Category Archives: Nuggets/NBA

Take their GM’s word: Nuggets not a contender

Check in anywhere they’re talking NBA and you’re likely to find the same tiresome question: Can the Nuggets contend for a championship with their current roster? For that matter, can any team contend without at least one all-star?

The latest national examination was full of numbers, which is the flavor of our time. We just can’t get enough numbers. Unfortunately, despite a plethora of advanced statistics, the verdict at the end is predictable: Not sure, but probably not.

The mystery is why no one pays any attention to what the team’s architect has to say on the subject. Masai Ujiri might be the only high-level executive of a playoff team in any sport — this would eliminate the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who has been similarly candid — willing to answer the question in the negative.

“We’re not a contending team,” Ujiri told me recently on KOA. “We know (we’re) the third-youngest team in the NBA, so we have to give it room for growth. And you can’t continue making changes until you kind of know where you are.”

So, no, the Nuggets are not looking to acquire a veteran star at the trading deadline to improve their chances of playing for a championship this year. Rumors were plentiful as teams such as the Lakers and Celtics, loaded with such veterans, struggled early in the season. Was it time for them to rebuild? Would the Nuggets be interested in someone who could draw a double-team, a Pau Gasol or Paul Pierce perhaps?

Even then, the answer was no, but Gasol’s foot injury and the Celtics’ resurrection since Rajon Rondo went down have taken those particular options off the table anyway.

Over the past two years, Ujiri has overhauled much of the roster. There was the blockbuster trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks two years ago, the exchange of Nene for JaVale McGee a year later, and the four-team deal that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver last summer.

All these moves left the Nuggets with two veterans — Iguodala and Andre Miller — surrounded by a cast of young, developing players characterized by length and athleticism.

After struggling through an early schedule that saw them play 17 of their first 23 games on the road, they were rewarded with a favorable home/road split in January and responded by winning 12 of 15, putting them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t see any of our players getting worse; I can only see them getting better,” Ujiri said. “None of them are players that I think will lose value. So our goal here is to keep growing. We understood the schedule, we understood what it would do to make us mentally tougher. We’re still going to have some bumps. That’s just the way the NBA season is.

“But we’re happy with the growth of Ty Lawson, Gallo, Kosta (Koufos), JaVale. Iguodala is fitting in, Kenneth Faried in his second year, Wilson Chandler coming back and Corey Brewer is having a great year. The younger guys are doing well when they play and the times they’ve been in the D-league. Andre Miller is Andre Miller. He’s always going to be solid and we know who he is.

“Coach Karl has done a great job, I think. With all the changes we’ve made, I think it’s time for us to be patient a little bit. But we will listen, there’s no doubt about that.”

That, of course, is the caveat. The Nuggets have inserted themselves into multi-team swaps at the last minute under Ujiri, including the Iguodala deal, in which Dwight Howard to the Lakers was the headline. The deal was happening with or without the Nuggets, but when Ujiri saw a chance to add a premier perimeter defender to a roster that was defensively challenged, he hitched a ride.

This year, third-string center Timofey Mozgov is a hot topic around the league. Playing behind Koufos and McGee, Mozgov generally doesn’t get to play unless one of them is hurt. Ujiri isn’t looking to move him, but he will keep his phone turned on in case someone wants to make an offer he can’t refuse.

“We’re not afraid to ride it out till the end,” Ujiri said. “You never know what comes up at the draft. You never know what we could be able to do. Yes, we know there’s a logjam there a little bit because all of them are getting better and all of them want to play. But we love Timofey. We’re still looking at it like he’s on our team. McGee was hurt for a couple games and he stepped right in. He’s (a) restricted (free agent-to-be) and it’s not something we’re afraid of.

“When the trade deadline comes close, a lot of things start to fall into play and a lot of things come up. You never know where stuff will go, but he’s definitely the guy I think everybody’s looking at. Should he be playing? Yes. Is he good enough? Yes. Has he improved? Yes. I would say the majority of the calls are coming for Mozgov.”

In the never-ending debate over whether the Nuggets need a “go-to” scorer or can develop one from within, Danilo Gallinari remains the most promising candidate. In his fifth NBA season but still only 24 years old, Gallinari is averaging just more than 17 points a game, highest of his career so far. His shooting percentage remains an anemic .424, but his three-point percentage is up to .372, a key number on a team that ranks 28th in the league in three-ball accuracy. He’s also hitting just over 81 percent of his free throws, another crucial characteristic in a player who’s going to have the ball at the end of games.

“He’s stepping up,” Ujiri said. “He had a great month of January. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think he’s getting more comfortable. We’ve changed so much. He used to play with Nene and then we made the trade and we got JaVale. Faried did not play for the first 20 games of last season. We bring in Iguodala. Ty started the year slowly. All those things, I think that’s where we as a team, as an organization, we have to be a little bit patient, and I think it’s helped Gallo.

“The same way we are raving about him now, there were people screaming, ‘Man, what’s he doing?’ in December. That’s just the NBA. But in terms of overall growth, I think we can say since Gallinari came to the Denver Nuggets when we got him in the trade, he has gotten better and is getting better.

“He’s getting more comfortable. I think he’s becoming a more all-around player. He’s a very underrated defender. He’s doing everything for us and it’s molding him into that kind of a player. We knew that he’s young and it will take time, but he did have the potential and he does have the fire and he’s not afraid to take the big shot.

“It’s the same Gallo that shot an air ball against Miami and it’s the same Gallo that missed a layup against the Lakers last year. He could have lost confidence or been discouraged, but he’s stepped up. We’re really encouraged by all these guys and we have to be patient and let them grow.”

Maybe the biggest question mark about the Nuggets is the role of Wilson Chandler, who was obtained along with Gallinari, Mozgov and Raymond Felton in the Melo deal. Chandler is an accomplished three-point shooter, a rare trait among the Nuggets. He’s a solid free-throw shooter on a team that is still dead last in the association in that category. And he’s an above average defender and rebounder for a wing player.

Still, he’s been limited by injuries and by playing behind Iguodala and Gallinari at the swing spots. So I asked Ujiri if there’s room for Chandler to play a larger role, assuming he can stay healthy.

“There is, and I think the larger role will come as he gets to complete fitness,” the Nuggets GM said. “He’s already won us two games. I think he was the best player in Houston when we beat them over there (Jan. 23), and then we saw him against Portland, he came in and hit a couple big shots when we played them here. He helps in so many ways.

“It’s one way we want to build. We have to have those big athletic players that can play different positions because you never know. He’s fit right in. We sat him out for quite a while just because we wanted him to be completely right, to play with confidence

“People think, oh, we have Wilson Chandler because we’re holding him to trade him. We could have traded him at the draft. We could have traded him in the summer. Many times, we could have. No, that’s not what we’re looking at. We want to see him be productive and be a big part of this basketball team. He can play multiple positions — the two, the three, he could play a shooting four. He really rebounds well and he can score. I think you will see his time increase as he gets back into game shape.”

There’s plenty to like about the Nuggets’ development this year, but let’s get a timeout on the interminable debate about whether this cast can contend for a championship. When a team’s GM says it is not yet a contender, you might just want to believe him.


Pop’s protest began in Denver

Four years ago, I was with commissioner David Stern, but he wasn’t with me.

Now that he is, I’m no longer with him.

Back then, on Feb. 3, 2009, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich brought his team to Denver on a red-eye out of Oakland, Calif., for the second of back-to-back games, a circumstance that infuriates coaches throughout the National Basketball Association.

Between the late departure, the time change and the length of the flight, the traveling team in this situation seldom gets to bed in Denver before the sun comes up. Before Miami squeezed out a win a couple of weeks ago, visitors were 2-26 in such games dating back roughly to Pop’s 2009 protest, when he left his top stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Michael Finley — on the bench throughout the game in Denver.

The circumstance that night was exacerbated by the fact that the game in Oakland had gone to overtime, meaning the Spurs departed even later than usual and their stars played even more minutes than usual — 43 for Parker, 42 for Duncan, 36 for Finley, 35 for Ginobili.

It was also the second contest of an eight-game, cross-country road trip, which might have made Popovich even more ornery than usual, if that’s possible.

The Nuggets beat the Spurs bench (just barely, 104-96). In the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, I railed against Pop’s decision on behalf of Denver fans who had shelled out big money to see the Spurs stars only to be treated to a development league cast instead. It was enough of an issue, even then, that Sports Business Daily reviewed the available commentary.

From the fan’s point of view, this argument is still valid, and it’s purportedly the one Papa Dave, the commissioner, has quite suddenly adopted. NBA ticket prices are ridiculous as it is; the value proposition only works if fans get to see the stars they’ve paid to see.

At the time, Papa Dave did nothing. As recently as last season, NBA brass said it would be a mistake to infringe on a coach’s right to deploy his players as he saw fit. After all, coaches routinely rest star players in the spring as the playoffs approach.

Evidently, in his waning days as commissioner — Stern plans to retire Feb. 1, 2014 after 30 years on the job — it suddenly occurred to Papa Dave that this is, in effect, a rebellion against his gravy train. Everyone in the association knows it plays too many regular season games too close together. Players are much more likely to get hurt when they’re tired, and certain machinations of the schedule — four games in five nights, for example — make it almost inevitable that players will be tired.

But this is what fuels a money-making machine that Stern estimates will generate $5 billion this season. Alone among coaches, Popovich is willing to stand up on behalf of his players and call out toxic scheduling in a highly visible way.

In the latest instance, he didn’t merely hold his stars out of the game, he sent them home. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Danny Green were on a commercial flight to San Antonio before the Spurs and Heat tipped off in a nationally-televised game from Miami. It was the Spurs’ fourth game in five nights at the end of a six-game road trip.

Pop’s ploy could not have been entirely unexpected. He has done this on a semi-regular basis since that protest in Denver four years ago. He held his big three out of three games last season, including a game in Utah in which Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were not present.

For some reason, Stern chose this instance to change the association’s position. He issued this statement before the game:

“This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

Keep in mind that Stern’s heir apparent, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, said this just last April:

“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams. And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”

True, last season’s schedule was even more cramped than usual because of the lockout that delayed it, but this Popovich tactic goes back well beyond that and it never prompted league action before.

“If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I would want them to see everybody, and if they weren’t there, I’d be disappointed,” Popovich acknowledged before Thursday’s game. “So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective. My priority is the basketball team and what is best for it.”

The subtext may be what bothers Stern more than the offense to fans at a handful of games. Each time he holds out his headliners, Popovich is signaling his disdain for toxic scheduling. In truth, it is this scheduling, not Pop’s response to it, that undermines the integrity of NBA competition.

Let’s face it: The NBA regular season means next to nothing. It is almost entirely for the purpose of generating cash. Every decent team (16 out of 30) makes the playoffs, which is when the actual competition for championships begins. That’s still five months away.

What Stern is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with our raking in the cash!”

What Pop is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with my pursuit of a championship!”

Duncan is now 36. Ginobili is 35. Even Parker is now 30. If Popovich and the Spurs have any hope of winning a fifth NBA title before this great combination is finished, they must allocate their time on the floor wisely. Truth is, Pop could sit them for the rest of the season and San Antonio would still qualify for the playoffs.

There are those who say he should rest them one at a time so as to be less obvious about it. But the truth is that certain games pose the greatest danger because the schedule makes it inevitable a team’s big-minute players will be exhausted for those games. Popovich does not want to risk any of his main guys in those circumstances.

So I’ve come around to Pop’s point of view. I get that it’s unfortunate for the fans who buy tickets to those particular games, but that’s on the association for squeezing every dollar from them that it can.

The issue is indeed the integrity of competition, but it’s not the small picture of a single night. It’s the big picture of the integrity of NBA competition as a whole. Coaches must be able to deploy their players in the best long-term interests of their championship aspirations.

Pop is making a statement not just about rest and recovery here. He’s making a statement about the integrity of the game. And he’s right.


Serious question: Can anybody here make a shot?

Erik Spoelstra looked like a man who’d just received an early Christmas present.

His team hadn’t won in Denver since long before he started coaching it — 10 years ago, in fact — and it arrived Thursday under circumstances known in the NBA as a fait accompli. Since the 2006-07 season, teams flying in from the west coast to play the second of back-to-back games were 2-26 against the Nuggets, largely because they seldom got to bed before the sun rose the day of the game.

This is the circumstance that so infuriated Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in 2009 that he made his top four players healthy scratches in apparent protest of the schedule makers — and nearly pulled out a win with his bench.

In this case, Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, had no choice but to sit one of his stars. Dwyane Wade missed the game with a foot injury. To stretch his roster further, his other starting guard, Mario Chalmers, went out in the first quarter after taking a Kenneth Faried elbow to his triceps.

So the defending NBA champions were not only exhausted, they were also short-handed. Concluding a five-game road trip that had taken them from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the Heat was riding for a fall.

The Nuggets’ plan in such games is generally as simple as it is predatory: Take advantage of the visitors’ fatigue by having the public address announcer remind them of the elevation and then run them into the ground with a turbocharged offense fueled by Ty Lawson, their jet of a point guard.

Rested and waiting for the Heat after two days off and motivated by a narrow loss in Miami less than two weeks before, Thursday night’s late TNT game at the Pepsi Center (a made-for-TV 8:45 p.m. tip) seemed scripted for payback.

Instead, the Nuggets came out lethargic, inexplicably failed to cover Miami’s myriad three-point shooters and, as has been their custom in the early going of the new season, couldn’t make a three ball or a free throw themselves. They were down eight after one quarter and 12 at the half. At some point, it occurred to the tired visitors that they might actually win the thing.

“We came too far to let that game slip away from us,” LeBron James said afterward.

The Heat controlled the pace of the game until the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets made a frantic run that was too little, too late.

“A little bit of adversity, Dwyane being out, ‘Rio having to come out in the first quarter, and then the challenge of playing to the west coast to here,” Spoelstra said.

“We didn’t want to come in with any excuses. The thing about this ball club, the one thing you can’t knock them about is rising to challenges. I could tell even from the walk-through today that it wasn’t just about showing up and laying down, but really trying to overcome the odds. Everybody was so well aware of what the record is in the last three or four years here when you’re coming from the west coast. So it shows the character of our group.”

Seriously? Winning a regular season game now demonstrates character?

Fine, whatever. But what did it show about the new-look Nuggets, other than the possibility they were blinded by their own phosphorescent new yellow uniforms?

Well, let’s see. They’re not running at anything like the pace of the past. After leading the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, they rank 10th through their first nine games. They are down from 107 and 104 points per game to 98 in the early going this year. Against a team ripe to be run into the ground, they played at a lugubrious pace that produced just 66 through three quarters, finishing with 93 after their belated rush.

“They’re a smart team,” said veteran Andre Miller, who almost willed the Nuggets to victory on his own with a brilliant fourth quarter. “They’ve got guys over there that have been to the Finals and you’ve got veterans — Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, you got Ray Allen, you got Shane (Battier). Those guys over there are smart and know how to control the game and know how to take out a transition. And they did that.”

The Nuggets’ decline in scoring is partly a function of pace, but it’s also a natural result of the fact that they aren’t shooting well. At all.

Through their first nine games, they rank 16th in field goal percentage (.436), 25th in three-point percentage (.300) and 30th (out of 30) in free-throw percentage (.647). Thursday night they missed six of 19 foul shots, including two in a row by Faried with his team down five points and 2:19 remaining in the game.

“The one that scares me a little bit is our free throws,” coach George Karl said. “Free throws have an effect on your other shooting. There’s a confidence that comes from making free throws and if you don’t make free throws, sometimes that confidence rubs off on other shots. It’s a mental thing.”

Lawson, allegedly their emerging star, was a zero, and I mean that strictly in the arithmetic sense. He totaled zero points in 36 minutes, missing all seven of his shots, not getting to the free throw line once and failing to ignite the frenetic pace he fired up the past two seasons.

“We’ve got to start making shots,” Karl admitted. “We’ve got to make free throws and we’ve got to make threes.”

It is way too early to judge the Nuggets’ big off-season move — trading shooter Al Harrington and 2-guard Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala — but it is not too early to observe that their best player for the moment is Miller, a 36-year-old guard, which is not that good a sign for a team ostensibly full of budding young stars.

If the Nuggets have a big three, they are Lawson, Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, each averaging more than 35 minutes a game. Their shooting percentages, respectively, are .383, .441 and .322.

“We need more, probably, from Ty, Gallo and Iguodola,” Karl acknowledged.

And, if I may interject a question from the cheap seats, why is Kosta Koufos starting for this team? The 7-footer spent 14 minutes on the court doing a pretty good impression of a streetlamp. In the second half, Karl subbed him out after barely three minutes.

JaVale McGee gets most of the minutes in the middle — he had 18 points, six boards and four blocked shots in 21 on Thursday — but Karl doesn’t like to play him beside Faried for too long because they both tend to gamble defensively. When they’re on the floor together, it produces unreliable defensive rotations. But against a Miami team without a center, I could only conclude that Koufos either has pictures of somebody in the organization or holds the solution to the Greek debt crisis.

I know, it’s early. At 4-5, having played only three home games, the Nuggets are in the midst of surviving an early stretch in the schedule that has them playing nine of their first 12 on the road. Still, when your best-looking outside shooter is 22-year-old Jordan Hamilton, barely a member of the playing rotation when everyone is healthy, that’s a problem.

The Nuggets are built for speed and defense. Their offense is supposed to be fired by their defense and transition game. Theoretically, they don’t have to shoot from the perimeter much because they score so much in the paint and on the break.

They do win most of the hustle categories most of the time. They beat the Heat in points in the paint (50-24), fast break points (19-6) and second-chance points (22-12). They did a nice job crowding James, holding him to 11-of-23 shooting, although this left lots of three-point shooters wide open, including young Norris Cole, who hit the dagger with 1:03 remaining and the Nuggets down by one.

Unfortunately, the home team’s crooked shooting made all their extra hustle possessions necessary just to stay close. Miami had one fewer field goal on 11 fewer attempts. The Heat outscored them 39-18 from long distance. Without Wade and Chalmers, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with three-point shooters and dared the Nuggets to cover them. The Nuggets largely declined. Battier hit six of seven threes; Miller, four of eight.

“There’s a process,” Karl said. “Our personality is different. Andre Iguodola is different from Al and Arron and we have to learn this team’s personality of winning. I don’t think we’re that far away from getting that done.”

I wouldn’t be surprised. No one in the NBA is better than Karl at adapting to his talent. On the other hand, it’s hard to win consistently in the NBA if you can’t shoot, and it’s really hard to win playoff series if you can’t shoot.

Not long ago, TNT analyst Steve Kerr said he thought Gallinari had regressed since coming to Denver from New York. In his early days as a Knick, Kerr thought he would be a great three-point shooter. Now he’s a guy who seems to shoot mostly off-balance, fadeaway jumpers. He’s shooting .222 from long distance in the early going.

Granted, there’s plenty of time to work out the kinks of yet another chemistry experiment. But if the shooting doesn’t come around in a month or two, general manager Masai Ujiri might have to look at making another move.


Nuggets’ best bet: Let Iguodala test free agency

Nuggets brass finally got a chance to introduce the team’s newest star to local media and fans Thursday, a ceremony delayed for a week by those pesky Olympics.

I showed up at Andre Iguodala’s first Denver press conference to ask the questions that arose when the trade was made:

— Do the Nuggets and Iguodala have an understanding about the parameters of a new contract?

— Will Iguodala exercise the early termination option in his current contract, which would make him a free agent following his first season in Colorado?

— Whether it happens after one season or two, will the Nuggets let him test the market, as they did with Nene, and risk losing him if another team is willing to overpay him?

— If not, are the Nuggets amenable to a max contract for Iguodala, a very good player, but a questionable value at 30-35 percent of the salary cap?

Iguodala and Nuggets general manger Masai Ujiri said all the right things in response to this line of questioning, but they also kept their remarks pretty vague.

When I asked Iguodala about the early termination option in his contract, this was his reply:

“Well, it’s funny because Masai and I spoke about we’re both looking forward and what he expected from me and things that I wanted to accomplish. We weren’t coming into this thinking this would be just a one-year deal. We were looking towards the future.

“So definitely already looking ahead and looking to see how we can go forward and this not being just a quick stop for me. Knowing this is a great organization, got a lot of feedback from a lot of different guys — former players, current players, even the trainers, about the organization and this would be a great place for me to have some great years ahead of me and possibly ending my career here.”

So, are the two sides already at work on a new deal?

“No, we haven’t spoken about the actual deal, but just how this wasn’t going to be just a one-stop,” Iguodala said. “This is definitely a place that I could see myself for more than just a year or two.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. What contract number would it take to keep Iguodala from testing the free agent market, either next summer or the summer after that? And would it be a number so big that it eliminates the financial flexibility Nuggets management has cultivated ever since it began dismantling a roster that was top-heavy with big contracts for Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin?

I reminded Ujiri of the Melodrama and his vow never to put the Nuggets in that position again.

“Before we get into stuff like this, obviously, we do our homework and we try to do our due diligence,” he said. “No, we don’t want to be in that situation again, and we’ve had good conversation with Rob Pelinka, Andre’s agent, and also Andre. And Andre has indicated that this is somewhere he would love to play.

“So negotiations and all that stuff, it’s our job and we’ll do it and we’ll figure it out. We’ll take it a step at a time and we’re just glad to have a player of his caliber in our organization.”

I followed up by asking if he has a timetable in mind.

“Timetable doesn’t matter, in our opinion,” Ujiri said. “It will come. We’ll figure it out at some point.”

To refresh your memory, Iguodala is scheduled to be one of the 25 highest-paid players in the NBA this season at $14.7 million. The final year of his current contract, 2013-14, calls for a salary of $15.9 million.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, he would be eligible for a max contract next summer starting at about $16 million with annual bumps of 7.5 percent. If he plays out the final two years on his current contract, he would be eligible for a max contract starting at $19 million in the summer of 2014.

It is difficult to imagine Pelinka, who also represents Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, forgoing free agency for Iguodala in exchange for much less than a max contract.

There’s just one problem: Iguodala is not worth that much money. He’s a very nice player, but not that nice. With the luxury tax growing increasingly punitive in the out years of the new collective bargaining agreement, a four- or five-year max contract would have a significant effect on the Nuggets’ ability to add any other pieces. It would essentially be a statement that the current cast, with Iguodala, is good enough to contend for a championship.

None of this should be interpreted as criticism of Iguodala as a player. He is one of the game’s most versatile performers. He’s a premier perimeter defender, an excellent passer and a capable scorer in the open court. He is also utterly unselfish, a rare trait in top NBA players, and should fit very nicely into George Karl’s offensive system, which depends upon both unselfishness and athleticism.

He is not, however, a great halfcourt offensive player and he does not fill the Nuggets’ most obvious offensive need — a player with the nerve and ability to take and make a contested final shot with the game on the line.

For all the skills he brings to the table, it is very rare for a player who has never averaged 20 points a game for an entire season to get a max contract.

So the questions remain: Are the Nuggets willing to give him one, or something close to it, to prevent him from testing free agency? Are Iguodala and Pelinka willing to accept anything less to forgo free agency? And if the answer to both of those questions is no, what happens then?

Here’s my theory: The Nuggets, like most of the other teams in the NBA, believe the 76ers overpaid Iguodala. He has very little motivation to opt out of the final year of his current deal because it’s highly unlikely anyone else will offer the $15.9 million he’d be opting out of.

So that gives the Nuggets two years to come up with a new deal. It also gives them the option of taking it all the way out to the end of his current contract. As they did with Nene, they could offer Iguodala the opportunity to test free agency, where they would have an advantage over any other suitor — the ability to offer a fifth year.

They would be gambling that no other team would make him a crazy offer, but that’s a gamble Ujiri took with Nene and it worked out.

It’s seems unlikely that Pelinka would approve a new contract that starts significantly below what Iguodala’s current contract pays him. It seems just as unlikely that the Nuggets would extend him at that level unless they have no choice. So the best option for both sides may well be Iguodala playing out the final two years of his current contract and then letting the market determine what happens next.


Is Andre Iguodala worth a max contract?

The hosannahs are already pouring in for Masai Ujiri, general manager of the Nuggets, who finds himself in that rare and enviable position of public figures in the modern world where everything he does is great, and when he undoes it six months later, that’s great, too.

When he signed Nene to a big, new contract last December, that was great because you don’t want to lose a free agent for nothing. And when he traded Nene to Washington for JaVale McGee three months later, that was great because Nene wasn’t really worth all that money.

Similarly, when he signed Arron Afflalo to a big, new contract about the same time he signed Nene, that was great because of Afflalo’s considerable upside. And when he traded Afflalo today as part of the blockbuster four-team deal that delivered the best center in the game to the Los Angeles Lakers for the fourth time in modern history, that was great because Afflalo wasn’t really worth all that money, either.

Ujiri’s popularity is understandable. He made lemonade out of the Carmelo Anthony mess and he is Boris Yeltsin to predecessor Mark Warkentien’s Leonid Brezhnev when it comes to openness and public accountability. He’s been honest about the challenges of contending in a league where superstars prefer the glamor markets and Denver isn’t one of them.

But Ujiri’s willingness to rapidly undo whatever he’s just done must be considered in weighing the latest deal, which brings to the Nuggets a quasi-star in Andre Iguodala. In exchange, the Nuggets surrendered Afflalo, Al Harrington and a first-round draft pick.

“Iggy,” as he’s known (because in Philadelphia, AI was already taken), is a very good player. He made the men’s Olympic team this year because he’s an outstanding on-the-ball defender — in basketball parlance, a stopper. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands all the time, but he’s a capable scorer when he has it, particularly in the open court.

On the other hand, he’s not a great shooter — career .461 — and particularly not a great free-throw shooter, which earned him the scorn of 76ers fans at a number of clutch moments last season, when he shot just .617 from the line, a career low. You’ll see him referred to in accounts of the deal as an All-Star and Olympian, which is true but also a little misleading in that each of these things happened once and may or may not happen again.

Those issues aside, Iggy will improve the Nuggets’ defense, which badly needs it. For the coming season, barring injury, it is a worthwhile exchange. The problems are two-fold — the big picture and the seasons beyond the next one.

The big picture

What the Nuggets have done here is help to facilitate the latest migration of a superstar to one of the NBA’s chosen franchises. Orlando and the Lakers were unable to swing a conventional two-team trade, in large part because the Magic didn’t want to deal with a repeat of the Howard drama as Andrew Bynum approached free agency. So the two teams needed other teams to facilitate the latest heist by the Lakers.

In the 33 seasons since 1980, when the NBA came back to life on the back of a sensational rookie named Magic Johnson, only nine of the association’s 30 franchises have won championships.

The Lakers lead this tally with 10 out of the 33. Some of this success was based on good fortune. When Gail Goodrich became a free agent in 1976 and signed with New Orleans, no one knew one of the compensatory draft picks the Lakers received would turn into the first overall pick — Magic — three years later. And it was Jerry West’s prescience as a general manager that got the Lakers a 17-year-old prodigy named Kobe Bryant in a trade with the unsuspecting Charlotte Hornets two weeks after the 1996 NBA draft.

But it’s also undeniable that the Lakers’ success is built upon the explicit desire of the game’s greatest centers to leave wherever they were for the bright lights of Hollywood. This trend began with Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 and continued with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974 and Shaquille O’Neal in 1996.

It is as if great big men have a divine right to play in L.A. and the Lakers have a similar right to acquire them, one way or another. In markets such as Denver, where an NBA championship remains a distant dream, the association’s alleged interest in competitive balance becomes a punch line.

Howard is the second Orlando star to migrate west in a generation, following Shaq. This is significant for the Nuggets, obviously, because they play in the same conference with the Lakers. In fact, it was the Lakers who eliminated them from the playoffs just last spring. Adding Howard to a team that already includes Bryant makes the Lakers once again the favorites to come out of the West.

The Nuggets say the trade would have happened with or without them.

“We found a way to get in afterward,” general manager Masai Ujiri said Friday on the Dave Logan Show. “It could easily have been a three-way deal and Iggy would have been in Orlando.”

The seasons beyond

Besides the likely ascendance of the Lakers yet again, the downside of the deal for the Nuggets is that it embroils them almost immediately in another contract drama.

In addition to all his attributes, Iguodala, unfortunately, is also overpaid, which is why more teams weren’t clamoring to get their hands on him. He will earn $14.7 million this season, which is OK with the Nuggets because Afflalo and Harrington combined will earn $14.2 million. Close enough for government work or NBA salary cap accounting.

After that, Iggy has a player option for 2013-14 of $15.9 million, meaning he can elect to become a free agent either next summer or the summer after that. Either way, NBA players are seldom looking for pay cuts.

If he opts out of the final year of his current contract to go for one more long-term deal at 29 rather than 30, he will be eligible under the new collective bargaining agreement for a contract starting at $16 million a year and growing at an annual rate of 7.5 percent. If he waits until the summer of 2014, he’ll be a 10-year player eligible for a max contract that starts at $19 million and expands from there. Whether any team offers him such a deal, of course, remains to be seen.

As nice a player as Iggy is, he’s not worth 30-35 percent of the salary cap, especially as the luxury tax gets more punitive in the out years of the new labor agreement. Which leaves the Nuggets with the usual three choices:

— Overpay to keep him, delivering a max contract to a player who has never averaged 20 points a game in his career.

— Trade him before he can leave as a free agent, meaning possibly as soon as this winter, depending on whether he makes an early commitment on that player option year.

— Roll the dice, as they did with Nene, and hope they can get him at a more reasonable rate as a free agent.

Ujiri suggested such questions are premature.

“When the time comes, we’ll figure that out,” he said. “We didn’t get him as a rental. We want to win. All those other things I think we will figure out.”

The trade would make sense in the short term if the Nuggets thought they were ready to contend for a championship this season. But the youth of Denver’s best players — point guard Ty Lawson and forward Danilo Gallinari are each 24 years old — and the formidable Lakers lineup in the twilight of Bryant’s career suggest the Nuggets’ window for championship contention is likely to be later rather than sooner.

Ujiri’s decision seems simple enough. He thinks Iguodala makes the Nuggets better, which is probably true. But the issues surrounding his contract can’t be put off for long. In the end, there’s no guarantee the Iggy era in Denver will be much more than a passing fancy. Here’s hoping it’s fun while it lasts.


NBA put its thumb on the scale for the Lakers

From the beginning, it was a strange suspension.

For one thing, former players who often take players’ side in these things were surprised it wasn’t longer.

“I think he deserved more . . . maybe ten games,” said TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal.

For another, the number was an odd one, and not just in retrospect. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced on April 24 that Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, would serve a seven-game suspension for a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the Lakers had one regular-season game remaining. You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to do the math.

“I knew it was going to be the first round of the playoffs,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said that night. “I don’t think that’s a fair or unfair suspension. If it was ten games, that would’ve been fair. I knew it was going to be between five and ten, but I’m surprised they didn’t make it just the first round of the playoffs because he could come back for a Game 7.”

My memory is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve been covering the NBA since 1988 and cannot remember a previous instance when a disciplinary edict from the league office suddenly injected a significant player into a playoff series that was even through six games.

And make no mistake: Artest’s return Saturday night tipped the balance of this first-round series the Lakers’ way. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to his coach.

“We all played well, but I’d be remiss if I did not talk about Metta,” Mike Brown said after the Lakers’ 96-87 victory dashed the Nuggets’ hopes of a first-round upset.

“He was huge tonight. We put him on (Danilo) Gallinari, we put him on Andre Miller, we put him back on Gallinari, we put him back on Andre Miller, and his presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize that Andre Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-for-19.

“He’s long, he’s physical. He knows how to play different positions defensively, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, post-up, pin-down game. But he made some plays tonight. He went in for a steal or something like that, he was out of position, and then he sunk back into the paint and tipped the ball away. I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely freaking amazing for us defensively. Just his presence alone helped us out. And that’s what we missed the first six games.

“Having said that, you’ve got to give our guys credit because they stepped up and found a way to win those games without him. But he was monstrous for us tonight. Monstrous, on both ends of the floor.”

Monstrous. Interesting choice of words. Imagine how history might have changed if Stern had done what Barkley and many others expected, ruling Artest out for the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets had won Games 5 and 6. The momentum seemed to be flowing their way.

Even without Brown’s testimony, Artest’s influence on the outcome of Game 7 was unmistakeable. In the forty-three minutes, forty-one seconds he played, the Lakers beat the Nuggets by eighteen points, meaning that in the four minutes, nineteen seconds he didn’t play, the Nuggets won by nine. Artest’s plus 18 was the best plus/minus number for any player on either team.

So the question demands to be asked: Did Stern purposely make the suspension seven games, not the first round of the playoffs, in order to give one of the league’s marquee teams, in one of its largest television markets, an insurance policy in case it was forced to a critical Game 7 in the first round?

Barkley wasn’t the only one who noticed the subtle difference between a seven-game punishment with one regular-season game remaining and simply ruling Artest out of the first round, however long it lasted. About ninety minutes before Game 7, Nuggets coach George Karl was asked whether the suspension that allowed Artest to jump into the series at its most critical moment was appropriate.

“I don’t know what the appropriate one is, but I just don’t understand seven,” Karl said. “Why seven? Why not the end of the series? Why seven? It really feels uncomfortable in the last thirty-six hours, twenty-four hours. We’ve spent so much time on ‘what if.’ What are they going to do? I’m not sure they know what they’re going to do with him. I know we’re going to be the reactor, which is something I’m not thinking is necessarily making me happy right now.”

For those who tend toward conspiracy theories, the officiating in the series will provide more encouragement. And frankly, the complaints are difficult to refute. The Nuggets led the NBA in free throw attempts during the regular season at 26.7 per game. The Lakers ranked ninth at 24.1.

In their playoff series, it was the Lakers who led in free throw attempts. They got 158 in seven games, or 22.6 per. The Nuggets got 142, or 20.3. That put the Lakers 1.5 below their season average; the Nuggets were 6.4 below theirs. That’s a reduction in Nuggets free throw attempts of nearly 24 percent from regular season to playoffs.

Is this because the Nuggets suddenly got less aggressive against the Lakers? Not at all. In fact, there was a strange pattern to the free throw attempts. Through the first three games, the Nuggets led, as their reliance on penetration suggested they would. They had 72 free throw attempts through three games, or 24 per game.

From there, the foul shots awarded to Denver suddenly fell precipitously. They got 70 in the final four games, an average of just 17.5, or a remarkable 9.2 fewer than their regular season average. The Lakers, by contrast, got 61 through the first three, or 20.3 per, and then 97 in the final four, an average of 24.3, which was slightly greater than their regular season average.

This difference was most noticeable in the final two games of the series, when the Lakers were awarded 53 free throws to the Nuggets’ 31. That’s an amazing differential considering the two teams split these games and the Nuggets’ aggressive style produced the most foul shots in the association during the regular season.

Karl tried not to dwell on it, but following Game 7, when the Nuggets shot just 14 free throws to the Lakers’ 23, he seemed clearly exasperated.

“The game was so physical,” he said. “I mean, it was so, bang, push, shove, grab, hold, that I think their size won over our speed.”

Do you really have to be a conspiracy nut to observe that the statistics suggest the league’s representatives on the floor tilted increasingly toward the Lakers as the series went along?

Maybe so. Call me a homer if you like. I’ve never been fond of reflexive complaints about bias in officiating. I tend to believe incompetence is a more likely explanation than conspiracy for poor officiating. In fact, I used to publish an annual list of the NBA’s ten worst referees — alongside the ten best — in the Rocky Mountain News.

But among the factors that contribute to bad officiating in the NBA is the tendency to favor stars — the Lakers have three; the Nuggets, none — as well as a subconscious tendency to favor historically successful teams over historically unsuccessful ones. You don’t have to believe in an explicit conspiracy to believe that referees subconsciously favored the Lakers, and that this tendency increased as the series went along.

Call it sour grapes if you like. I know Lakers fans will. But when you combine the strange term of Artest’s suspension with the inexplicable turnaround in the pattern of foul calls, I’m telling you, there are folks in Denver who will be wondering what happened here for quite some time.


A generation later, George Karl switches sides

It was the most surprising, inspiring victory in the long and not particularly accomplished history of the Denver Nuggets. And it completed one of the great postseason upsets in the NBA to that point — the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.

On the other hand, George Karl, who was coaching the No. 1 seed that day, calls it “the worst loss of my life,” which is saying something.

I was there that Sunday afternoon, at the old Seattle Coliseum, so I went down to the basement and dug out the original game book. It is a little more than eighteen years old now. The officials were Jess Kersey, Dick Bavetta and Jack Nies. Bavetta, unbelievably, is still officiating at the age of seventy-two.

Karl remembers it as “Mutombo beating us in Seattle,” perhaps because the iconic image is the Nuggets center lying on the hardwood when the overtime was done, holding the basketball above his head with both hands, a delighted grin on his face. With fifteen rebounds and eight blocked shots, Dikembe Mutombo did, indeed, play a major role.

But the stars for the Nuggets that afternoon were reserves. Point guard Robert Pack came off the bench to replace an ineffective Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and led them with twenty-three points on eight-for-fifteen shooting, including three of five three-pointers.

The late Brian Williams, who would change his name to Bison Dele before being murdered by his brother eight years later, put up seventeen points and nineteen rebounds in thirty-four minutes off the bench, the most inspired performance of his career. When I asked him afterward what had gotten into him, he looked at me as if astonished it wasn’t obvious: “That was desire!” he said.

Eighteen years later, the Nuggets have a chance to add another improbable first-round upset to their resume, this time with Karl coaching for them instead of against them. His syntax was somewhat twisted as he reflected on that Thursday night after the Nuggets beat the Lakers to even their series at three games apiece, but his sentiment was not:

“I’m just hoping to become Denver Nugget history, (from) the worst loss of my life to hopefully the best win in Denver Nugget history. The worst loss is Mutombo beating us in Seattle, and maybe I can put another one up on the board that rocks history a little bit.”

To do it, the Nuggets will need exactly what they brought to the Seattle Coliseum that day a generation ago: Desire. They will need to want it more. They will need to play with the audacity of conviction and make the Lakers, like the Sonics on May 7, 1994, struggle with the weight of expectations and gathering gloom.

“You’ve got two histories against you,” Karl said. “You’ve got Game 7 and you’ve got 3-1 series. You’ve got both of them working against you. I think we might be too young to understand all that, so I might keep it away from them. I’m not sure we’re going to talk a lot about anything except the energy of the game and how important it is to us.”

Historically, the road team wins Game 7 about twenty percent of the time. The last time a team came from a three-games-to-one series deficit to win was six years ago, when the Suns did it . . . to the Lakers. In ten tries, the Nuggets have never done it.

Since frittering away their series lead, the Lakers have engaged in some finger-pointing. Coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant have blamed big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. For Game 7, L.A. gets back the former Ron Artest, who changed his name to Metta World Peace in an Orwellian response to his history of violence, most recently enhanced by a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden. His seven-game suspension ended with Game 6.

“We’ve got to continue to get to the paint, we’ve got to hopefully fall into the three ball a little bit more than it has been in the first five games and defend them better than we did (in Game 6),” said Karl, who turns sixty-one today. “And if we do all that stuff, I think it’ll be a fourth-quarter game and we’ll figure out how to beat that closer system that you guys have said we can’t win because we don’t have a closer.”

That’s a reference to the knock on the Nuggets at the end of close games since trading Carmelo Anthony in the middle of last season. Playing with a deep ensemble cast, they have demonstrated the unpredictable virtues of true team basketball. At the same time, it’s never quite clear who they want to take the big shot at the end of games. If Ty Lawson is hot, as he was in Game 6, it would surely be him. If Danilo Gallinari is on, it might be him. Just as likely, it’s whoever’s open.

The last time the Nuggets played a Game 7 was also eighteen years ago, in the series that followed their upset of Karl’s Sonics. The Utah Jazz won the first three games of their best-of-seven, second-round series, then the Nuggets roared back to win three straight, just as they had come back from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the Sonics series.

Game 7 was in Salt Lake City on May 21, 1994. The Nuggets shot poorly and fell behind early, trailing by seven after one quarter, by eight at halftime and by fifteen after three quarters. They did their best to narrow the gap in the fourth, but Utah prevailed, 91-81. Karl Malone had thirty-one points, fourteen rebounds and six assists, playing all but two minutes of the game.

Eighteen years later, Karl hopes to improve his record to 1-1 in memorable Nuggets playoff upsets.

“I just want to help them,” he said. “My whole goal in Game 7 is coach ’em up and help ’em have a chance to kick somebody and make history. It’d be fun. It’d be fun for me. It’ll be a great opportunity. It’s been a great challenge.”


Lakers play the blame game

It’s in the nature of athletes to cover for one another. From the earliest age, they are taught it’s one of the obligations that comes with being a member of a team.

But after consecutive losses to the Nuggets turned a comfortable series lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs into a loser-go-home Game 7 on Saturday, the Lakers decided playing nice isn’t working. Their two leading spokesmen, coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Exhausted after a day spent fighting both gastroenteritis and the Nuggets, Bryant said the Lakers’ big men would need a new “mind state” for the club to advance.

“Kobe, being dehydrated and all that, and sick as a dog, coming out and trying to will us to a win, it’s disappointing to watch him give that type of effort, trying on both ends of the floor, getting on the floor after loose balls, and we don’t get it from everybody,” Brown said late Thursday night, after the Nuggets blew out the Lakers in Game 6, 113-96.

“Our second- and third-best players are Drew and Pau, and the reality of it is both those guys have got to play better in order for us to win. We’re going to have a tough time winning if we get the same type of production, not just offensively, but on the defensive end of the floor, too. For the first time, we were really, really bad with our pick-and-roll coverage. (The Nuggets) got what they wanted.

“Especially in the third quarter, we maybe did the pick-and-roll coverage correctly eight percent of the time, if that. We’ve got to do a better job. It has to matter for us. We’re going to have to work harder. And we’re going to have to want to get the job done to protect your teammates. If we get the same type of effort, it’s going to be a long night for us on Saturday.”

Asked if he agreed with Brown’s assessment of the Lakers’ big men, Bryant didn’t mince words.

“Of course I agree with that,” he said. “I talked with Pau a little bit after the game. I’ll speak with Andrew as well. It’s one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position, where you have no other option but to perform. You have to emotionally put yourself with your back against the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there’s no other option but to perform and to battle.

“When you put yourself in that mindset, your performance shines through and your talent shines through. It doesn’t matter what the defense does, it doesn’t matter if you get fouled; it doesn’t matter because you’re emotionally at a level that is above that. That’s the mind state that they have to put themselves in.”

This may be the best articulation I’ve heard of Bryant’s competitive mindset, and why he is generally so dismissive of questions about the defensive effort against him, as he was when I asked him about Danilo Gallinari’s length after Game 3.

Bynum’s statistics in Game 6 weren’t awful — eleven points, sixteen rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists, no turnovers. Gasol’s were — three points on one-for-ten shooting, three rebounds, one block, one assist and one steal in twenty-nine minutes. But Brown emphasized he was talking mostly about aspects of the game that are not measured by the stats.

“Their bigs in transition are just beating our bigs down the floor, and our bigs aren’t running hard enough to stay with them,” the Lakers coach said. “In the beginning of the series, they were. They were running with them and you could see there was a sense of urgency to get back.

“They’ve been getting beat down the floor and so our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim. And then, while our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim, their guards are trailing and getting open threes and our bigs aren’t helping our guards. So it’s like a snowball effect.

“We showed two clips at halftime where Pau stayed in the paint not guarding anybody and somebody was guarding his man because he was one of the last guys down the floor, and Andre Miller hits a wide-open three. Same with Drew, he’s supposed to be guarding Gallinari because Steve Blake picked up his guy at the rim, and Gallinari hits a wide-open three. That’s just one of the things that we’re not getting from our bigs. So our bigs are going to have to step up. They’re going to have to produce, and not just points-wise; on both ends of the floor.”

Bryant, who said his hotel room “resembled a scene from The Exorcist” after a day of doing battle with his digestive system, agreed Bynum and Gasol let down their teammates, but also pointed out such playoff stumbles aren’t unprecedented.

“We let each other down, for sure,” he said. “We didn’t step up and meet their energy. (Bynum and Gasol) know that and I expect them to come out in Game 7 and play with a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation that wasn’t there the last two games.

“I can speak from experience that I’ve been in series in our first championship run, 2000, where we wind up going to five games, at the time the first round was five games, against a Sacramento team. We got pushed to the brink against Houston in our championship runs. So these sorts of things do happen. In 2008, we met a Boston team in the Finals that got pushed to a Game 7 against an up-and-coming, young Atlanta team. So these sorts of things do happen. And you just have to respond.”

Bryant also said he’s looking forward to getting back teammate Ron Artest — a.k.a. Metta World Peace — in Game 7. Artest’s suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden ended with Game 6.

“I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he’s known for,” Bryant said. “He’s the one guy that I can rely on, night in and night out, to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear. So I look forward to having that by my side again.”

Nuggets coach George Karl expects all these fighting words to have a predictable effect in L.A.

“The Lakers, I have no doubt they’re going to come out with the best game they’ve played all series,” he said. “We’ve just got to be better.”


The Nuggets’ playoff paradox

Danilo Gallinari was lying on the floor when the Lakers took the lead for good in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the Nuggets.

Depending on whom you believe, he had either just been stunned by a blow to his throat delivered by Pau Gasol’s shoulder — “I felt, like, a click, and, I don’t know, I just touched it a little bit and I felt it click back,” Gallo said afterward, waving two fingers over his Adam’s apple — or he was trying to buy a foul call by overreacting to a hard but legal screen.

The referees apparently thought it was the latter because no foul was called, which left the Nuggets in a tough spot — four players defending five in the final minute of a tie game. Normally, when one of your own goes down on a basketball court and there’s no call, you’re supposed to foul to stop the action. The Nuggets didn’t. Moments later, Lakers guard Ramon Sessions hit an open three-pointer to give them an 89-86 lead with forty-eight seconds remaining.

The Nuggets never got closer. The play may end up the turning point in the series. With the game tied at 86, the Nuggets had a chance to even the series at two games apiece. When they lost, it gave the Lakers a prohibitive lead of three games to one. The Nuggets have trailed a playoff series by that margin ten previous times and never come back to win it.

“He’s a big guy, man,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said of the six foot, ten-inch Gallinari. “He can’t flop like that on the screen-and-roll. Pau is not necessarily the strongest guy in the world.”

On the game telecast, analyst Steve Kerr suggested Gallinari did not get the benefit of the call from the referees because European players have a reputation for acting.

“It was just a tough pick,” Gallinari said. “You’ve got to expect that in the playoffs. So myself, I’ve got to be more ready in those situations to get those hits and still be able to play defense. Unfortunately, they had a big shot out of that play. So it was a tough one. We’ve got to rest now and think about Game 5.”

The temptation to blame Gallinari for the outcome should be resisted, however, for two reasons.

First, without him the Nuggets wouldn’t even have been in the game. He was Denver’s best player in Game 4, leading them with twenty points despite being the only player on either side to get into foul trouble.

Second, in the last sixteen playoff games in which they’ve scored fewer than ninety-nine points, the Nuggets’ record is 0-16. Sunday night they finished with eighty-eight, sixteen below their league-leading season average.

This is the Nuggets’ postseason paradox. The team that led the NBA in scoring doesn’t have enough offensive weapons.

For much of the regular season, their speed and athleticism were enough. When you’re outrunning your opponents, anybody who can dunk or make a layup is an offensive weapon, and that’s the whole roster. The Nuggets led the NBA in fast break points, assists and points in the paint.

But in the postseason, when the games slow down and transition buckets are hard to come by, you need players with the offensive skills to score into the teeth of a half-court defensive set with intimidating big men guarding the basket. This is where the Nuggets struggle.

The Lakers have three players — Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum — the Nuggets must assign two defenders, at least some of the time. This creates open shots for role players like the daggers from Sessions and Steve Blake on Sunday night.

Post-Carmelo, the Nuggets have no one like that. The Lakers switch defensive assignments on the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll to try to contain guard Ty Lawson’s quickness, but there’s no one player they feel they have to double-team.

That’s why the Nuggets finished with only eighty-eight points. They got some open looks down the stretch. They just couldn’t knock them down. They don’t have great shooters. And they couldn’t get out and run often enough to get the easy baskets to which they grew accustomed during the regular season.

“Probably there were a couple of stretches during the game where we didn’t run as much as we did in Game 3, and our intensity went down for a couple of stretches,” Gallinari said. “We know that against them we cannot allow ourselves to do that.”

Following their Game 3 victory, coach George Karl said energy, which is reflected in pace and aggressiveness, is the key to the Nuggets’ success. Lawson had twenty-five points and seven assists in Game 3. He had eleven and six in Game 4. I asked Karl if Lawson was as aggressive Sunday as he’d been two nights before.

“I probably never feel Ty is aggressive enough,” Karl said. “I think he should be more aggressive almost every night. I don’t know how crowded it was in there on his decisions on not attacking a little bit more to the rim. The film will show that. My thing is I like to see Ty drive the ball in the paint thirty to forty times a game. I think he’s that good and I think he’s that important to us.”

The Lakers made more of an effort to get back on defense and foil Lawson’s penetration in Game 4. They also made more of an effort to rebound the ball. After losing the battle of the glass by ten Friday night, they won it by ten Sunday. Nuggets center JaVale McGee went from sixteen points and fifteen rebounds to eight and four. Power forward Kenneth Faried went from twelve and fifteen to six and seven.

“Us guards had to get in there and rebound,” said the Lakers’ Bryant, who had more boards (eight) than any Nuggets player. “A lot of times our bigs are out of position because of the rotations in the pick-and-roll coverages. McGee and Faried have been doing a great job coming in on top of them and crashing the glass. So we had to get in there with the big guys and mix it up, put some bodies on them and try to control the glass ourselves.”

“Basically, JaVale and Kenneth outworked their big guys in Game 3 and they outworked us in Game 4,” Karl said. “Sometimes the luck of the flow of the game comes your way and I think it came their way in Game 3. (Sunday) we didn’t have the extra effort, energy, luck that sometimes comes by playing hard. I think we gave some things back a little bit and I think we were maybe surprised by their pushing and shoving and powering the game.”

Karl was clearly frustrated by the referees, who called nineteen fouls on the Nuggets and thirteen on the Lakers, even though the Nuggets had more points in the paint and more fast break points, generally the measuring sticks of aggressiveness. Still, both teams struggled to make free throws, so the scoring difference at the line ended up being just two points.

“We shoot twelve free throws, six of them by McGee and none by our guards,” Karl said. Actually, he meant starting guards. Reserve guard Andre Miller shot two. Bryant was not called for a single personal foul all night while Gallinari was called for five, forcing him to the bench for a time in the fourth quarter.

“There were some tough calls, but the referees are there to do their best job and I’m on the court doing the best job I can, so I’m not thinking about the calls,” said Gallo. He did kick a door on his way to the locker room after the game, but that might have been general frustration. “We have to think as a team about the mistakes and the things that we didn’t do as well as we did in Game 3 and try to do those things even better in Game 5 because I think especially in L.A. it’s going to be even more intense.”

Bryant, who reacted sarcastically to my question about Gallo’s defense on him following the Lakers’ Game 3 loss, was more gracious in victory.

“Gallo plays hard, man,” he said. “I gave him some (grief) the other night, but he plays really hard, man. He competes and he steps up to the plate and doesn’t back down, so I appreciate that.”

With one day to travel and prepare for Game 5 on Tuesday, the Nuggets have two choices: They can rediscover their energy and extend the series or they can end their season in L.A.

“Losing’s no fun,” Karl said. “I’m not unhappy with my team. I’m not unhappy with where we’re at. I wish it was 2-2, but I still think we’ve got a series to play and it’s going to be fun on Tuesday night. I think it’s a powerful challenge to us. And I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge. I think it’s a great challenge for this young team.”


How to irritate Kobe Bryant (It’s not that hard)

You take your thrills where they come in this business, and one of them is annoying Kobe Bryant. It’s easy to do. You just have to suggest someone shut him down on a basketball court. That does the trick every time.

This is because Kobe considers himself unguardable. Or, at least, he has yet to meet the human capable of doing it. So if he has a bad game — as he did Friday night, missing sixteen of twenty-three shots as the Nuggets beat the Lakers for the first time in their playoff series — there is always some reason other than whoever was guarding him. He was off, his teammates didn’t do enough, he was unaccountably shooting from the wrong spots. Something.

So I took my turn in Kobe’s wheelhouse when he showed up in the Pepsi Center interview room as Friday prepared to give way to Saturday.

First, I asked if JaVale McGee’s offense had surprised him. McGee was the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer in Game 3, behind Ty Lawson, after not being much of an offensive factor in the first two games in Los Angeles. McGee’s teammates credited his big night — sixteen points, fifteen rebounds, three blocks, two steals, two assists and just one turnover — with a major role in the Nuggets’ victory.

“No,” said Bryant, who admits to being surprised only slightly more often than he admits to being well defended. “He did what I know he can do — running hooks, big spin moves, scoop shots with his left hand. Those are things he’s capable of.”

Thus encouraged, I trod deeper into the unthinkable, asking if Danilo Gallinari’s length had bothered him. Nuggets coach George Karl deployed the 23-year-old, 6-foot-10-inch forward on Bryant for much of the second half, during which Kobe took eleven shots and made two.

Bryant smirked. Was I serious? Yes, I said. That’s a real question.

“Sure,” Bryant said, still smirking, sounding at least as sincere as Dr. House. “Somewhat real answer.”

Just in case his opinion of the question, and perhaps of Gallinari, wasn’t clear enough, he added a sardonic postscript to his final response of the night, in which he attributed the Lakers’ first defeat of the postseason to a single statistic:

“We shot six for twenty-five from the three-point line. We can’t do that,” he said. And then, in his best deadpan:

“And Gallo’s defense was exceptional.”

It should come as no surprise that Bryant would never admit being bothered, certainly not by a player with as brief an NBA resume as Gallinari, whether or not he was. In response to a similar question earlier, Karl suggested Gallo had been the Nuggets’ best defensive matchup on Bryant, owing chiefly to his length. Bryant can shoot over anyone, Karl said, but it’s a little harder over Gallinari.

The Italian forward is likely to continue to get the most minutes checking Bryant, Karl said, although Arron Afflalo and Corey Brewer will share the duty.

“I don’t think you want to go one way on Kobe Bryant,” Karl said.

Kobe’s explanation for his offensive struggles credited the Nuggets’ scheme, but no individual defenders.

“I wasn’t on my sweet spots,” he said. “They tried to do some things defensively. They tried to keep me more on the perimeter. I wasn’t in the post a lot. I lived at the elbow the first two games and we got away from that a little bit in the second half. Pau (Gasol) as well, we saw him on the perimeter way too much. We can’t do that. We have to stick to our ground and pound game.”

Bryant has described this season’s Lakers as a championship-caliber squad, and he seemed to view their first playoff loss as a minor bump in the road, calling it “a good learning experience” for the team’s younger players.

For the Nuggets, the formula for success was the usual — outhustling their opponent.

“The game for us is all about our energy and our enthusiasm to play,” Karl said. “It’s not complicated for us. When we play poorly, it’s because we don’t play with enough energy, we don’t push the pace and we shoot too many jump shots.”

He credited the “intensity and guts of JaVale and Kenneth (Faried) and all our bigs” as well as Lawson’s thirteen-point first quarter, which helped the Nuggets build a 30-14 lead after one. The Lakers fought their way back, but by the time they got within striking distance, they were out of gas. The Nuggets took the fourth quarter 27-19 to win going away, 99-84, before a raucous full house.

Like everything else the Nuggets did well, Karl attributed McGee’s big night to aggressiveness. “I think he was working underneath the defense,” he said. “With all the penetration we put in the game, their big guys are always helping uphill and helping out of position a bit.”

Lakers coach Mike Brown also credited the Nuggets’ energy:

“Denver played a great game,” he said. “I thought Ty Lawson came out being very aggressive. We’ve been talking to our guys about him coming out and being aggressive the last couple of days. I thought he was very impactful to start the game to help them get out by however many they got out. I thought that Denver’s two bigs, Faried and McGee, brought a lot of energy to the table for their team. The twelve offensive rebounds for the two, the thirty overall, plus the double-double in points with them also bringing twenty-eight points to the table between the two was a very, very good game for those guys.”

Karl tweaked his starting lineup for Game 3, replacing Kosta Koufos with Timofey Mozgov as the starting center. Mozgov played fourteen minutes and failed to score, but he did establish a more physical tone than Koufos had, banging willingly with Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who was shut out in the first half before putting up eighteen points after intermission. Still, McGee came off the bench to play most of the minutes at center.

Can the Nuggets repeat the feat Sunday to even the series at two games apiece and turn it into a best-of-three, or was this their token win in the usual five-game first-round elimination?

“Every game we’ve played we’ve been down to the Lakers,” Lawson said. “We’ve been down big and always trying to fight back. We wanted to make it a point to come out early and see how they did with a deficit, and they reacted well to it, but we held on.

“We dealt with having a big lead. We dealt with them coming back and making it a game. Nobody got nervous, so we learned a lot today and it’s probably going to help us out throughout the series.”

If Kobe responds to his poor shooting night with a big game Sunday, as he often does, I wouldn’t be surprised if he revisits the question of Gallinari’s defense, just to pound home how stupid he considered the question. Bryant enjoys few things more than the “I told you so” moment.

In Kobe’s world, the only one who can stop Kobe is Kobe. The great ones generally feel that way. The difference with Kobe is he makes no attempt to disguise it with false modesty or humility. He oozes arrogance. The only way to wipe the smirk off his face is to end his season prematurely, which remains a decidedly uphill battle for the Nuggets.