There’s been a lot of excitement in Denver since the Nuggets netted standout swingman Andre Iguodala. There’s excitement, but many are somewhat patronizing in their praise. We know the Nuggets will be a must-watch on League Pass, but few see them as true contenders if they remain committed to their current core.
Perhaps that’s because the Nuggets are just as revolutionary a team as the Boston Celtics of 2008 that paired three superstars together on one roster. Not only is Denver brushed aside because their makeup is the antithesis of both that Boston team and today’s reigning NBA champs, they are dismissed by principles that have been taken as the absolute truths of the NBA (more on that below). But in many ways this team is the logical result of changes that have been going on in the league since the 1970’s.
Since the introduction of the three-point shot in 1979, the NBA, like a living organism, has continually mutated. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, changes big and small have altered the genetic makeup of the way the game is played. Traits that once allowed players to survive and thrive are slowly becoming obsolete.
Because of that, games even from the early 2000s are nearly unrecognizable when compared to the ones witnessed during recent seasons. The only thing that seems consistent is that they both were played with ten players, two hoops and one ball.
No franchise has adapted to this new environment quite like the Nuggets.
A team built for today … and tomorrow
True, franchise-altering superstars are scarce and because the current CBA depresses their market value, they have more agency to choose where and with whom to play. And where they choose to play is not Denver, despite its 300 days of sunshine.
In response to this reality, the Nuggets have molded a unit capable of exploiting the NBA’s new era as best they can. They’ve been the big beneficiaries of two major superstar trades, just not in the conventional way. In the process those deals have them poised to finish higher than teams like the Clippers and *gasp* the Lakers, two teams housing more stars but ones less capable of taking advantage of the changes in the game.
But even without a star, the game has changed in ways that offer Denver better odds of a deep post-season run.
New rules that truly favor team play
In 2004 the league began to crack down on contact on the perimeter. That same year, Mike D’Antoni brought the spread pick-and-roll system that had embarrassed Team USA in international play to the NBA. This was the start of the NBA moving away from isolation-based basketball and toward systems that required teams to move the ball quickly to different spots on the floor — often for 3-point shots. For a team like Denver that has little in the way of one-on-one scoring, this is a very good thing.
With those formal rule changes allowing ball handlers and screeners alike to be less restrained by physical play, speed — and these Nuggets are fast all over the court — became a greater asset than size. Teams began to rely more frequently on smaller lineups — and win. By 2011, the Dallas Mavericks (not a fast team in terms of personnel, but certainly in how they moved the ball) brought home a championship by allocating the majority of their backcourt minutes to three players under 6’4” who, while not all that talented compared to typical champion backcourts, specialized in spot up 3-pointers and running the pick-and-roll.
Thanks in part to more open schemes like D’Antoni’s, the 3-point shot also experienced a revolution. Routinely an afterthought pre-2000, it started to become an efficiently used weapon in team’s offensive arsenals. Stan Van Gundy’s 2009 Orlando Magic reached the Finals thanks to reliance on four shooters surrounding Dwight Howard. However instead of just posting Howard up and isolating, the Magic used Howard’s pick-and-roll skills to fuel its attack.
Ten years prior, Van Gundy’s philosophy would have been mocked relentlessly around the league — Just give the big man the rock! This year, Denver will not only play small, but feature lineups with four reliable shooters (Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Iguodala) spacing the floor for pick-and-rolls and the occasional Javale McGee post up.
Not to be outdone by their offensive counterparts, defensive masterminds like Greg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau came up with clever ploys to counter schemes like Van Gundy’s and D’Antoni’s while also taking full advantage of the newfound defensive freedom to attack isolation play. Popovich instituted the “baseline go” double team — a trap designed to come from the baseline side of a post player – that forced opposing big men to search for and execute the furthest pass away (the weakside corner). Reading double teams all of a sudden stopped being a routine chore and became a nuanced approach. The who, how and when involved in a trap can now change on a possession-by-possession basis.
Those innovative double teams were also a part of the general philosophy found in Thibodeau’s strongside pressure schemes, made famous during his tenure in Boston under Doc Rivers. After the Celtics 2008 championship, those schemes became widely implemented by the rest of the league. Before that, a big man flooding the strongside of the floor during isolation sets or sideline pick-and-rolls being sent to the baseline was rare (or illegal). Today they are commonplace.
And the Nuggets, who will look to force live-ball turnovers to fuel their transition attack, will use all these new tricks. They will deny reversals, trap post ups and rotate with speed and precision behind them. At times their aggressions will cost them layups and wide open 3’s, but more often it will go a long way in creating more of those same shots at the other end of the floor.
What the Nuggets are up against
Like I said, the assumption that the Nuggets can’t contend is based in decades of experience. The question is whether, in this new NBA landscape, these old lessons still apply.
“Defense wins championships”
Last season, the Nuggets finished 19th in defensive efficiency. The acquisition of Iguodala and a full season of an improved Javele McGee won’t be enough to make a below average defensive team a year ago the class of the league. They will surely be improved – possibly leaping into the top 10 — but their success will hinge largely on their ability to pile up points at a blistering rate (they were tops in offensive efficiency and points at the rim last season).
“The easiest way to score is through the post.”
Denver certainly won’t be getting their points from traditional post ups. McGee and holdover Timofey Mozgov won’t be confused for Tim Duncan anytime soon. In fact, the best post player on the roster is 6’3” Andre Miller.
Instead, the Nuggets will be lighting up scoreboards with their lightening fast pace in the open floor. Their transition game will be reminiscent of those Nash-led Suns squads from the mid 2000s. And when things slow down, the ball won’t be going into the post. The talented wings and guards that inhabit the roster will be looking to break down defenses with dribble-attacks and pick-and-rolls.
“You can’t win without a superstar.”
The biggest hole in their resume, however, is the lack of a bona fide superstar. As Zach Lowe pointed out, there is the possibility that Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari could grow into this role. But each player has to have quite a few things fall into place before they join the game’s elite.
Barring any trades or unexpected developments in-house, the Nuggets roster will contain three All-Star caliber players, but no transcendent talent. The question is whether they can nonetheless score reliably in the half court by developing an offensive action — think the Thunder’s pin-down screen or the Dirk-Terry pick-and-roll.
Their depth and versatility nearly ensure success in the marathon that is the regular season, but questions will abound in April. Can a revolving door of hot-hands win four straight playoff series?
Does the past dictate the future?
As spectators, just watching the Nuggets dash up and down the court is going to be a thrill. But they are an important team, and not just a fun one, because they will test all these absolute truths. They will be worth watching to see if a team constructed to exploit the superstar marketplace (despite being a small market franchise), as well as the rules that now govern how the pro game is played, can challenge teams that may have an advantage in top-tier talent. If they do, they could be an even more important contribution to the science of team-building than the Big Three model.