The Denver Nuggets underwent possibly the most radical offseason makeover of any team this side of the Boston Celtics last summer. General manager Masai Ujiri took his talents to the Toronto Raptors. Assistant GM Pete D’Alessandro left for the Sacramento Kings. Head coach George Karl was fired after pushing for and being denied a contract extension, and Phil Jackson disciple Brian Shaw was tapped to take over the team. Starting center Kosta Koufos was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur on draft night. That was all a prelude to free agency, when Andre Iguodala was signed-and-traded to the Golden State Warriors in a deal that returned Randy Foye and a second round pick, and the team signed Nate Robinson and JJ Hickson.
Needless to say, the Nuggets were expected to look different this season. Everyone figured the defense would fall off a cliff again without Iguodala (the team’s best perimeter defender) and Koufos (the best interior defender), and while the defense has been a problem for these Nuggets (Denver has dropped back down to 20th in defensive efficiency after rising from 19th in 2011-12 to 11th last season), it hasn’t been a disaster. The offense, on the other hand, has been an outright calamity thus far this season.
Nearly all statistical traces of the Karl-era Denver teams are missing through the team’s first three games. The Nuggets ranked in the top five in pace (possessions per game) in every season under Karl’s stewardship, per NBA.com. They’re just 11th this season, the first time since the 2002-03 season they’re outside the top 10.
After leading the league in restricted area field goal attempts in each of the last three seasons, Denver ranks just 11th in per-game attempts from that location this season. The last five seasons saw the Nuggets rank 5th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 1st in free throw rate (free throws per field goal attempt). This year’s team checks in 18th. Denver led the league in both fast break points and points off turnovers last season, and this year they’re just 14th and 30th, respectively.
The result of all this is a team that hasn’t finished outside the top seven in offensive efficiency since George W. Bush was president scoring at the second worst per-possession rate in the league. Denver doesn’t have the excuse of having faced good defenses, either. Though last night’s game came against a strong defensive team in the Spurs, the Nuggets’ other two opponents – Sacramento and Portland – rank in the bottom four in defensive efficiency this season, per NBA.com. This may turn out to be small sample noise eventually, but the early returns are damn ugly. And it’s not even like Denver is generating good looks and just missing them. Things often appear strained. Take this half-opening possession against the Spurs last night.
A high screen and roll for Ty Lawson was not an uncommon sight in Denver the last few seasons. Kenneth Faried ducking into post in front of the play, though? That’s as uncommon as it gets. Faried is a hustle player – an energy guy. His post game leaves a lot to be desired. There’s almost no circumstance in which he should be posting up Tiago Splitter to begin with, but the worst thing about his duck in is that is happens directly in what should be an open driving lane for Lawson.
Lawson, as per usual, comes around McGee’s screen with a head of steam. He’s got Tim Duncan backpedaling at the free throw line, and this is a situation in which he could normally attack the basket for a layup, or draw multiple defenders to kick out for a three. This is what happens instead.
Lawson strings his dribble out to the elbow, where Parker cuts off his driving lane. Duncan quickly recovers to deny any pass to McGee on his roll to the rim. And Faried’s duck in ruins any chance of the ball quickly getting into the paint. Lawson enters the ball to Faried in the post, who sees this court arrangement when he faces up.
All five San Antonio defenders have at least one foot in the paint. A player who is not a threat to score either with his jumper or off the dribble has the ball against a stout post defender. The only available passing lanes are to Lawson at the top of the key, where Parker would easily recover to contest a shot, or to Jordan Hamilton on the opposite wing, but Kawhi Leonard is standing in the middle of that lane. Faried’s not a skilled enough passer to get the ball to Hamilton here. So he takes a fading jumper than clangs off the glass.
This is just one example, but far too many Denver possessions look a lot like this – the only slight differences being that it’s McGee or Hickson or Darrell Arthur catching in the post. It seems apparent that Brian Shaw is intent on imposing a style of play that doesn’t particularly fit his personnel. Shaw is unfortunately strapped with a team that’s relatively low on outside shooting, so he’s got to get creative with the way he manufactures looks. Running Lawson off ball screen after ball screen seems as good a way as any to do that, but far too often so far, his driving lanes have been clogged by bigs stationing themselves in spots on the floor they never used to be under Karl.
Lawson, for his part, expressed major frustration to Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post.
“Coach told me he wanted me to be aggressive. And I told him, ‘Well, where do you want me to go?’ How am I going to be aggressive if I beat my man, and then I have to beat the defender of our big in the lane, if he’s standing in the way?” Lawson said. “The level of frustration was pretty high.”
To his credit, Shaw is bluntly honest that he issued a difficult challenge to how Lawson views the game, and his role.
“We’ve made no secret about it: Our big guys need help from our guards,” Shaw said.
To his credit, Lawson has tried to see the logic in the new approach, rather than dig in his heels with a stubbornness his $10.7 million salary could allow.
“It’s been a big adjustment,” said Lawson, who added he is slowly learning to pick new spots and ways to attack the defense. “I like to penetrate and touch the paint. It’s a little bit harder when there are bigs in the lane, waiting for the post (pass). There’s really nowhere for me to drive. Now, I’m working on passing inside and then cutting. I never really cut during my first couple years in the league. Now, cutting off the big could actually get me an easier shot, either from the corner or with a baseline layup. This could take my game to another level, make it more multidimensional.”
His frustration has been evident in his performance. Lawson’s shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc. It’s certainly possible that things turn around eventually – that the new offensive system creates better looks from three so Lawson can shoot off the catch rather than off the dribble, that McGee and/or Faried takes a major step as a passer and starts hitting Lawson with bounce passes on cuts to the basket; but given the skill sets of the players involved, it doesn’t seem all that likely. Lawson’s good enough that he won’t struggle like this all season, but the off-dribble dynamo we saw in the Karl years is going to have to make some big adjustments to get back to that level.