"In terms of style of play, having gotten to know this team a lot better, we want to get out and run. We played at a fast pace last year, we want to play at an even faster pace this year."
At halftime of the Denver Nuggets recent victory over the Indiana Pacers at home (a horrific 76-73 tilt that marked one of the lowest scoring games in Pepsi Center history), I strolled down from the high perch of the Avalanche press box to the second level and walked around amongst the fans. The Nuggets and Pacers were busy setting the game of basketball back to the stone age, and the fans knew it. Grumbling, grousing, cursing and a ton of frustrated looks. One gentleman in a Kenneth Faried jersey asked his friend a question that has gone through the minds of many Nuggets fans since last season:
"Why aren't the Nuggets fun to watch anymore?"
Those who are old enough to remember the brief, but hilariously embarrassing, Paul Westhead years in Denver from 1990 through 1992 will recall that the Nuggets played at a pace that scorched the earth, faster even than Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets of the 1980's. Westhead's philosophy was to literally outscore your opponent with little thought to defense. Fast break, fast break, fast break. During Westhead's first season the Nuggets gave up a comical 107 (!) points ... at HALFTIME ... to Cotton Fitzsimmons' Phoenix Suns. You had to laugh at the absurdity. The Nuggets were fast as lightning, but not entertaining even with their run and gun style. The fact that this particular version of the Nuggets won 20 games in the 1990-91 NBA season is a remarkable feat.
However, that particular version of the Nuggets proved that playing fast doesn't guarantee an entertaining product.
After General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff drafted Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis, and fired Paul Westhead, things began to change in Denver. New coach Dan Issel came aboard in 1992 and installed a post-heavy half court offense that emphasized the skills of his best players, while still maintaining a fast breaking style. Proof that you can do both in the NBA. The Nuggets ran in every opportunity afforded, but were still able to run a half court set. The most common half court approach for these Nuggets was a play called 54 ... which was essentially a post set where Deke or Brian Williams could either launch a hook shot or pass to a cutting wing player. It was as basic as you could get and (very) vaguely triangle based. Yet, that Nuggets team ran at every opportunity.
While they weren't great by any stretch of the imagination, they were set up to take advantage of George Karl's 1994 Seattle Supersonics (arguably his best team in Seattle) because the Nuggets became proficient enough in both areas that it narrowed the obvious talent gap. The Nuggets record was the very definition of mediocre (42-40), but the city loved watching them. Never before has Denver connected with a Nuggets team like they did the 1993-94 Nuggets. They returned the favor with a remarkable run.
Same thing happened in 2008-09 after the trade for Chauncey Billups. Billups slowed the fast breaking tempo just enough, and gave the Nuggets some notion of half court sets. The Nuggets had (arguably) their most successful season since joining the NBA, and came closer than they ever had to making the NBA Finals. However, that team, above all, was FUN. Had personality and much more.
Even through the down years in Nuggets history (with notable early and late 90's exceptions) the Nuggets have been fun. They have also been competitive at home and took advantage of their home altitude, maybe the single greatest regular season advantage in professional sports. When you want to survive in a city that has no time for you if you don't have the name Broncos on your jersey, you MUST be entertaining.
The sad reality is the Nuggets look more similar to the 2011-2013 Atlanta Hawks than they do Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns when it comes to entertainment . The Nuggets defense no longer feeds their offense. This is fine if you have superstar talent who can thrive in half court situations, but as we all know about the Nuggets there isn't a superstar on this team. That being said, the roster is filled with talented players. There's a reason why you see national writers saying the Nuggets are speculated to be a big player on the trade market, this season. The league sees the Nuggets players as ones who can help their teams win.
However, there is a massive disconnect between what current Nuggets coach Brian Shaw wants and what his players can deliver. We have seen it in recent days with the Nuggets struggling to beat bad teams at home and failing to hold leads against good teams ... even on the second night of a back to back.
It all resides in mentality. Shaw completely changed the defensive scheme, no leak outs, no gambling for steals. The defensive concepts are all about defending well for your possession, much like the Pacers the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls. Where the Nuggets fail is they have the hardest time getting slump busting baskets. Creating steals to get transition layups used to bail them out of offensive slumps. The Nuggets transitions, when they do occur, are sloppy and slow due, for the most part, to the fact that the coaching staff wants the bigs to "rim run" on breaks rather than let the guards lead. All leak outs are forbidden. Nuggets don't "transition" their opponents into the ground at all ... least of which at home, where teams no longer get tired coming to Pepsi Center. Who would have ever thought that?
The Nuggets are on pace for their lowest ranked attendance since the lockout shortened season of 1998-99. This year they are 23rd out of 30 teams in home attendance (team was given a slight bump in rankings this last week from 26th). Currently their home record is 9-7 ... which while above .500 isn't indicative of their overall home performance. The Nuggets no longer blow out teams on the second nights of back to backs coming in to Denver. In fact, sometimes those teams have pulled off victories (Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors, the most notable examples). It seems like the Nuggets have to slog their way to get close victories at home. They are in a Western Conference that is only getting tougher, and are seeking to play a style that is more suited for the Eastern Conference - with a roster of players (and the entire starting lineup) who largely came up in fast offensive systems.
It's NOT ABOUT PACE, however! It's about mentality. It's about philosophy! To reduce it to a base offensive approach gives zero credit to the players who were here for the last four seasons. The Nuggets sea-change is about what the coach wants and what the players are capable of delivering in an ultra competitive Western Conference. Mentality is the key. The Nuggets are in a situation where a coach wants to coach the Pacers of 2013, but instead, has half the Denver Nuggets of 2013.
It's a mess. While you can blame some of this on injuries ... the lack of healthy roster can't account for the general air of blasé, low-energy, boring basketball the Nuggets play. Fans are staying away in droves, and as the above statistics tell us ... it can get worse. The Nuggets have lost their home court edge, their feel. They no longer punish teams for coming to Denver.
So where does it go from here? How do the Nuggets wave a magic wand and suddenly make this team exciting again?
I don't have the answer. Somewhere along the line the Nuggets need to make a decision about how they will go "all in." The roster is half filled with players who would thrive in a fast, transition heavy, D'Antoni-esque system. The other half is a big unknown. Do the Nuggets want to cast their lot with their first post-George Karl coach? Do they make a change? Do they try to dramatically alter the roster?
Right now the Nuggets are in the midst of their worst two year stretch since 2001-03. People got comfortable with being good. I've been hard on the fickle nature of Denver sports fans, and their undying loyalty to only one team in town. That won't change. However, when you have to slog it out for every last casual fan dollar, it's hard to look those fans in the face and tell them that the current product you are putting on the floor is something they should come see. It's not.
With the 2015 draft looking (at this point) eerily similar to the 2013 draft, tanking is not the answer. As I pointed out above, the Nuggets have players on their roster who are highly regarded ... even coveted by other teams. Where is the disconnect between that notion, and what the Nuggets put on the court every night.
Something isn't right. Until the Nuggets begin fixing it ... then the continual slouching toward mediocrity will go on unabated. Where will the fans be then?
Note: (FYI: For those that want to know, In losing years of 1999-2003 the Nuggets lowest the Nuggets ranked in attendance was 25th in the 17 win 2002-03 season and the team took that dip to do an obvious tanking year.)