Gather round the internet camp fire boys and girls, it's time for another edition of The Questionable Blogger. The Clippers are playing the Denver Nuggets tonight, and the Nuggets are a very different team this season. So I asked Nate Timmons from SB Nation's Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs to share his insights into the team.
I answered some question for Nate as well, which you can read over there.
Steve Perrin: The Nuggets have been been pronounced dead more than once in the last few years. When they traded Carmelo Anthony it was "they can't compete without a superstar" but they won a franchise record 57 NBA regular season games last year. This time they're coming off an undeniably bad off-season -- yet after a 1-4 start, they've gone 13-7 and are right in the thick of the tougher-than-ever Western Conference, despite the fact that Danilo Gallinari is still out. Are you surprised at how well the team is playing?
Nate Timmons: This question sounds kind of funny coming off the Nuggets most recent loss (last night) in a game that saw them up by 21 points ... AT HOME! But to answer your question, I'm not really surprised at how well the team has looked this season. I picked them to win, I think, 47 games this season and thought if things broke right they could hit 50 wins. I don't know if they'll get there, but they still just have so many good players. Ty Lawson has turned it up another notch, slumping a bit lately, and the team plays hard with a lot of fun pieces.
SP: The Nuggets fired George Karl during the off-season despite those 57 wins. I think Karl is a terrific coach and would have loved to see him with the Clippers (though Doc Rivers is a pretty good pickup as well). What are your thoughts on that situation? Did you agree with moving on from Karl? What is your take on Brian Shaw after 25 games?
NT: We got robbed of seeing what the Nuggets 57 win team could have done. The Gallo ACL injury and the hobbled Kenneth Faried (he wasn't right until about Game 3 of the Warriors series) were really big time injuries. People don't give Gallo enough credit as a playmaker and defender on that team - to me Lawson and Gallo were the team's best all around players, Andre Iguodala the best defender, and Wilson Chandler a bench spark and a key cog late in games. That team was special man and we never got to see what they could have truly done. Makes me sick that we didn't get to see that real team in the playoffs.
You could argue the Karl firing from both sides. Josh Kroenke wanted to try things differently and people I've talked to around the league were skeptical of Denver's chances in the playoffs with their style ... Karl did take that style of high-risk high-reward defense and fast break offense to the Finals against Michael Jordan and the Bulls when he was in Seattle, so it does/can work. Hell, Karl got the Nuggets to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals and that 2009 team could have defeated the Magic in the Finals if they had got past the Lakers.
All that said, I love Brian Shaw. He's a true teacher and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He has an INCREDIBLE story that was featured on HBO's Real Sports, incredibly sad but really inspiring. He lost his parents and his sister in a car accident and has raised his niece as his daughter since she was a baby. He inspires confidence in his players and has a true teacher/student relationship.
A funny story, Shaw will have shooting contest with players after practice and the players ALWAYS want to play against him ... it seems they want to play and beat him more than anyone else. I really like his coaching too - man to man defense, no doubling, the power forwards show and blitz on pick and rolls while the centers drop back to "catch" guards. He's working to find a blend on offense of post play and fastbreaks. The team doesn't run nearly as much and it's still a learning process for the players and coach. The rotations have been interesting with injuries playing a role ... we have Andre Miller logging minutes at small forward and a lot of two point guard lineups and a lineup where Shaw has played: Lawson, Miller, Nate Robinson, Randy Foye and a big man.
SP: Randy Foye signed with the Clippers in 2010 to be the backup shooting guard. He started 24 games that year for the injured Eric Gordon, started 48 of 66 games for the injured Chauncey Billups the next season, started 72 games in Utah last year, and has started every game this year for Denver. But he's a backup, right? I'm saying, it's a bad sign if Foye is your best option at the 2. Agreed? (I like Foye, by the way, but come on.)
NT: I was hoping that Foye would be a bench player that could come in and hit some threes, but he has been asked to do a little more than that. His minutes have come down from nearly 30 a night to around 24. I was hoping that Evan Fournier would be able to unseat Foye as the starter or even Jordan Hamilton, but Ham has been playing a lot of backup small forward (which I have liked) and Fours has been incredibly inconsistent and hasn't played with a lot of confidence (he's only 21 years old). Shooting guard has easily been one of the Denver's weakest positions. I too really like Foye, very interesting guy and a really fun to talk with, but you're right - he's a backup.
SP: The Nuggets have made the playoffs ten years in a row, a streak second only to the mighty Spurs I believe. Yet they've lost in the first round in nine of those ten postseasons. Do you feel like the team is stuck in the middle? Do they need to truly blow things up and start over? In a weird way did they get too much in the Carmelo trade such that they stayed competitive rather than sinking into the lottery?
NT: I honestly think the Nuggets front office was surprised at how well the Knicks guys played for the Nuggets after that Melo trade. That Knicks team with Amare leading the way was really damn good. I wasn't surprised that the team did well after the trade because I watched so many damn Knicks games preparing for the Melo trade, but I think the Nuggets were surprised.
The Nuggets are right in the middle right now, if they make the playoffs they'll be going against one of the best teams in a tough conference. If they drew the Blazers, at least they'd be going against a team without big time playoff experience but it's an uphill battle. This Denver team has all the pieces except for the alpha dog. Imagine putting any numbers of alphas on this squad ... they'd instantly be a contender. I think Denver can wait around a bit and see if an opportunity or two comes their way - they have the Knicks' pick this season (if it winds up being better than their own) so they might get a little treat if New York is truly a mess. We'll see what happens ...
SP: Ty Lawson is averaging 18 points and 8 assists, both career highs, but with so many great point guards in the Western Conference, he barely gets noticed. Is he underrated, and if so why do you think that is?
NT: He might be slightly underrated, but I think he's actually pretty accurately rated. When he's playing really well, the team wins. When he has an off night, the team struggles. His off nights are a little more frequent than one would like and he has yet to really step up and take the leadership role that the Nuggets sorely need. Karl talked about Ty not stepping up to lead and Shaw has talked about it too. He's such a laid back guy ... he doesn't have that Kevin Garnett intensity or even the Chris Paul floor general thing. He's a really really good player, but does he really want to be great? That's the question surrounding him.
Thanks Nate. I didn't know (or didn't remember) that the Nuggets had the right to swap first rounders with the Knicks in this draft. That could be HUGE! If the Knicks don't get their act together, the Nuggets could have a lot of ping pong ball heading into a great draft. Wow. Freakin' Knicks man. What a disaster.
Remember to head over to Denver Stiffs to check out my answers to Nate's questions as well.