It’s time for another Stiffs roundtable, where members of the staff gather together to discuss various questions, provide analysis, and spin a yarn or two. As always, dear reader, your commentary is encouraged as well.
The Nuggets lost to the Warriors to fall out of first place in the Western Conference. What did you learn about the Nuggets in that game?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I learned that it’s really helpful to have five former/current All-Stars to put on the court at one time. It’s ridiculous that DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors, but he took a gamble that it would pay off once he came back healthy, and it looks like he’s going to be his old self. The Warriors are going to win the Western Conference barring an injury, and the Nuggets don’t have a path to contend in a seven-game series against them this season. But that’s fine! It’s a journey to become title contenders, and the Nuggets aren’t quite there yet anyways.
Mike Olson (@visiblemike): I learned what being hit by a truck feels like in that first quarter... No, start over... I learned that Denver will have a very difficult time in a seven game series against this Warriors squad, as I think any team in the league would at this point. That said, I do believe this Nuggets team is as well suited as any to take a game or two from Golden State in a playoff series, but they’d better come ready to get started a little faster than they did in this last game against the Warriors.
Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): If I were to point to something new I found out about the team that night it was this: the Nuggets aren’t at a place yet where they can deny a good team from doing what it wants. We’ve seen this with the Houston Rockets as well but it was especially prevalent last week. Yes, Golden State was shooting unconscious from three but that’s what Golden State does. I think we saw that the Nuggets still have a ways to go when it comes to breaking the mindset of a playoff caliber opponent when that opponent is fully focused.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): I (re)-learned that having numerous perimeter defenders is the only way to combat the Golden State Warriors. Sure, the Warriors attacked Nikola Jokic on switches when it was available to them, but those possessions were relatively infrequent. The most important part of defending Golden State is closing down the airspace in their motion scheme while avoiding fouls. Denver missed Gary Harris as the primary defender on Klay Thompson, and Malik Beasley wasn’t ready to step up. Torrey Craig lacked the necessary height to bother Kevin Durant any time the freak of nature decided to shoot from the perimeter. Most importantly, Stephen Curry lost Jamal Murray at every turn. All three Warriors combined for 89 points in three quarters, and it seems pretty clear that Denver’s personnel will struggle in a playoff series for against the defending champs for that reason if it ever comes to pass.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Denver is below the elite tier of playoff teams. That’s okay - I expected that to be the case. Jokic-ball masks a host of roster incongruities, especially when it comes to defense. Golden State and Houston are the two teams that play their kind of basketball, a kind which Denver is NOT built to stop over a 7 game series. I don’t know that there’s anyone else I feel would run Denver off the court in either conference, so that’s nice. But there will be some tweaks coming over the next year or two if Denver wants to compete for a championship and not just win a playoff series or two. As Malone has said before though: one step at a time. Let’s get to the playoffs first before worrying about making the Finals.
Will Isaiah Thomas play over or under 15 games for the Nuggets this season?
Lewis: Under. Even if he’s healthy by the All-Star break, why should they play him over Monte Morris? The time to experiment with him in the rotation was this month, because the Nuggets play the Suns for the final time this Friday. Since they don’t have a G League team he can get back up to game speed with, and he won’t want to play with another franchises G League affiliate, it’s very likely that he won’t play a single game.
Olson: Under. Daniel nailed a lot of my feelings here as well, but I’ll add this... Even if Denver does find enough room for IT to showcase any skills or talents for a contract somewhere next season, it hard to imagine they’ll give him more than 10-12 games play to do so when they’re pursuing a high slot in the playoffs, and have done so admirably with the group that already got them here. It will be excellent to see Thomas play again, and even mores if he can provide some extra fuel to this Nuggets bonfire, but I’d be loathe to tweak any of the current formula too much, as they’re already working injured starters back into the mix during the second half.
Mikash: Under. Time has pretty much run out for the IT experiment in Denver and Morris has left little reason to dabble this late in the game. After the all star break the name of the game has to be making the push for playoff seeding. The Nuggets don’t need to be experimenting integrating an undersized ball dominant point guard when they aren’t exactly hurting at the point guard position.
Blackburn: Under. I feel bad for Isaiah. I’m sure the Nuggets felt like January 1st would be the proper time to bring Thomas back, even if he wasn’t completely healthy, due to a lack of proven depth at the position. It’s obvious though that Denver doesn’t really need Thomas to rock the boat now though. Morris is playing extremely well, fits what Denver is trying to accomplish in minimizing mistakes and filling a role, and clearly deserves to remain the full-time backup. If it’s playing time Thomas wants, Denver should do him a solid by sending him to a playoff contender in need of backcourt help. The New Orleans Pelicans and Detroit Pistons come to mind.
Gross: Under. For the reasons stated above. Also: all hail Monte Morris.
Jarred Vanderbilt is reportedly close to returning to full availability, perhaps as soon as this week. What would he need to do in order to get rotation minutes?
Lewis: Absolutely dominate on the defensive end in practice. That’s the quickest way to Michael Malone’s heart, and if he proves that he’s a better defender than Lyles, he’ll find the court. If he’s able to get points on the offensive glass, there might be a chance that he bumps Lyles from the rotation. I don’t see it happening, but I’d certainly be happy if it did.
Olson: Go with what he knows. Look at the tenacious defenders who have found their way to playing time under Coach Malone. If Vanderbilt can lock down someone of import on the opposition, he could at least see situational minutes by season’s end.
Mikash: Buy working voodoo dolls of Tyler Lydon, Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez. There’s no way JV gets in the rotation this season. No. Way. He’s a rookie coming off major surgery who played 14 games in college. Vandy should take the typical path from here: play mostly if not all in the G-league for the rest of this season, grab an end of the bench but up at the NBA level every day spot to start next season and when an injury or something else comes along to give him an opportunity then seize it. That’s how Morris did it, that’s how Beasley did it, that’s how Juancho did it, that’s where Lydon is at (though he’s yet to find an opportunity to seize) and that’s the path that JV needs to take.
Blackburn: Go excel in the G-League for a few games, bring boundless energy and defensive hustle to practices when he’s recalled, and maximize garbage time in the form of captaining the defense as much as he can. That’s a tough ask for a 19-year-old, but realistically, there’s about a three percent chance JV gets any major time this year. Being a defensive and rebounding force is best path in that regard.
Gross: Work off that game rust in the G League, then defend like a demonic whirlwind while grabbing every available board and hustling like a champion. Call it the Kenneth Faried plan, except without the defensive ineptitude. Denver doesn’t need more scorers necessarily, but it does need defenders who can rebound and run the break.
Sticking with Jarred Vanderbilt, he was born in 1999, and is the youngest player on the team. What were you doing in 1999?
Lewis: I would have been in the fifth grade at Elk Creek Elementary School, playing 500 at recess and looking forward to life in middle school. Michael Jordan had just retired, and the NBA was in a long lockout. That was the last season the Nuggets played their games in McNichols Sports Arena. I wasn’t much of a Nuggets fan back then — the Denver football team was pretty good that year.
Olson: I was just finishing my wagon trek across the Old West... no, I was spending time with my then-little daughters, and ping-ponging all over the country with some friends of mine to sing. I actually auditioned to be the Nuggets P.A. guy at the end of that year, one of the first people to say NICK VAN EXEL!!!! on the brand new Pepsi Center microphone. I believe I also had hair.
Mikash: This time in ‘99 I was finishing up good old 8th grade. Just an awful period of life, middle school. Though the Broncos were winning superbowls and Michael Jordan was finishing up a decade of dominance so at least on the sports side things were good.
Blackburn: I had just turned two years old in December of 1998. I think that says it all. If anything, I was probably giving my mother absolute hell.
Gross: I was graduating with my therapy degree and planning on getting married the next year. One of those things was very good to me.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a big day for NBA games (although the Nuggets didn’t play). What is one way that basketball has helped diversify your life?
Lewis: Basketball has been something that I’ve enjoyed for most my life. My grandma is a big Utah Jazz fan, and passed on her love of the game to me. It’s a nice way for me to remember my family, and to enjoy friendly competition. I’ve been able to play with a lot of different types of people over the years, and made lot of really good friends because of it. I’ve been introduced to many different perspectives on life that I wouldn’t have learned about because of basketball, and I like to think I’m a better person because of it. Basketball is nice because each game is a little bit different, but as long as that five-man lineup works together well on both ends of the court, you’re going to have success. If you freeze out a teammate, you’re not going to be as successful. That may sound a little Norman Dale, but I do think it’s been a good life lesson to learn, how to work together with people no matter their differences.
Olson: Though I primarily grew up in Colorado, I was also in L.A. for several years as a kid. I first played basketball at my Jr. High in 3-on-3 games, and we routinely rotated through all of the kids in our class to play with. I was hyper-shy, and it was an exceptional way to meet kids of all colors, creeds, and situations. I still have a few friends from those experiences to this day, and am sure my life would not have been so full or rich without those friendships or experiences. Plus, I can still shoot a sky hook.
Mikash: Basketball is such a sport of diversity that just being involved with covering it enriches my life. It’s one of those sports that’s really low cost, almost no cost if you’re willing to play without a regulation ball and hoop, which means it can be played pretty much anywhere in the world and thus has attracted people from all different walks of life. I think it’s proven to me to be an excellent example of how all cultures can find common interest and build a greater community from those interests, even if it’s something as silly as a game.
Blackburn: In the words of The Ringer: “Basketball is very good.” I didn’t really know what I was going to do when starting college back in 2015. I decided to major in sport management because I liked playing sports and didn’t want to stop being around them. What basketball did for me was give me a reason to connect with others through a medium I understood. It was an avenue for me to make connections in my life that I never would have explored before. From being a Basketball Team Manager at University of South Carolina to writing for Denver Stiffs, basketball has helped change my perspective on culture in general. The majority of the players at South Carolina came from all different walks of earth, and my conversations and experiences with those guys helped shape my own perspective on WHY basketball is great. Anyone and everyone should play. All it takes is a ball and a hoop.
Gross: Basketball has created conversations and memories for me across genders, races, creeds, states, countries, and international date lines. The connections I make both watching and talking basketball have made me a better and more thoughtful person. Basketball was not my first love. It is not my best sport. But it is the sport that brings me the most joy and camaraderie. And I will always be grateful for that.