One of my favorite hip-hop songs is, "Trying to find a balance" from Atmosphere. In the song, Slug thinks out load as he raps, "I'm trying to find a balance, I'm trying to build a balance." Brian Shaw's statements today about his Nuggets team mirrored those same thoughts.
Shaw is trying to find a balance, he's trying to build a balance. You will read or hear folks talking a lot about the following comments from Shaw today at media day on the style of play he wants to see from his squad:
"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. The biggest area of improvement that you'll see is on the defensive end.
"We want to run offensively, and defensively we want to do a much better job of defending the rim, as well as holding teams down and making them have to really, really work for what they get. Last year, we lost arguably, maybe, our best defensive player when Andre Iguodala signed to go to Golden State [and] the rim protection that JaVale would have provided. Those are the areas of emphasis. Offensively, I think we can score enough points. Defensively and improving at the free throw line [are key] because as I've said, I think a lot of [close] games are decided within the margin of the free throws that are missed.
"What I wanted to do last year was round us out as a team. Obviously, we want to take advantage of the altitude up here. Getting to know this team last year, once we started doing that more, obviously [the players] are more comfortable with that and they embraced that. But, I still want us to be able to execute in the half-court when the ball slows down and [execute] coming out of timeouts and things of that nature.
"The biggest thing that I found out last year, was that I wanted to play inside-out. Throw the ball inside because of teams that I came from in L.A. and Indiana, that's the way we played. The abilities, not to knock any of our players, but they were different than David West or Roy Hibbert or Paul Gasol and Andrew Bynum. We generated a lot of our inside play off of pick-and-rolls and making teams have to either honor the roll man or stay with our three-point shooters on the perimeter.
"I still want quick hitting stuff, and I still want to get the majority of our baskets on the inside. But there won't be as much of an emphasis on half-court setup. I want us to get the ball up the floor, get our wing runners to the deep corners, get our first big to rim-run, and have Ty, Nate and have the guys that are pushing the ball really, really put pressure on the defense to get back and stop us. More active and more aggressive defensively to create more easy scoring opportunities, as well."
Another question was asked of Shaw about team depth, but Les Shapiro directed the conversation back to style of play. He asked Shaw if he had an epiphany about the running game as he is now talking more about it ...
Shaw, "It was always there. When it really took off, it coincided with Kenneth pushing the ball for us, to be honest with you. Him rebounding, getting a good percentage of our defensive rebounds, and starting the break out that way was big for us. When that started happening, we started scoring a lot of points, and putting a lot of pressure on teams. Once again, them getting used to me and understanding me and some of the things that I wanted to set as a foundation and me learning what some of these guys can do, that took some time. It took some time for us to get on the same page, for me to understand what they are most comfortable with, and then try to blend those things into some of the things that I believe as a basketball player and coach.
"If we can, I'd like to score 120 points a game, but I also want us to be able to win our fair share of games that are in the 80s. When you look at our roster, with the way we are built, we are built to grind it out if we need to grind it out, we can run with anybody, the biggest thing that we are going to have to show is on the defensive end. I want us to have that kind of balance and that versatility. Obviously, we want to will our style on whoever we are playing against, but at the same time if a team decides to slow it down, we should be able to be effective in that style, as well."
Were the comments made today by Shaw much different from the ones he made when he was hired by the team? Let's go back and take a quick look at his thoughts from his press conference on June 26, 2013:
I have to familiarize myself with the roster a little bit more, watch a lot of film, interact with the guys between now and the start of the season to see what situation would be more conducive to the skills of the guys on this team. I know that they were a very effective running team and they attacked the rim very well. That is something obviously something that I want to continue to do because they were very, very good at it.
I think one of the things that happens and what you see is that with my experience with the Lakers is that playing and coaching against the Phoenix Suns when they won 60 games in a season, playing the up and down style that it doesn't necessarily translate well when you get to the playoffs. One of the areas that I want to kind of strengthen is, obviously we will still want to attack and get up and down the floor, but the ability to play in the half court and execute in the half court because that is where you get judged on in the playoffs. When you get to the playoffs and you play a team seven times, they possibly hone in and take away the things that you do well. The game slows down and you don't see a lot of games played in the hundreds so you have to be able to grind it out.
One thing that has to be consistent is, with our Indiana teams we struggled to score but we were a very, very good defensive team and were one of the best defensive teams in the league from the beginning of the year to the end. That is something that you have to have every single night. You have to pride yourself on giving yourself a chance to win when they take away the running game, you have to be able to execute and defend.
Yes, Shaw said today that he wants to play at a faster pace this season, and describes a fast-breaking style with defensive boards leading to outlets and easy buckets (either dunks or threes). But Shaw is still preaching getting there by playing defense. He is still saying the team needs to find a way to win close games by grinding it out. I think it's a good thing that Shaw is willing to play to the strengths of his roster.
In my preview piece on the Nuggets, I talked about the turnovers created by the Nuggets. Shaw said today that he wants to turn up the defensive aggression to force more easy opportunities for the offense. I'll stand by what I said here:
The Nuggets ranked 16th in opponent's turnovers with 14.4 per game. It'd be nice to see the team create more turnovers, but it's a hard statistic to quantify. The Philadelphia 76ers led the league in turnovers created with 17.0 per, the Heat ranked second with 16.7 per, and the defending champs, the Spurs, ranked 25th with 13.9 per game. While creating more turnovers would be nice for the transition game, it also could come at the cost of giving up easy looks with a scrambling defense. While the Nuggets could again be average in the turnovers created department, having a disciplined defensive unit might be the better plan.
I worry a bit with gambling defenses as that's what we saw here under George Karl. His high-risk / high-reward defense created a lot of transition buckets, but those teams were also maddening as they gave up a lot of open threes and paint points when gambles didn't pay off. We don't know exactly how much gambling Shaw wants, but it's something to keep an eye on.
And fast pace doesn't just mean fast-break. The Nuggets practiced last season, at various times, with shorter shot clocks to get players into sets faster and to make quick decisions. There is no right way to win in the NBA. Well, we know you have to have elite players, but styles of championship teams have varied widely.
It'd be nice to see a Nuggets team that takes a defensive identity and we'll find out during the season what identity this team will have. We shouldn't expect to see a defensive juggernaut this season, turnarounds take time, but an improved defense would lead to what Shaw wants - defensive boards, outlets, and easy hoops. The Nuggets have been moving in the direction of a better half-court team for three or four years now. The coaches have changed, but Ty Lawson and Company have been trending toward a more complete team for a few seasons.
For Brian Shaw, it's all about building a balance.