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Return to NBA relevancy can come in many forms for Denver Nuggets

Travis Heath Avatar
October 29, 2015


What’s up, Nuggets’ nation? Good to talk to you again. If you are new to my work, I had the good fortune of covering the Nuggets through most of the Carmelo Anthony era (2005-11). I was the one weird “internet guy” who was credentialed by the Nuggets while covering the team for the late, great Hoopsworld.com. Oh, how the world has changed in a decade where Internet scribes now predominate the press box. These were good times. I ended up doing some work on both Altitude and NBA TV as a result of the many great people I met during my time on the beat. After the 2010-11 season I was offered a position as a consultant with an NBA team (hint: not the one in Denver), and after accepting, had to move away from writing.

These days life is very busy as a husband, father to a 3.5-year-old daughter, psychologist in private practice, and professor. I simply don’t have any time to write about or cover the NBA or the Nuggets in the way I once did. Heck, I didn’t think I had any time to write about it at all until Nate Timmons approached me with the idea of writing a monthly column. Given that I will watch every second of every Nuggets’ game (even if it means struggling to keep my eyes open as I fast-forward through commercials on my DVR at 2am with my daughter set to arise in four hours or less), I figured I would still have some interesting perspectives to share. And as a Denver native who has either watched or listened to every Nuggets’ game since the mid-80’s (yes, there was a time, kids, when not every game was televised), my passion for the team remains as strong as ever. This will just be my little space to write about the Nuggets – the good, the bad, and the ugly – in a way that will keep me sane and avoid those late night sessions mumbling at the television as my wife watches half amused and half concerned for my physical and psychological well-being.

So without further adieu, here are some quick nuggets on our Nuggets:

The Merits of Malone: Hiring Michael Malone this offseason was an important move. He was the man I wanted to get the job when it was apparent that George Karl wasn’t going to be back after the 2012-13 campaign. He is a phenomenal communicator who knows how to connect with players. This is paramount in the modern NBA. In fact, one could say this has been of the utmost importance in the league for the last three or four decades. Rarely does a coach bring a system to a team that wins titles. Instead, a great coach learns the psychology of his players and what buttons to push at what times. When this happens players are empowered to play their best. Malone was on his way to doing this in Sacramento winning five of the team’s first six games out of the gate last season with DeMarcus Cousins beginning to realize his enormous potential. Not long after, Cousins missed extended time with viral meningitis and Malone was inexplicably fired. The Kings’ loss will turn out to be the Nuggets’ gain.

One can already see the difference in the mercurial Kenneth Faried in preseason. This difference is not primarily about what Malone is doing with his X’s and O’s, but rather, is mostly due to Malone’s efforts to build a relationship with him over the summer months. Malone is not a coach who will be walked all over, either. He simply understands when to get on a player and when to praise them. With Cousins in Sacramento, old NBA friends have told me Malone went out of his way to praise him publicly while getting on him at practice and that Cousins appreciated this more than most people initially understood. Faried and his teammates have already responded to the way Malone runs practices and handles the media.

In a league that is becoming increasingly more obsessed with analytics, it is still relationships, which cannot be completely and accurately quantified, that are the catalyst for a team finding championship success. It was Phil Jackson’s unique and varied abilities in relationship building that helped push his teams over the top. If you need further proof it wasn’t the system, look at the failures and at best mediocrity of the vaunted triangle offense almost every other time it was used in major professional and collegiate basketball. Look at what Steve Kerr did last season with the Warriors. It was far more about connecting and empowering players than it was about strategy and tactics. It would be a bit overly optimistic to say that Malone will have the level of early success that Kerr did or the long-term success of Jackson, but for a Nuggets team desperately looking to change its’ culture, Malone was a homerun hire for Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly.

A Fresh New Faried?: The limitations of The Manimal have been well chronicled during his still relatively brief tenure in the NBA. Yes, he is undersized. No, he hasn’t been a great on-ball position defender in the post. And yes, he has been almost pouty at times when conditions seem to be less than optimal. I’m certainly not going to argue with any of the aforementioned observations. Although, as noted in my assessment of Malone’s hire above, I do think the new coach will have a significant impact.

All that said, I reflect on the sage advice from one of my best friends in the business of basketball. This is a man who has coached in the NBA, college, and internationally and has also worked as a scout, director of basketball operations, and in various other front office roles. I once submitted a series of scouting reports to him when I was consulting for a team he was a front office member of and he replied to my reports by saying: “All of these primarily just tell me what the players cannot do. What can they do, Travis?” It was a simple critique but a brilliant one.

It just so happens that one of the players in my report was a forward from Morehead State named Kenneth Faried. I first scouted him in a game against Colorado State in, I believe, 2010. I made all of the common criticisms you hear about Faried these days along with a few others. However, when challenged to note reasons why he could be successful in the NBA, I wrote that rebounding almost always transfers from college to the pros and that you can’t teach energy. I still believe this about Faried. Get him active on both backboards and running in the open floor, and you’ve got a player who will do more good for your team than bad. I also think Malone’s defensive philosophy will help Faried become a better individual defender and that better team defense will help cover up some of his liabilities. I have always believed Faried would be best suited for a sixth man role, but I’m fine with him starting given the current talent on the roster. Instead of worrying about what Faried can’t do, as former head coach Brain Shaw did almost incessantly, it’s time to embrace and put him into positions to demonstrate what he can.

Superstar Potential: The Nuggets biggest issue since the departure of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups is that there has been no one on the roster who was ever going to become a superstar. People have frequently pointed to Danilo Gallinari. Sorry, but if Gallo is your best player you likely won’t even qualify for the postseason (unless you are in an awful conference like the one currently out East). He’s a third offensive option at best for a team that really has a chance to qualify for, and win in, the playoffs. Luckily, Nuggets’ fans no longer have to spend time debating the merits of Gallo’s superstar potential because they finally have a player on the roster who could be transformational in rookie Emmanuel Mudiay.

Let me start by saying save me the preseason stats on Mudiay’s turnovers, which I have seen cited in multiple places in the last few days. First, he improved even in the brief preseason as it progressed at taking care of the basketball. Second, he’s a rookie and is going to have some 8 turnover and 5-20 shooting nights. All rookie point guards do. Third, I don’t need any stats to show me that Mudiay has a chance to be great. Watching him, it’s almost stunning what an amazing feel for the game he has and this just cannot be taught. His ability to see the shooters weakside on the pick-and-roll is stupendous and something the vast majority of point guards in the league now cannot do in the same way. His patience in setting up defenders was also stunning and left me chuckling at the fact that this was a 19-year-old kid. In a league obsessed with the pick-and-roll, Mudiay will become one of the best at executing it.

When I see Mudiay play I see a lot of Jason Kidd and a little bit of Chauncey Billups. Kidd’s incredible innate feel for the game is so rare. A lot of players have been compared to him over the years, but I’ve always thought most of these comparisons to be almost laughable. In a league full of talented point guards, very few have the kind of natural feel for getting their teammates involved. Players like Derek Rose and Russell Westbrook, for example, came into the league with incredible scoring ability and athleticism, but they didn’t have the same feel for playing the point as Mudiay does at age 19. Mudiay is also not the quickest guard, the most dynamic athlete, or the best shooter. This reminds me very much of Billups when he came into the league. Smooth beat people with his basketball I.Q. and developed a jumper over time. Kidd was also not a great shooter when he came in the league, but he became one of the best in his later years. Shooting is a skill that can be taught and improved upon with repetition. Innate playmaking ability cannot.

Simply put, Mudiay is a basketball player and a true point guard in a league enamored with athletes and lead guards who can score. Count me among those who are happy the Nuggets went old school with this pick and also among those who believe he can be a franchise-changer over the course of his career.

The Need for Nurkic: Truth be told, I had a bit of inside info on Nurkic prior to the 2014 draft as I had already seen film on him for a previous scouting assignment for a team I was consulting for. I knew he would be a dominant rebounder in the league and that he had a floor game that was usually reserved for players at least six inches shorter. I consistently corrected people on radio who prior to the season characterized him as nothing more than a “bruiser.” My response was that this kid would have a chance to be a legit starting center in the league. After watching him for the first two months of the season, I revised the ceiling of that prediction thinking that perhaps he could become an All-Star. Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed with the way he played in January and February of last season.

My initial sense was that maybe Nurkic had started to catch wind of his own hype and gotten too big for his already gigantic britches. I love the kid’s moxie, but the line between confidence and cockiness is tenuously thin. It was beyond irritating last season to see Nurkic wipe his head continuously nearly every time he was fouled looking for blood, almost always to no avail. To me, this was a sign that the kid needs to get tougher and that his bite didn’t always reach the level of his bark. It was also a sign that he has some maturing to do, which is just fine considering he couldn’t legally have a beer (in this country, anyway) until last August.

On the other hand, maybe Nurkic’s decreased effectiveness was due to the fact that he was already feeling the effects of the knee injury that would eventually require surgery and sideline him for the remainder of the last campaign and for the start of this one, too. Whatever the case, Nurkic is a key cog in the future of the franchise. A one-two punch of Nurkic and Mudiay could be one that evolves into a huge problem for opposing teams and pushes the Nuggets back into NBA relevancy.

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