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Enemy at the Gates: How to Think About the Denver Nuggets

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A season ago, the Denver Nuggets served as a tasty source of first-round empty calories for the Lakers, as they were dipped in barbecue sauce and rapidly ingested en route to an L.A. sweep. Now they're back, and if you buy the considerable buzz preceding their arrival, they're poised to spring a coup d'etat in the West. Following their startling beatdowns of New Orleans and Dallas, and the Lakers' stumbling performance against Houston, the Nugs are now viewed by some as a non-ridiculous pick to upset L.A. - the first and only true in-conference challenger to emerge this season.

Las Vegas, for what it's worth, hasn't signed on to the bandwagon, as the Lakers have been installed as a comfortable favorite to advance to the Finals. Home-court advantage resides in L.A., of course, and the Lakers won three out of four games against the Nugs in the regular season. On the other hand, Denver will be considerably better-rested, not having played since May 13th, and can boast of the most impressive two-round groove of any team in the playoffs.

So what's a Laker fan to think? Is it really time to order DEFCON 1, or merely time to order another 10-piece with fries? After the jump, I'm dropping all the knowledge you need to answer these questions and become the life of your Western Conference Finals viewing party. To the analysis!

I. The View From Above.

To begin with, let's survey the Nuggets and Lakers from 30,000 feet to see how they compared during the regular season. Here are some basic metrics for the two squads, with the numbers in parentheses indicating rank among the NBA's 30 teams in the various categories:

 

  • Won-loss record: Nuggets... 54-28 (tied for 5th), Lakers... 65-17 (2nd).
  • Home record: Nuggets... 33-8 (tied for 5th), Lakers... 36-5 (2nd).
  • Road record: Nuggets... 21-20 (tied for 6th), Lakers... 29-12 (1st).
  • Pace of play (expressed in average possessions per game): Nuggets - 97.0 (5th), Lakers - 96.9 (6th).
  • Points scored per possession: Nuggets - 1.08 (7th), Lakers - 1.10 (3rd).
  • Points allowed per possession: Nuggets - 1.04 (8th), Lakers - 1.02 (5th).
  • Net points per possession: Nuggets... +0.04 (8th), Lakers... +0.08 (4th).

 

The Nugs spent the season toiling a bit out of the limelight, as they never really threatened to join Cleveland, L.A., Boston and Orlando among the NBA's ruling elite, but they nonetheless put together a very strong 82-game campaign. The signature event came in early November, when they traded Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups. As the season wore on and the Nuggets posted wins at a rate in excess of expectations, a predictable narrative attached itself to the team - the narrative being that the veteran Billups brought order to an unruly band of tatted-up miscreants and thus alchemically transformed the Nugs into a capital-t Team. I'd argue instead that the trade succeeded because Billups is a significantly more efficient player than Iverson at this stage of their careers, but at any rate, no one seems to dispute that the deal worked out awesomely for Denver.

Viewed through the lens of the broad metrics listed above, the Nuggets are kind of a low-rent version of the Lakers. Both teams excel, first and foremost, at scoring. Both teams are also quality defensive units but don't get nearly the same credit in this regard because they play at almost an identically fast pace, which inflates the number of points they allow per game. The two teams do a lot of the same things well, but over the course of the regular season, the Lakers did them just a little bit better.

II. The Nuggets' Road to the Conference Finals.

As you probably know if you're reading this, the Nugs have looked stupendous in the playoffs so far. In the first round they tore apart the New Orleans Hornets in five games, including a sickening 121-63 evisceration in Game Four. At no point was the series competitive. Over five games, the Nugs scored 1.21 points per possession (PPP) to the Hornets' 0.94.

Denver's second-round battle with the Dallas Mavericks wasn't quite so one-sided but still never gave Nuggets fans reason to sweat. The Nugs easily handled Dallas at home and, with the help of an acknowledged referee mistake, split on the road to prevail again in five games. The Mavs, at 1.14 PPP, had much more success than did the Hornets at solving the Denver defense, but the Denver O showed no signs of slowing, hanging a splendid 1.22 PPP for the series.

Consider this: through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Denver has lost only twice - both times on the road - by a total of four points.

Below are the Nuggies' composite, tempo-free stats for the postseason to date. If you'd like to see how the Laker numbers compare, click here and scroll to the bottom.

 

  • Average possessions per game: 92.
  • Turnover rate: Nuggets - 13%, Opponents - 18%.
  • FTA/FGA: Nuggets - 0.42, Opponents - 0.41.
  • Free throw shooting: Nuggets - 76%, Opponents - 80%.
  • Effective field goal percentage: Nuggets - 56%, Opponents - 48%.
  • True shooting percentage: Nuggets - 61%, Opponents - 55%.
  • Offensive rebounding rate: Nuggets - 26%, Opponents - 25%.
  • Defensive rebounding rate: Nuggets - 75%, Opponents - 74%.
  • Points per possession: Nuggets - 1.21, Opponents - 1.04.

 

Impressed? You should be. Those are some stellar figures. Denver's defense has been pretty strong, particularly in forcing turnovers and controlling the defensive glass, but they've really been winning by bombing away with made baskets until there's nothing left of their opponents. A true shooting percentage of 60 is the point at which it becomes pretty hard to lose a game, and the Nuggets have averaged 61% True Shooting over 10 games, against playoff-caliber teams. Damn, baby.

I do think it's fair to discount these numbers a bit based on the quality of opposition. New Orleans especially was a "playoff caliber" team only in the most literal sense of that phrase. They were a wounded, disharmonious mess at the end of the regular season, and didn't exactly compete with the utmost elan in making a quick first-round exit. Dallas was a bit sturdier but probably wouldn't have made the second round had they not been gifted a first-round series against the wheezing Spurs.

But still. The Nuggets didn't get to choose their opponents, and they deserve credit for not monkeying around with overmatched competition. Unlike some teams we blog about.

III. When the Nuggets Have the Ball.

Now that we've covered how this conference finals pairing came about, let's pop the hood and look at the details, starting with the matchup between the Nugs O and the Laker D. Here are some more tempo-free team stats drawn from the regular season, with league rank once again in parentheses:

 

  • Turnover rate: Nuggets (committed) - 17% (25th), Lakers (forced) - 17% (6th).
  • FTA/FGA: Nuggets - 0.38 (1st), Lakers (opponents) - 0.28 (9th).
  • Free throw shooting: Nuggets - 76% (20th).
  • Effective field goal percentage: Nuggets - 51% (7th), Lakers (allowed) - 49% (8th).
  • True shooting percentage: Nuggets - 56% (3rd), Lakers (allowed) - 53% (6th).
  • Rebounding rate: Nuggets (offensive) - 28% (15th), Lakers (defensive) - 73% (18th).
  • Points per possession: Nuggets - 1.08 (7th), Lakers (allowed) - 1.02 (5th).

 

The Nugs are one of the most efficient shooting teams in the NBA, and they get to the line better than anyone. Most of the shots run through Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Billups, but big men Nene and Chris Andersen aren't Chuck Hayesian offensive zeroes you can just ignore. The Lakers will have plenty to keep track of on defense.

A key matchup here, as it was against Houston, will be at the point guard position. Laker fans have bad memories of Billups dating to 2004, and he certainly has the potential to wreak similar havoc again, but he doesn't present quite the same matchup nightmare we encountered in Aaron Brooks. He's not going to blow up defenders on the dribble over and over again; what he presents instead is superior size, court-savvy and deadly shooting touch. Derek Fisher might not be the severe defensive liability he was against Brooks, but once again Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown will be preferable options.

The other big question is how to handle Melo, who's had some terrible games against the Lakers this year. (See Part V, below.) He can expect a heavy dose of Trevor Ariza, but the alternatives for when Trevor's on the bench aren't that appealing. Kobe will take the assignment for short stretches, especially late in close games, and Lamar Odom might fill in here as well. I wonder whether Phil will attempt to synch up Trevor's playing time with Melo's, much as Rick Adelman did with Shane Battier and Kobe in the series just ended.

Among NBA offenses, Denver's is one of the least reliant on jump-shooting. According to 82games, only 60% of Denver's field goal attempts were jump shots, a figure lower than that of every team except Charlotte and Philadelphia. The Nugs do, however, love their dunks, which made up a league-best 9% of their FGAs, tops in the league. The onus will be on the Laker bigs to remain stout in the paint and - I'm looking at you, Andrew Bynum - stay out of foul trouble.

The good news for the Lakers D is that the Nugs tend to turn the ball over. A lot. It hasn't been a problem for them so far in the playoffs, but in the regular season Anthony Carter, Smith, Dahntay Jones, Melo and Andersen all had mediocre-or-worse turnover rates. Forcing turnovers has been a Laker strength all year long.

In addition, Denver isn't a strong offensive rebounding team. Individually, Melo, Jones, Andersen and Linas Kleiza are strong offensive rebounders for their positions, but Nene and Kenyon Martin most decidedly are not and act as a heavy drag in this regard.

IV. When the Lakers Have the Ball.

Here's how the Laker offense lines up against the Denver D, in terms of their regular season, tempo-free numbers:

 

  • Turnover rate: Lakers (committed) - 14% (5th), Nuggets (forced) - 17% (7th).
  • FTA/FGA: Lakers - 0.30 (18th), Nuggets (opponents) - 0.33 (25th).
  • Free throw shooting: Lakers - 77% (14th).
  • Effective field goal percentage: Lakers - 51% (6th), Nuggets (allowed) - 49% (5th).
  • True shooting percentage: Lakers - 56% (7th), Nuggets (allowed) - 54% (9th).
  • Rebounding rate: Lakers (offensive) - 29% (3rd), Nuggets (defensive) - 71% (23rd).
  • Points per possession: Lakers (scored) - 1.10 (3rd), Nuggets - 1.04 (8th).

 

In terms of turnovers and shooting, it's strength-on-strength. The Nuggets can force turnovers, but the Lakers don't commit many. The Lakers are among the best shooting teams in the league, but Denver has one of the best field goal defenses. Denver will put you at the line, but that's not a weakness L.A. is all that well positioned to exploit.

Where it gets troublesome for Denver, again, is on the boards. Nene and Martin are weak spots; Billups and Smith, for their size, provide little help; and Andersen and Kleiza, while decent, will never be confused with Moses Malone. They depend on Melo for defensive rebounds to a surprising degree.

An interesting characteristic of Denver's roster is its tactical flexibility. At every position, George Karl has both a scorer and a defensive specialist at his disposal. While that means he has a variety of levers to pull as game conditions dictate, it means also that he has to weigh trade-offs. For instance, if Smith can't stay with Kobe - which he likely can't - Karl may have to keep Jones or even Renaldo Balkman on the floor more than he'd like, which entails a sacrifice of scoring punch.

This series, in fact, should seem like a holiday for Kobe. The Nuggets don't have one perimeter defender on the order of Battier and Ron Artest, let alone two of them. The Mamba should have a much easier time finding clean looks from outside and getting to the rim.

The battle in the post when the Lakers have the ball will be a fierce one. Martin, Nene and Andersen are all quality defenders, and as a group they don't surrender nearly the height advantage L.A. enjoyed against Houston. Bynum and Pau Gasol can't shrink from the challenge.

V. The Lakers have already played these guys before, right?

Dude, I already told you: they won three of four during the regular season. But you probably want the deets, huh? No problem - that's what I'm here for. Kindly feast your eyes on the composite numbers from the regular season series:

 

  • Average possessions per game: 97.
  • Turnover rate: Lakers - 15%, Nuggets - 17%.
  • FTA/FGA: Lakers - 0.39, Nuggets - 0.37.
  • Free throw shooting: Lakers - 78%, Nuggets - 75%.
  • Effective field goal percentage: Lakers - 42%, Nuggets - 47%.
  • True shooting percentage: Lakers - 49%, Nuggets - 52%.
  • Offensive rebounding rate: Lakers - 35%, Nuggets - 22%.
  • Defensive rebounding rate: Lakers - 78%, Nuggets - 65%.
  • Points per possession: Lakers - 1.04, Nuggets - 0.98.

 

Very interesting, if I do say so myself. First, some personnel notes: the first of the four games was before the Iverson-Billups deal, the third was shortly after the Bynum injury, and the fourth was Bynum's first game back.

What the numbers above tell us is that the typical game between these two teams is a fast-paced defensive struggle. The Lakers have shot the ball terribly against Denver but got the better of the season series by winning the turnover battle and absolutely owning the boards. The one Laker loss, in February at the Pepsi Center, might have been their worst shooting game of the season, as they could manage an EFG% of only 31 and only 79 points for the game.

The other thing to note about the regular-season series is that for the most part, Melo was awful:

 

  • Game One: 5-for-15, 13 points, 5 turnovers.
  • Game Two: 5-for-19, 10 points, 3 turnovers.
  • Game Three: 4-for-17, 12 points, 5 turnovers.
  • Game Four: 8-for-16, 23 points, 2 turnovers.

 

That's one solid performance and three Artestian disasters. I don't remember the games well enough to opine to the cause of his struggles, but Nuggets fans need to hope that the Lakers don't somehow have him spooked.

VI. OK, great. What in particular should I be looking for?

A question most astute. Here are the five things I'll be keeping an eye on come Tuesday night:

 

  1. Have the Nugs had too much time off? Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus published some research showing that Denver's time off is likely to help its chances of upsetting the Lakers. Under the particular circumstances of this series, I'm not so sure. The Nugs were riding such a groove after disposing of Denver, I can't help but think they'd have preferred to keep it going. I expect L.A. to be the sharper team in Game One.
  2. Will Billups destroy the Lakers' PGs? This is the matchup that could get really ugly for L.A. Phil needs to use a quick hook if Fish can't at least slow him down.
  3. What's up with Melo? Do the Lakers really have him figured out? After the Rockets series, it's hard to believe the Lakers have anyone figured out, but they really have had Melo on lockdown for long stretches this year.
  4. Will Kobe destroy the Nuggets' SGs? And this is the matchup that could get really ugly for Denver. Freed from the Battier/Artest menace, Kobe will look to strike early and often. Figuring how how to defend him is Karl's primary strategic challenge in this series.
  5. Bynum, Bynum, Bynum. Stop me if you've heard this before. At this point in the playoffs, he's no longer a luxury - he's a necessity. He needs to be a contributing presence on both ends, and to stay out of foul trouble, for the Lakers to advance.

Thanks much for reading this far, and enjoy Game One. The playoffs are nerve-racking, but when your team's in the conference finals, how much can you really complain? Let's have some fun with it.