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The Denver Nuggets are still searching for pace

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Michael Malone stresses a defense that turns into offensive pace and production - but what are the Nuggets actually doing?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For decades, the Denver Nuggets have been synonymous with fast pace.  Whether it was Larry Brown's teams in the 70s or Moe's in the 80s, Denver was known for getting up the floor and pressuring the opposition with the pace of the game.  Paul Westhead believed in pace to the detriment of everyone playing and watching, but after a decade wandering in the NBA wasteland the Nuggets got back to pace with George Karl.  And despite a decade of playoff trips built on the principle, commentators called it unsustainable, an oddity, even "cute" - with one of those coming from the Nuggets head coach himself, Brian Shaw.  Shaw didn't believe pace could ever be a truly winning formula, and most around the league agreed with him.

Enter the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors did everything that pace opponents said couldn't be done.  They played defense, they made shots, they succeeded even in the playoffs where more rest days reduced the wear-down factor and they won a championship.

Now in a copycat league, everyone is rushing to get in on the pace race, as if playing fast alone was the key. As ESPN reports:

In 2014-15, the Warriors were the only team to average more than 100 possessions per 48 minutes. In 2015-16, there are 15 teams averaging more than 100 possessions per 48 minutes. Last season's gold medal sprinters from Golden State would rank 12th this season.

There haven’t been this many teams playing this fast since 1990-91, when there were also 15. In fact, there are more teams playing at a rate of at least 100 possessions per 48 minutes this season than in the last 20 seasons combined. As recently as a three-season stretch from 2010-11 to 2012-13, there was not one team that averaged 100 possessions per 48 minutes.

In the 20 seasons before last year, there were 13 teams that averaged at least 100 possessions per 48 minutes. Of those 13, four made the playoffs, with one – the 2006-07 "We Believe" Warriors – winning a playoff series. Only one of those 13 – the 2007-08 Nuggets – won 50 games. And of the four to make the playoffs, none were seeded higher than six, meaning of the entire bunch, there was not one serious championship contender. In other words, playing fast was not a viable path to the top of the NBA mountain.

Even the Nuggets figured out that pace alone couldn't get them where they wanted to go. George Karl used a helter-skelter kind of offense to maximize the home court and cover up the fact that he had no shooters.  Golden State has shooters in bulk - they must pick them up at Costco on discount while the rest of the league scrounges for one or two.  Golden State's shooters also play defense and are more than willing to pass the ball - the antithesis of the selfish iso-ball that's finally dying at most NBA destinations. Fast-paced basketball doesn't have to mean random or ill-planned.  You can have it all, if you have the right mix of players and the right coaching staff.

But how is that translating in Denver? In a town intimately familiar with fast-paced, exciting and ultimately ephemeral basketball, what does this new league-wide fascination with the perfected vision of Nuggets-style basketball look like?

Pace alone is merely a blunt assessment. The Shaw Nuggets had pace - they rated 4th last year and attempted the 2nd most FG in the league - but were 26th in FG percentage.  Shooting fast doesn't help if the shots don't go in, and don't account for what Michael Malone says he wants to do: run after opponent misses, but settle into a halfcourt, passing offense to get the best shot if the opportunity isn't there. Even Josh Kroenke said he wanted to return to being, "a team that was running off of our defense."

Kroenke was referring to the 2008-09 team, but Karl's last team posted the best regular-season record in Denver history.  And they too took advantage of the pace they set, even on the defensive end.

12-13: 2nd in pace, 1st in FG made, 2nd in FG attempts, 4th in FG %, 1st in ORBs.  Opponents: 22nd in FG and 29th in FGA. The Nuggets took the most shots and made them, and their opponents didn't take many and made almost none.  That's a good recipe for winning, if your best offensive player doesn't blow his knee out a couple weeks before the playoffs.

This year, Denver is 14th in pace (after Tuesday's games), and still can't shoot all that well (22nd in FG%). But that still doesn't get us to assessing Malone's plan.  How are the Nuggets doing at turning opposition misses into quick points?

There's a great site for this:  Inpredictable. They have many fascinating stats, but among them: pace and efficiency after a defensive rebound.  That one stat will decipher both how quickly teams run their offense after defensive board and how efficient they are at it.

To no one's surprise, Golden State is the most efficient team in the league this season at scoring after a defensive rebound (1.16 pp) and 2nd fastest at execution (10.9 seconds).  They also are top-2 after a made bucket in both categories.  Whether you miss or make, Golden State is coming at you and they're going to score.

In 2012-13, Denver was 2nd in speed of offense (by seconds) and 2nd in points per. They were first in speed out of defensive rebounds (7th in points per), and 2nd out of opponent's turnovers (first in points per).

Those Nuggets ran and scored efficiently after every opponent miscue.  The Shaw Nuggets of last season were top-3 after both makes and misses in speed, but just 17th after makes and 25th in points per after a defensive rebound.  They ran down the court fine, but missed everything.  And this year?

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Michael Malone stresses efficiency.  He wants precision, and he wants controlled speed.  And so far the Nuggets are bad at this.  They are 21st in pace after a defensive rebound and 19th in points per, and basement-level 28th and 25th respectively after an opponent's turnover.  If you thought the Nuggets were walking it up the court instead of fast-breaking, you were right.   They're actually better at pushing the pace after a made basket.

Malone's talked-about "controlled speed" has not been in evidence so far this year. That might be due to half the rotation being listed on the injury report, or the by-product of asking a rookie in Emmanuel Mudiay to handle the ball for 30 minutes a game.  It might be that the team has not yet grasped the nuances of what he's asking them to do (and there are courtside reports of him pleading with his team to run, to no avail).  But at the moment, the Nuggets are very much a team that neither pushes nor controls the pace, and that doesn't take advantage of either half-court execution or the open court.

That is the real dreaded "middle ground" of the NBA: having no identity and no weapon to fall back on. The season isn't 10% over yet, but the Nuggets have to find themselves this year and decide what sort of team they want to be.  Championships can be won with pace and shooting now, but Denver still lacks shooters.  As the Nuggets search for them, at the very least going back to tearing teams up on fastbreaks after miscues would be a nice return to some things that have worked in the past - and that still work for the defending champions.

It would make Michael Malone a man of his word, too.  Consider that a goal for the season.