in total drives with 51 (Brandon Knight leads the league with 53). But Lawson's FG% on drives has fallen from 49.3% last season to just 30% so far this year. Why aren't his drives as effective?

"Two things. Ty has the ball, so if he comes off and he wants to hit the hole first or if he wants to get an outlet and dribble the ball up the floor before anybody can get in the post, that's what we want him to do," said Shaw. "Right now, he hasn't been aggressive. So, Kenneth and Timo and other guys are getting down the lane, and they're trying to get down there, trying to get post position. If they're not in the post, nobody is going to guard Kenneth or JaVale out on the perimeter, so they're just packing the paint right now because we aren't aggressive in attacking."

Remember when I said to remember the rim run quote? Well, Shaw is saying he wants his big that doesn't get the rebound to rim run, and he also wants Lawson to get out in transition before that big. We'll see if the Nuggets can get the fastbreak game going. But Shaw illustrates above why it has been difficult to get the rim attack going. The opposition isn't having to respect the jump shooting from Faried and JaVale. Both guys have shown improved range, but you'd much rather have them shooting than Lawson driving and tearing apart your defense.

Coaches are right not to divulge all of their game plan to the media, and we'll have to keep a close eye on how the Nuggets play against the Cavaliers. Will Shaw get his team prepared from the start? Will the players accept the challenge to turn the ship around? What will the Nuggets offense do to create easy shots?

Shaw is saying the right things, but when you compare what he says he wants to do with how the game goes, it isn't matching up. Again, it may have been hard to run against the Kings, but what about that Thunder game? What about the Pistons game? Shaw is challenging Lawson, but what is being done to get Lawson going besides being told he needs to beat the defense and his own bigs to the rim?

There's a lot more questions than answers right now. The Nuggets haven't looked good, to say the least, and it's up to Shaw to find and play to the strengths of his roster.

**

Talking with Shaw about Danilo Gallinari:

Before the Kings game Scott Hastings, of Altitude TV, interviewed Gallo and the forward asked people to be patient with him. Gallo has scored just 21 points in four games and is shooting just 18% from the field (3-16) and the three-point line. He's on a 20-minute restriction right now, that Shaw said could be pushed a little in the right game circumstance with the approval of the training staff. But Gallo has only hit that 20-minute mark once. He played just 14 minutes and 16 minutes in the past two games. It's a hard task balancing playing him max minutes, with lack of production.

"That's part of this whole funk that we are in," said Shaw. "People that have been around that have seen Gallo play, expect for him to be the Gallo that they remember the last time he was on the court. He's rusty, his confidence is probably shaken a little bit, and I'm at a crossroads because the only way that he can get to where he needs to get is you have to allow him to play through it. At the same time, if he's not being effective out there on the floor, and if he's hurting our team, then I have to have somebody else out there that's going to be productive and get done what we need to get done. Kind of caught between a rock and hard place. He's having a rough time shooting the ball. He's having a rough time guarding right now. Some of those things can be expected."

It'd probably be best to play Gallo the maximum 20 minutes per game, so that he can find his rhythm and get past this minute restriction hurdle. We haven't heard anything about Gallo having swelling or any setbacks with his knee. Play the man though the rough patches, and perhaps he'll get back to helping this team.