Wrapping up a three-part series with Denver Nuggets color analyst Scott Hastings, covering (just about) everything under the sun, with part three about today’s Nuggets and bringing a title home to Denver. If you missed the last two days, here’s part one, and here’s part two:
Mike Olson, Denver Stiffs: We talked about special players, some you played with, and some currently playing. Because you played at center, and with your affinity for players with great hands, I want to talk about an obvious area of interest in that same vein with today’s Denver Nuggets. With your background and powers of observation, I have a feeling you have a little more in-depth respect and understanding for what Nikola Jokic is actually achieving the last few seasons. Even though he’s just signed his big contract, and is now unquestionably “the guy”, I am still a little staggered by how out of the blue this was.
Scott Hastings: Well, I was in a really fortunate position. My place with the team and knowledge of the position gave me an opportunity to be in on Jokic before anybody else but the team. I said a couple years ago, when people would still give me heat about it: If Nikola Jokic stays healthy, I think he has a chance to be the best player that’s ever played for the Nuggets. Not as many people give me heat about that opinion now. And that’s not slighting anyone. Not slighting English, or Issel, or Fat, or Thompson, any of those guys. They were each incredible, but I believe that’s just how special Nikola can be.
Now, we don’t know what injuries or anything else may bring, but with the way the game is played now, Nikola has the skillset to shoot the basketball, handle the basketball, and pass the basketball, and do all three all really well. If you can do all three of those things, you’re special. Some of the great players can do all three. Some can only do two of the three. Jokic can do all three, and he’s 7 feet tall!
But just as important is his mentality. Nikola’s mentality is a little bit like that Pistons mentality I mentioned when I was playing there. It’s always “team first” with Jokic. I know that’s a huge key to success. I was talking to Nikola the other day at his press conference, and he said the same thing there: before anything else, it’s about winning.
Now, there’s a lot of guys who give lip service to that. In fact, I heard two or three guys this past week who signed big deals this summer, and their words were all attuned to, “I’m going back into the lab, because I’m going to make All-Star teams, and I’m going to… I, I, I. Third or fourth or fifth on their list was, “and we’re going to win.” Here’s what I hear: you got paid, and you’re planning to make the All-Star team. There isn’t any immediate talk about winning or winning a Championship.
Some of these guys don’t always even come to play. To me, when you’re a max guy, you play. Heck, any guy, you play. I always played with guys that said, “if you are making the dollar, you give them their money’s worth.” There’s nothing in your contract says that now that you’re out of the playoff picture you no longer have to play hard. Nothing in your contract says, “I owe you 10 minutes, not 30.” You’re being payed to go out and play.
The guy that knows that to his core is Nikola Jokic. If you go back to his recent presser, he almost seems a little embarrassed by the money. And that’s not an act. I picked up on that with him a long time ago, and it’s legit. With him, when he talks about this stuff, it’s always about winning. Winning and rings. And I know that slips by a lot of people, but when you’ve been in that atmosphere… well, let’s just say it didn’t slip by me.
But of those other players from this summer I was mentioning, here’s an example: I was listening to an interview with a guy who had just signed a big offer sheet. And then his current team matches his big offer sheet. He’s in Vegas at Summer League, doing a radio interview, and he gets on the air and the first thing he’s talking about is, “I’m getting back in the lab, and I’m making All-Star teams, and I’m going to get my game going, and oh, I want to help my team too.” I, I, I. And all I can say, is “dude, you put yourself first on the first two or three things, and even kept it about you on the rest.”
Nikola talks about “we”. I remember being on teams who talk about “we”. All I can say is this... As great as Isiah Thomas was, as great as Joe Dumars was, as great as Dennis Rodman was, Bill Laimbeer was, Mark Aguirre, Vinnie Johnson, John Salley, so many more… it was never about them individually first. It was about “we”. And that’s a big difference. Those are the words I hear from Nikola.
When we were struggling in Atlanta, that last season we had just turned the corner from “let me get mine” to “let’s go get ours”. That’s why it would have been interesting if they had kept that team together another year or two, I honestly think that we had turned the corner and something interesting was about to happen. It’s such a huge difference between hearing I, I, I or hearing a great player start the conversation about something other than themselves. I think that was Alex English as well, to be honest. I played against him, and have gotten to know him a little bit afterwards through our ties to the team, and I’ve come to understand that mentality was how Alex made his biggest difference. He was always thinking about the team before he was thinking about getting himself 30. (laughs) And then he’d still go and get 30.
Stiffs: So that begs the question... When you now look at the state of things for Nikola and the team. He signs this big contract and is stepping further into his role as the leader of this team. How much more impactful is it when it’s the guy at the tip of the spear behaving that way? That “we” mentality. Does it have a stronger trickle-down effect from that position? I think of the influence a guy like Tim Duncan had that way.
Hastings: Well, it will be interesting. There’s a balance. Go back, if you can, and look at his stats the last 18-20 games of the year. The one thing that I thought held him back was his humility. “We” isn’t always humble. “We” sometimes makes demands. Nikola’s humility actually hurt him on any given night and he hates that more than anyone else. But you go back and look at the last 18 games, and he realized, “We’re not going to make the playoffs. We gotta get going. Alright, you’ve been telling me to do it all year. I’m going to take control.” And I’m probably going to mess the numbers up, but I think after that he averaged something in the neighborhood of 25 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists for the last 18 games of the year.
Well, imagine if he can have that mentality for an entire season. That acceptance that he is “the guy”. Now you have something going. With him, “we” is always a part of the picture. Nikola’s version of “we” has to be, “Let’s go, because I’m going to keep making us better, and I’m going to demand that we play the right way. The next guy is open, the next guy gets the rock.”
If that happens, and with his talent, I think he has a chance to be an All-Star this year. I believe now is the time that Nikola starts figuring out how to be a champion, instead of just figuring out how to be good.
Stiffs: Sorry, I just shivered a little bit when you said “Champion”. That got me a little cranked up. I may need to take a deep breath. I’ll come back to that.
I’m going to back up a half a tick here. When I introduced myself, I had mentioned watching you on the 1993 Letterman interview that night. It was the first time I’d heard you say more than a few words in a locker room interview. I must admit, I was a little astounded by how quick and witty you were. As you progressed from there, I think that quick thinking and speaking was a huge part of drove you and Dave Logan on the Sports Zoo, I think it played heavily into your roles with the Broncos and Nuggets color commentary, your national roles with larger networks, your time now with Altitude.
Although I now sound like a complete suck-up, where did that funny/quick come from? Is that a family thing, a friends thing, a... I don’t know what thing. Where did that come from?
Hastings: You know what, that’s a new one. I don’t know, exactly. I feel like I’ve been blessed to have funny people in my world my whole life. If I were to go back and reflect on my five or six years going to a therapist, he’d tell you it was something I learned as a kid to hide pain. To deflect in a painful moment, the funny thing gets you past the tough topic faster, or softens it. When you bring up a funny thing about serious stuff, you can often get around the serious stuff.
My serious stuff was this. You’re some 12- or 13-year-old kid whose parents are going through a divorce, and you feel like the only kid in that situation in a small town where everybody knows everybody. At that age, you think you’re the only family that’s not a “real” family. Geez, I’m getting serious when you asked me about being funny. I had always joked around, but I used humor a lot at that time in my life. I think it was a tool for deflection back then, and instead of being at home, I spent a lot of time with my friends, joking and goofing off. So, I grew up in a lot of houses with a bunch of guys that I still see. Every year, I go back to my hometown with 5 or 6 of my high school buddies, with three of us going all the way back to junior high. We still spend that yearly time, and it’s a week-long laugh-fest. That time with Bobby and Dan and Kirk and Scotty and Rob. Some of the best.
One of those guys is a year younger than us, and he and I played Little League together. We had a really good team that played in some big games. I’m at catcher, and he plays right field. We’d started something that every game we’d win, we’d meet out at second base and he’d jump into my arms. People would laugh, and I always liked that. I have no idea how we came up with that, we were just goofballs. Looking back, I think I’ve always been a bit of a cut-up. It ended up being an easy defense mechanism later for not letting people get too close. I’ve learned to temper the bad parts of that as I get older, and now when people want to know that I cry at sappy things, well… (pauses a few seconds) I cry at sappy things. (laughs)
Stiffs: Ugh. Something you and I share, and glad I’m not the only one. That was personal stuff, so thanks for being up for sharing that. A good peek behind the curtain.
So, it’s not just me who sees this in you. I always see positive commentary out there about your being witty. But if I ever see you ever take heat for anything out in the web-o-sphere, I think the negative comment I see the most is people talking about you being a homer in your broadcasts. Now, I’ve already admitted my bias, both for you and the Nuggets. So, as a biased homer myself, I’ll say I don’t see it that way, at least in comparison to a lot of other home-team broadcasts.
But I see it crop up enough I wanted your take. There’s obviously an element of homerism to appeal to the fan base, and I think it’s genuine. But I actually find that you will stop and call out one of our guys for a flop or foul far more often than what I see on other broadcasts, if that’s what you see on the replay. If one of our guys made the mistake, you’ll say so. If you are calling out a ref for a bad call, and it turns they got it right, you’ll say so. Why do you think you’ve gotten that “homer” rap, and where is the right balance between?
Hastings: I’ll say this. I’ve never called myself or thought of myself as a “homer”. I know that when you broadcast for the home team, your job is much, much easier when that home team is playing well and winning. I’ve been broadcasting for a lot of years, and I can tell you: when you’re down by 25 late in the game, being positive is a tough thing to do.
So yeah, no lie, I am a Nuggets fan. I absolutely want to see the Nuggets win. I won’t apologize for that one bit. Keep this in mind as well: I’m paid by the same guy who pays Nikola Jokic. A lot less, but I’m paid by the same guy. (laughs)
Honestly, I’ve had more conversations with my GMs that at times I can actually be too critical. I take that to heart, and I try to look at it this way: I am not afraid of being critical, but I try not to pile on. I’m not going to keep calling a guy’s name out. I might say it the first time, but then I switch to calling the position or play, like, “the weak side is open, you see it, he’s got to slide over” instead of saying, “there’s Mike. He’s right there. I don’t know what Mike is thinking.”
So I say, “weak side has to see that and play it better on the next rotation.” Everybody watching the replay knows that the weak side is Mike. But everybody also knows I don’t need to pile on and keep throwing the name out there.
But look, if the team or players screw up, you’re not going to make a 20-point loss into something rosy as a broadcaster. You’re also not going to make a 20-point win into something smaller than it is for the fan base you’re talking to.
Now, I admittedly do get on the officials. I am known for that. I think that stems from my playing days. When I played, everybody on the floor had their role, and you felt like you all had equal shares in it. You felt like you could criticize an official who would let you talk to him, and tell you when it was enough, and you backed away.
Nowadays, league officials, in my opinion, well... we have too many people as officials who shouldn’t have gotten in there. We have the best players in the entire world playing for us, and until recently, all we had for officials was guys from the United States. Well, that’s silly, to think that Italy, Argentina, Australia, China, Japan, couldn’t have great officials. I think they’re making a move now to be more international, and I think that can only bring good things. I just want to see them get it right, and I try hard to leave my bias out.
I feel my job is to observe, praise, and critique. We have players, we have coaches. The third member of that triangle is the officiating, and I think it deserves attention. Like I said, I try to broadcast as if I were a coach. And sometimes when you see a bunch of calls, those 50/50 calls where every one seems to go against you, it kind of gets to you.
I’ll also say in my defense that I have replay. Let’s say I see a replay where they call a foul on Nikola Jokic when he slaps at the ball. From the angle I see, I’ve got four inches of air between him and the ball. What should I say? Good call? I can’t, but instead of knocking the refs, I am trying to get better at saying things like, “they always teach you don’t slap down at the ball, don’t slap down”. I also try to mention if the angle for the official made it tough for them to make that call. It’s a balance.
Stiffs: Seems like it would be challenging to find that middle ground. You really have to be serving several interests simultaneously there. I’m guessing that’s where that critiquing/critical eye piece you mention comes in handy.
Using that same critical eye, and with the close-up view that so few others have, it’s been quite an offseason already. Joker’s contract, Will’s contract, surprise signings, re-signings, trades, draft news… where do you see this story going this upcoming season for the Denver Nuggets?
Hastings: Well, there’s a lot there. The starting unit, after signing Will Barton and Jokic, to join Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap, now that is a hot group. You look at what those five guys averaged together last season, and as a starting unit, that’s about 80-81 points a game. That’s some kind of offense, even in this league, the way it’s now played faster/quicker.
Now, I know everybody wants to play defense, and I’m a defensive guy. I got to play in the league as long as I did because I knew how to play defense. But this is a three-point-heavy league, and the Nuggets have tools of that sort you can take advantage of. To me, in this NBA, defense becomes a lot more situational. Can you get a stop or two in a row when you need it? That’s much more important in today’s game.
So, our starters look like they can average about 80. If you can pull a bench together that averages about 30, well now you’re playing every night at 110. If you look at the Nuggets record over the last couple years when they score 110 points, they win about 65-or-more percent of their games at 110. And last year when they scored 120, I think they were like (pauses) 15-1? 20-2? Something like that? I mean, it was a silly number. And when you see that number, you realize, “hey, let’s just score.”
So now you make moves that bring you a guy like Isaiah Thomas, and think, can he be the guy that three years ago was an MVP candidate? If he is, and can give you 16-20 off the bench, you’re already cooking. Then you bring in someone like a Trey Lyles. Can Trey grow from what he did last year, get more consistent and give you 10-12 off of the bench?
Now you’re already nearing that 30-point mark, and you haven’t even discussed the other three guys on the bench. Whether it’s Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt. A lot of those guys can put up points.
They’ve got a real chance with all of the signings now, and a lot of it hinges on health. Because if Porter Jr., Vanderbilt, and Thomas are all healthy, why couldn’t your bench score 40 points in a game? If you’re in the realm of scoring 120 every night? Whoo. Mike, if they get to that benchmark, they’re going to win 60-70 games this season. I’m serious. Now, I don’t know if they can do that, but if you look at the analytics in a vacuum, it looks like the bench can average 40 and the starters average 80, and not many teams will catch up to 120. That’s a 70-12 or 65-17 team, and then watch out.
Again, I don’t know if they can do that. Reality says some guys will struggle. Some will regress. But on paper, Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas have put together a team that should put up numbers that are just silly. And I can’t wait to be a part of it, and hopefully can be a part of it the next 4-5 years, as I think it’s going to be a monster.
Stiffs: I know how exciting that is for me to hear, and can only imagine how it will be for the Nuggets fanbase to read as well. I’m trying to not hyperventilate at the sheer prospect. Thanks for that.
Scott, you’ve been very giving of your time, and I truly appreciate it. I want to throw just one more question your way that I think ties a big bow on a lot of what we discussed throughout our chat. You talked about that tough-to-define something that that Championship teams have. You’ve spent a lot of time with this Nuggets team, and obviously, we have a few hurdles to cross before that ultimate pinnacle. The first job is simply making it to the playoffs. But beyond that, what do these Nuggets need to do next to make that next step towards being a championship squad?
Hastings: There’s a few things. There’s a mental toughness that these guys have got to find, and you saw it starting to come on at the end of last year. Here’s an example I remember years ago that illustrated this point. Tiger Woods was being interviewed when he was still winning a lot. But at this point he was playing through an injury, and still won. He said, “you know, I didn’t have my ‘A’ game, but sometimes you have to learn to win a tournament when you have your ‘B’ or even ‘C’ game going.”
That’s something I think champions understand. How to win when you’ve got a night where you don’t feel 100%. When you are tired. How do you reach down and grind, mentally squeeze that adrenal gland, and do enough to get the win? How do these Nuggets win games when they don’t have their ‘A’ game? That scenario I gave you of scoring 120-plus? That’s their ‘A’ game. There’s going to be very few teams that can even stay up with 120. Houston, Golden State, maybe one or two more. How many other teams are even going to stay up with you on your ‘A’ nights? Not many. Go across the schedule, and see how many teams Denver plays that can even think about scoring 120.
But what about when you don’t have that ‘A ‘game? What’s the ‘B’ game? When Denver scores 105? How do you win that game? Well, you play situational defense. You play better and smarter with the ball. Fewer turnovers and silly fouls.
Now, let’s say you have your ‘C’ game, like you occasionally will, and you score 90 points? How does Denver win that 90-88 game one, two, five times a year? What do the Nuggets need to do to win those games? Those are the types of things that champions figure out. They figure out how to win when they’re not supposed to.
Stiffs: Sold. A perfect bow to tie, Scott. I promised that would be the last one, or I’d just keep babbling. Again, thanks. We get a lot of Nuggets Nation that drops by Denver Stiffs to keep up with their Nuggets news. Any last words for Denver Stiffs?
Hastings: I just want to tell them thank you. I have the greatest job in the world. I have been honored to do this. I love Denver deeply. I love everything about Denver, I love everything about Colorado. I love the Nuggets. It’s time. It’s time to win a championship on the hardwood in Denver. It’s been 51 years. It’s time to get serious, and time to win it all one of these years soon. I really hope I am a part of those broadcast teams to see it happen. Stay tuned, this is going to be exciting.
*** Deepest thanks to Scott Hastings for his time and thoughts for this chat. If you missed either of the last two days that kicked this off, here’s part one, and here’s part two. He said Nuggets Championship. I have to go change my pants.***