It's hard to make sweeping statements about this Denver Nuggets team based on the first week of the season, especially under a new coach. The majority of the players haven't logged significant time together, and none of it in meaningful games under this coaching staff. Some players are in game shape and some are rusty. There's a rookie point guard in charge, and other first and second year players getting significant minutes. Early season stability and dependability are tough to come by with that much uncertainty.
That's one reason veterans are so important to this team's success. Veterans who have a wealth of experience in this league and who won't get shell-shocked playing against guys whose posters once lined their bedroom walls are crucial to Denver's early outings. They're the ones who are supposed to steady the ship when the youngsters start to flail about - the ones who can make the proper play to calm things down on the floor and get back to the gameplan.
Denver's veteran starters have been filling that role in their first two games. Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried have both displayed court awareness and taken their coach's instructions to heart on the court. Both came out of the gate on fire in the first game, and even in the dismal home opener were still fighting to make things happen according to plan.
The bench is another story. JJ Hickson played so poorly in the preseason he can't get on the court this season in either a 20 point blowout victory or a near 20-point home court defeat. In his place are two other seasoned veterans: Randy Foye and Darrell Arthur.
Foye went 1-for-6 in Houston on Wednesday, all 3-pointers, but was able to snag a few rebounds and a couple of steals in his 18 minutes to go along with those 3 lonely points. On Friday it was worse: 8 minutes of practically invisible basketball involving a couple of terrible, missed threes and a foul. It was bad enough that one 8-minute stretch was all he was allowed. Will Barton was given the rest of Foye's expected minutes for the night.
Darrell Arthur was somehow worse. His 16 minutes in Houston netted 5 points to go with a pair of rebounds and blocks - ordinary, but not in itself destructive. Against Minnesota he was given 26 minutes, and it was as if the ghost of Hickson had taken the floor. He managed only 3 points but gave up so many more on defense, fouling a 3-point shooter in the act not once, but twice, along with a host of other miscues and poor judgments. Arthur prides himself on being a professional, but that was a less-than-professional outing and a bad example for the young players. Even his 9 rebounds couldn't make up for the poor situations he put the team in.
The Nuggets out-rebounded the Timberwolves, had fewer turnovers and were only fouled 3 fewer times - but had 21 fewer free throws since Minnesota did not foul us in the act of shooting nearly as often. Denver shot only 30% from the field, and the bench trifecta of Arthur, Foye and Jameer Nelson combined to go 2-for-19 - with zero free throws attempted. That's not steadying the ship, that's tipping it over.
The youth of Nikoka Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne went 9-for-15 for 20 points alongside 14 boards in only 34 combined minutes. They were also the only bigs either willing or able to fight back against the length and athleticism of Minnesota. Kenneth Faried normally struggles against extremely long players, certainly when it comes to scoring, and our fast-break was non-existent on Friday. If our veterans in the backcourt can't shoot and our veterans in the frontcourt can't score or defend, it makes it very hard to put them on the floor. The youngsters might as well be out there getting full minute allotments and learning as they go - and putting up better numbers in the process.
Nelson will get big minutes this season regardless. He is the only other true point guard on the roster and even in the early going his ability to orchestrate on the court and implement the coaching directives is apparent. Jameer is a fine backup. Arthur is fighting for playing time with Jokic and Lauvergne, while Foye is trying to work his way into the rotation with Harris and Barton. Green struggled tonight, but that's where Denver wants the veteran contributors to step up and actually contribute.
In the first two games of the season, Arthur and Foye have not answered the call. Michael Malone has already made one early example that you will play his way, effectively, or you will not play. If that continues, they're going to find themselves next to Hickson in the cheerleader section. Here's one sweeping statement that feels true even early in the season: veterans who cannot contribute or lead by example are not necessary to this Nuggets team.