If you watched the Nuggets during the first 19 games of their lockout-compressed NBA schedule, you saw a deep, relentless, energetic team perpetually in attack mode. They went 14-5, were among the top seeds in the West and led the association in scoring.
If you’ve watched them since, you’ve seen a lethargic version of that team, lately trying to compensate for the loss of leading scorer Danilo Gallinari to a high ankle sprain that could keep him out a month (he was injured Feb. 6 in a home loss to Houston). They are 3-9 since Jan. 29 and have fallen to the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Although they remain one of three NBA teams averaging at least 100 points a game, they are also one of only five surrendering at least 100. The other four teams in the latter category — Sacramento, Golden State, Charlotte and Washington — have a combined record of 32-86.
“I hate excuses,” coach George Karl said on the Dave Logan Show. “You don’t coach excuses. You coach how your team is playing and you work hard through it. But when you communicate with your players, you’ve got to be realistic. There are some things out there that are having an effect, not only on our team but every team in the NBA.”
In particular, Karl said he saw a change in his team earlier this month after it played three games in three cities in three nights, normally a scheduling no-no but permitted this season because of the compressed schedule that followed a long labor dispute.
“I’ve seen our team since those three games in three days, there’s been a reciprocal kind of backlash,” Karl said of the games in Los Angeles on Feb. 2, Denver on Feb. 3 and Portland on Feb. 4.
“Some nights we have it and some nights we don’t have it. The injuries have shrunk our skill set so the running game and the attack game, we’re still leading the league in attacking teams’ defenses, but we’re not having that talent of power that wears teams out. We’re not wearing teams out as much as we did earlier in the season, and I’m hoping it’s just because of injuries. I mean, we’re missing almost 85, 90 minutes of the game from our starting lineups and we’re trying to fill that in with guys that are playing hard and trying.”
Gallinari, the starting small forward, has missed the past six games. Starting center Timofey Mozgov missed seven in a row before returning for a one-point loss in Memphis on Friday night. Starting power forward Nene has missed the last three.
Karl’s trio of veteran bench players — Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Rudy Fernandez — has played well together, so he has looked farther down his bench for injury replacements to his starting lineup. The result has sometimes been a starting group that is not competitive early in games. Starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo carries a team-worst plus/minus rating of minus 68. Three of the team’s top four plus/minus ratings come from the bench — Miller (plus 144), Harrington (plus 88) and Fernandez (plus 83). The fourth is Gallo at plus 107.
This presents a couple of dilemmas for Karl. One is whether he should continue bringing Miller off the bench. The Nuggets’ top eight five-man groups in plus/minus include the veteran point guard. In part that’s because the Nuggets’ bench is better than most of its counterparts, but the stats also show that five of the team’s top eight groupings include both Miller and starting point guard Ty Lawson.
The second, related dilemma is whether Karl should break up the bench crew to help the starting lineup. For the time being, he is compromising, leaving Miller with the second group but moving one of his three key bench scorers into the starting lineup.
“What we talked about is maybe we’ve got to put Al in the game with Ty a little bit more often and let Andre have the second unit and try to find some shots and scoring without Al,” Karl said.
In Memphis on Friday night, he moved Harrington into the starting lineup in Nene’s place. Harrington didn’t get much done, but another bench player, Corey Brewer, scored a game-high 26, all of them in the second half, starting for Gallo.
Another option is to increase the minutes of the team’s rookies, who haven’t played enough to have the tired legs some of their veteran teammates are showing. First-round draft pick Kenneth Faried came off the bench for 25 minutes in Memphis and responded with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“I don’t deny that I’ve had the thought of trying to expand maybe one or two guys going into a game after three games in four nights or something like that,” Karl said. “Maybe instead of going with nine guys, try to maybe go with 10 or 11 guys. But you know what’s kind of funny about it is two guys that don’t look energized are two guys that from a standpoint of performance I think have done a great job with us, and that’s Andre and Al. They’re our oldest guys, and now Bird (Chris Andersen) has come back and played very well and he’s one of our older guys, too.
“It’s kind of trying to balance that out because we’re still in a good place from the standpoint of record and schedule. I think we’ve got to stay positive on trying to get a good seed in the playoffs, that our goal is to win as many games as possible and not maybe experiment too much to where you lose a game because of your experimentation.”
One option that has pretty much disappeared is practice. You remember practice. It used to be how teams solved problems and tightened up — particularly on defense — during the season.
“Practice is becoming an obsolete piece of the league right now,” Karl said. “There’s just no way, with the energy . . . . Practice has now become kind of drill stations and maintenance stations for your younger players.”
So Karl is left to hope the injury bug will pass and the Nuggets will be able to bring their aggression in waves again before they fall too far behind in the standings.