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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nuggets Eclipse Suns, 126-113

Wednesday night's ESPN game provided a good opportunity to check out two of the most enigmatic teams in the West: the perennially underachieving Denver Nuggets and the new-look Phoenix Suns. Phoenix arrived in Denver for the second half of a back to back after beating the Blazers in Portland 97-92 on Tuesday, while the Nuggets have been off since they lost 103-89 at Houston on Sunday. You can dismiss the concept of a "scheduling loss" if you insist but one of the big differences between playoff basketball and regular season basketball is the amount of time off between games. In any case, Phoenix led by as many as eight points in the first quarter but the Nuggets took control with a 16-0 second quarter run and cruised to a 126-113 victory, dropping the Suns to 3-5 since they traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal.

Many people were skeptical of the O'Neal trade even before any games were played and now the doubters are out in full force. Before we even analyze what is happening on the court, let's do a "Woody Paige" and look at the schedule: the first loss of the Suns' Shaq era came at the hands of the Lakers, one of the hottest teams in the league; that was followed by a win against Boston--the team with the league's best record--and then a loss to Detroit, the second best team in the East at the moment. The third loss came in New Orleans in the second game of a back to back. Philadelphia delivered the fourth loss; that looks bad, because the Sixers are currently just 28-33--but the Sixers have won 10 of their last 13 (admittedly, several of those victories were against weak teams). The Nuggets, fighting for their very playoff lives in the super competitive West, provided loss number five of the Shaq era.

Before the Nuggets-Suns game, Hubie Brown assessed O'Neal's impact so far, pointing out that the Suns were the worst rebounding team in the league before acquiring Shaq but that they now have a positive rebounding differential. Brown noted that this advantage on the glass has been translated into improved fast break production. O'Neal had a season-high 18 rebounds against Denver and the Suns outrebounded the Nuggets 40-39. O'Neal also scored 12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting and looked more mobile and active than he has at any time this season. The problem for the Suns was that the Nuggets' guards and small forwards simply murdered them. J.R. Smith came off of the bench to score 20 points in 21 minutes. Allen Iverson had 31 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and 0 turnovers. Steve Nash may be a two-time MVP, but the only way he is even going to slow down Iverson is by tripping him with one of those trophies. OK, a lot of guys have problems checking Iverson and the Suns tried to "hide" Nash for most of the game by having him cover Anthony Carter--but Carter had 11 points and 11 assists, essentially canceling out Nash's production (12 points, 13 assists).

Small forward Grant Hill spent a lot of time chasing around Iverson, which left shooting guard Raja Bell to deal with Carmelo Anthony, who pushed Bell all over the court, snaring 13 rebounds--including six on the offensive glass--and scoring 30 points. At times, Anthony seemed to have a look of disbelief on his face that Bell was trying to guard him. Clearly, the Suns could have used Marion here but since the Suns no longer have him they have to take better advantage of the mismatches that are in their favor, such as O'Neal posting up much smaller defenders like Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera. The Suns have another 21 games to get used to each other before the playoffs begin and in the postseason they will have at least a day off between games, so I still think that they can be a formidable playoff opponent. Swapping Marion for O'Neal may have cost them some regular season wins but by upgrading their size and rebounding they are better constructed for playoff basketball.

Even though the Nuggets looked great in winning this game, they may not even make the playoffs. Brown noted before the game that they are fourth in the league in scoring and have Camby--who he called the league's best defender--patrolling the paint but he stressed that the other four players must step up on defense. When Moses Malone won his first MVP largely on the strength of his offensive rebounding, he thanked his teammates for missing so many shots; Camby, who is gunning for his third straight shotblocking crown, could similarly thank his teammates for blowing so many defensive assignments. The Nuggets trail the Golden State Warriors by one game for the final playoff spot and they are just 14-17 against teams with plus-.500 records. They were obviously geared up to play a Suns team that they felt had run up the score on them earlier this season but the Nuggets are just 4-5 in their last nine games, hardly the kind of closing push that will earn a postseason berth.

The Nuggets have two All-Stars in Iverson and Anthony--and Brown said that he thought Camby should have made the team as well--but their team defense on a night in, night out basis is not good. Denver went 32-8 down the stretch in 2005 after George Karl took over as head coach and ever since then the Nuggets have fooled a lot of people into believing that they are on the verge of being legitimate contenders; they even fooled themselves, with several of their players saying before this season that they would win 60 games (they are 36-24 now, which means that 60 wins is mathematically impossible).

It is amusing to read or listen to mainstream media "experts" who have no idea what they are talking about; no one can predict everything correctly but many of these "experts" are so frequently completely wrong that they are fortunate that their salaries are not linked in any way to their statements actually making sense or being accurate. For instance, at the start of this season, Stephen A. Smith declared that the Nuggets would make it to the NBA Finals and that the Cavaliers would not even qualify for the playoffs. Here is what I wrote about the Nuggets in the 2007-08 edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball: "Each year we hear that this is the season that Denver will emerge as a legitimate title contender, but the Nuggets have consistently been a lower echelon playoff team for four straight years, winning between 43 and 49 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs each time." In my Western Conference Preview, I ranked the Nuggets seventh and wrote, "Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses."

In order to win consistently in the NBA, you must rebound and defend. Those things are not glamorous but, as Pat Riley said decades ago, "No rebounds, no rings." Rebounding and defense are why the Spurs are always a very good team and why the Cavaliers' Finals run last year was not a fluke; rebounding and defense are why the Nash-era Suns have never made it to the Finals and why the Anthony-era Nuggets' playoff runs always end in the first round. To get over the top, a team usually also needs a star player who can create offense for himself and his teammates but Denver is proving that you can have two guys like that and still not be a great team if you don't also have a collective commitment to playing defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM



At Thursday, March 06, 2008 7:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey David!

How would you rate Melo's post offense with among other guards/forwards? Come to think of it, he's even better than most bigmen... He was a monster in the playoffs.
With their "my turn / your turn" offense, would it be better to trade iverson for defensive guards who can space the floor, and let Melo do his damage from the post? Or would the mismatches that Iverson creates(when the opposing team doesn't have the personnel to chase him) make them more successful in the playoffs?

Oh, and what exactly is wrong with the Nuggets' defense? Iverson should be able to keep up with anyone, Melo has the size, strength, and speed. Camby is an excellent weak side defender... Martin has a big mouth and a small game, but he is a pretty strong guy.

Sure they don't always give full efforts on defense during the regular season, but when they were in the playoffs, their defense was still bad... I mean the physical ability is there... it's the playoffs so the desire must be there... what are they doing wrong? Does the Carter-Iverson back court get exploited far too often?

Oh, and do you think the Nuggets match up well with the Suns?


At Thursday, March 06, 2008 11:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Those are several interesting questions.

1) Melo is one of the best offensive players in the post in the NBA. He is quick and strong, obviously a deadly combination. He may very well be the best post player on offense among the league's guards and forwards. He is a little bigger and stronger than Kobe and has better footwork in the post than LeBron. Sam Cassell is a crafty player in the post (not that he is number two, but his name is worth mentioning in this context). One of the most amazing guards I have seen in the post was Gary Payton, a scrawny 6-4 guy who was not a great leaper but could seemingly post up just about anyone in his prime.

2) I don't think that Iverson is cramping Melo's style on offense or vice versa; they rank third and fourth in the league in scoring individually and the Nuggets are one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Offense just is not a problem for this team at all. I'm not sure which "defensive guards" you have in mind but I would not trade Iverson for one dimensional role players. Iverson is still one of the top players in the league.

3) Iverson gambles a lot, which sometimes leads to steals but also can lead to chain reaction breakdowns in the overall defense. Certain guards can take advantage of him in the post, also. Melo does have all the tools but he does not play hard on defense consistently. He also often seems to not know or care where exactly he is supposed to be on defense; I pointed this out when he played for Team USA and Greece shredded Team USA's defense. Melo missed a lot of assignments there. K-Mart is a lot more talk than action. He is an undersized player who relies on his jumping ability and who thinks he can intimidate guys with his talking but the better post players use their height and weight effectively against him down low. You know how FICA takes a percentage out of everyone's checks? Jason Kidd should be getting at least 10% of whatever K-Mart makes, because Kidd's lobs made K-Mart look good and helped him to get a big deal.

4) As I wrote in my Lindy's Preview, an Atkins-Iverson backcourt (or the current Carter-Iverson backcourt) will always suffer defensively not only because of Iverson's gambling but because it is difficult to defend well with two small guards on the court at the same time.

5) The Nuggets played well against the Suns in this particular game but I'm not sure that this is indicative of what would happen in a playoff series. Melo is going to be a matchup problem for Phx without Marion, as is Iverson versus Hill/Nash/whoever. Phx must counter by using Shaq to get Camby in foul trouble and by not letting J.R. Smith go nuts. As I suggested in the post, I expect Phx to get it together by the playoffs and I would think that Phx would beat Denver in a seven game series. Of course, with the way the standings are now, they are not likely to face each other this year.

At Friday, March 07, 2008 12:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


#1) Nice to read your (i) acknowledgment that Defense and Rebounding (in addition to efficient Offense) are crucial for Championship success, in the NBA ... and, (ii) the Primacy of Match-ups in the 'pro' game.

#2) As I told you quite some time ago ... the Phoenix Suns will not be advancing out of the 1st Round of the Playoffs this season, and will not be going further than the LA Lakers.

Best wishes to you.


At Friday, March 07, 2008 3:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I've always emphasized the importance of defense and rebounding; that is why I predicted a Spurs-Cavs Finals before last year's playoffs began.

Did you tell me about PHX and LAL before or after every single team in the Western Conf. playoff picture reconfigured their rosters? I like the Lakers' chances a lot more now than I did before they got Gasol--and I'll like their chances even more if they get Bynum back for the playoffs, assuming that Bynum is able to play the way he did before he got hurt.

The way things stand now, I would expect the Lakers to go further than the Suns but I am not convinced that the Suns will be eliminated in the first round (I'll withhold judgment on that until the Suns have a little more time to gel and until I see who they are playing in the first round).

At Friday, March 07, 2008 8:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I told you about the strength of this year's Lakers' team prior to the great Western Conference 're-configuration'.



At Friday, March 07, 2008 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That doesn't exactly count, unless you foresaw every move that these teams would make and determined how good the Lakers would be relative to the other teams. The Lakers got rid of a total stiff for a former All-Star. That changes things just a little bit, don't you think?

By the way, last I checked, the first round has not been played yet, either.

At Friday, March 07, 2008 11:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


1) You bet it counts.

* If there were no moves made at all ... my call would still stand.


* With the moves that have been made by several teams ... my call still stands now.

Either way, this 'NBA expert' could tell before Christmas that this year's Lakers team was ready to start their climb to the top of the league ... as the Suns were ready to begin their descent.

Fact is ... I just calls 'em as I sees 'em.

2) The Suns are going to finish somewhere from 5th-8th in the WC, and then lose in the 1st Round of the Playoffs. That's my prediction.

Had they not made the Marion/Banks for Shaq trade ... they would have finished somewhere from 3rd-6th, won their 1st Rd Playoff Series and then Lost in the WC semi-finals.

The window of opportunity for the Suns to win the NBA title has now been closed. That is my prediction.



At Friday, March 07, 2008 11:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW ... the Suns just lost another game - PHO 118, UTA 126 - surrendering 41 pts in the 4th Quarter, while playing at home.

At Saturday, March 08, 2008 12:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If there had been no moves at all then things might be very different. We will never know.

Gasol supplies a lot of what the Lakers were missing and playing alongside Kobe enables him to be a good second option instead of an overmatched first option. Earlier in the year, the subtraction of Smush, the addition of Fisher and the improvement of Bynum made the Lakers better than they were last season.

I completely agree with your assessment of the pre-trade Suns.

I think that the post-trade Suns will look better in the playoffs than they do now. I don't think that they will win the championship; I've never thought that.

Utah was a bad matchup for the Suns last year with Marion, also; Utah beat them 3-1 in the regular season and would have beaten them in the WCF if the Suns had gotten past the Spurs.

At Saturday, March 08, 2008 9:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sorry ... just in case you didn't realize it, at the time, 11:44 was from me, as well.

Right now, seems as though you have your hands full with the Kelly Dwyer situation.

Word of advice ...

you might want to re-think the 'value' of publicizing the contents of emails sent to you (by others), on your blog.


Live long & prosper.

At Saturday, March 08, 2008 2:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I figured that the comment was from you.

Normally, I don't publicize emails that are sent to me personally but this was so over the top--in so many ways--that I thought that the reading public should know about it.


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