The Nuggets have experienced a monumental stylistic change in their style of play, moving the ball more than ever in favor of Anthony isolations and their team chemistry has grown remarkably since Melo and his drama were shipped out of town in exchange for hard working, talented role players that bought into George Karl’s system right away.
Their 11-4 record since the trade is even better than it seems. They haven’t been completely healthy during this 15-game stretch but they still managed to compete in every game in the post-Melo era so far. Take a look at there four losses since dealing Anthony: 107-106 overtime loss to the Blazers in Portland, a six-point loss to the Clippers (inexcusable), a three-point loss to the Magic at the buzzer in Orlando with a hurt Danilo Gallinari and a five-point loss to the Heat in Miami despite losing Arron Afflalo in the first quarter with a left hamstring strain.
The teams they have beaten is just as impressive. Of their 11 wins, five have come against playoff teams and eight have come against potential playoff teams. They took down the Boston Celtics to help get their streak going and captured what may be their most important victory of the season last night against the San Antonio Spurs. For the entire first half, the Spurs were hitting seemingly every shot they took from beyond the arc but the Nuggets never quit, which is something Anthony-led teams had a tendency to do, and they continuously answered the Spurs big shots with triples of their own before finally getting enough stops to cut the lead to single digits.
In the second half, George Karl used the many pieces he had at his disposal to keep his offensive attack going when the Spurs couldn’t answer and in the fourth quarter, big shots from J.R. Smith and Al Harrington gave the Nuggets a chance to the close the game on top. With the game on the line, the Nuggets went to their small forward in an isolation set like they have many times before, but this time it was Wilson Chandler standing by his lonesome on the right wing, staring at his defender while the clock winded down. Chandler made a decisive move towards the paint and hit the 14-foot jumper to put the Nuggets up with just over half a minute to go.
When you look at this Nuggets team now, you can start to see some of the things I talked about when the trade initially went down. I said that Denver would be a better team without Carmelo because of the amount of talent they got back in the trade and that has been the case. My exact argument when the deal become official was that downgrading from Carmelo Anthony to Wilson Chandler at the small forward spot was not all that bad when you add a point guard like Raymond Felton, a shooter in Danilo Gallinari and even a big man in Timofey Mozgov – not to mention the draft picks Denver also acquired.
The depth that the Nuggets established with the Anthony deal has been the key to their second half success. When you go up and down the Nuggets’ roster, it’s hard not to be impressed with the collection of talent they now have.
Wilson Chandler has been playing some of the best ball of his career during his time with the Nuggets. He’s turned into the starter at small forward for George Karl and he’s averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per36 minutes. Chandler has turned out to be a very solid offensive players in all areas this season. He’s shooting 45% from 16-23 feet, which is well above the league average, and he’s shooting a career high 39% from three-point range in 14 games with Denver. Gallinari, who hasn’t been completely healthy since Denver acquired him, has also be tantalizing. His long range accuracy is still below where it should be but he’s been a fun player to watch in transition and has contributed a lot to Denver’s fast paced style of play by getting up and down the court quickly. Once he starts knocking down three’s like he should be, the Nuggets will have a dynamic duo at the small forward spots minus the trade demands and constant ball stopping.
The Nuggets also have dynamic duo’s at the point guard, shooting guard and power forward positions.
The duo at power forward is a little less glamorous than the pair of point and shooting guards Denver has but it has been effective nonetheless. Kenyon Martin has played reasonably well of late, adding a semblance of an inside presence for Denver to play alongside Nene, who is still one of the most under appreciated centers in the league. Martin has lost some of his athleticism due to age and injury but he still crashes the boards hard and has that edge to him mentally as the Kevin Garnett of the Western Conference. He’s been adding in some nice post-move bankshots every once in awhile when Denver isn’t getting good looks on the wings or letting Nene do his work. Al Harrington has added a perimeter threat at the four, which is a nice toy for George Karl to play with even if the defense and decision making from Harrington is still iffy at time. His work from long-range has been key in more than a few games for Denver this season.
At point guard George Karl has been given two undersized lead guards to use. Karl’s decided to start Ty Lawson while bringing Raymond Felton off the bench but he’s mixed it up by playing Felton with the starters and Lawson with the reserves for stretches. On top of that, Karl has also found the duo rather effective on the floor together. Though they are undersized, they both give 100% on every play and Felton’s bulk gives him the ability to check some of the two guards around the league. When both guards are in, the Nuggets play some of their best basketball because both Felton and Lawson are solid pick and roll operators and Felton can penetrate into the lane as well as almost anyone in the league, which opens up lanes for his teammates.
Felton has been shooting a wonderful percentage from deep during his time with Denver, knocking down 42% of his treys in 12 games. Lawson has also been shooting the deep ball well this season, making 38% of his long-range shots. With both guards becoming effective shooters from the outside, teams that decide to go under on pick and rolls are starting to pay for it no matter who is in the game. Felton isn’t as quick as Lawson but his strength makes him a tough player to stop when he turns the corner on the pick just like Lawson and if they are both hitting their shots, Denver’s offense is one of the toughest to guard in the league because: a) there are so many options for them if the initial pick and roll doesn’t work (Denver’s offense is 13% pick and roll, their third most frequented play behind isolation and spot-up shooters) and b) there is little to no dropoff when the second unit comes in.
My personal favorite duo is one that the Carmelo Anthony trade didn’t create. J.R. Smith and Arron Afflalo combine to give Denver a pair of lights out shooters. Smith specializes in getting his shot off the dribble and catching fire with the second unit while Afflalo often acts at the fifth option on offense, normally sitting a corner, waiting for a swing pass or kick out, but he’s often the most deadly option as well because of his excellent accuracy from deep. Afflalo has gotten better at getting to the basket this season and he’s seemed to master the “pump-fake the corner three, dribble in a few feet and shoot the mid-range jumper” move as he’s shooting the 10-15 footers at 55% and the 16-23 footers at 41%.
Smith on the other hand has seemed to figure it out a bit. He’s playing with more of a team mindset rather than just firing up shots acting as Carmelo-lite when he went to the bench. He’s moving the ball better and he’s taken the role as primary scorer on the team – yes I think he’s the number one scoring option despite his bench status – well without forcing up too many shots. It’s a bit surprising to see Smith on the bench during crunch time but Karl is a veteran coach and you can’t really argue with the results that the team has had since trading Carmelo Anthony. I’d like to see Smith on the floor during crucial moments but I can also see the reasoning for keeping him on the bench: Smith can be extremely effective in spurts but can be just as ineffective depending on whether or not his shot is falling so Karl has decided not to take the risk of catching Smith on a coldstreak at the most important time in the game.
The extreme depth that the Nuggets now have has made them into a very tough out in the West. They took down the Spurs on one of their best shooting nights of the season yesterday and they have taken out other playoff teams during their 11-4 run. Denver is currently four games back of the Thunder for the fourth seed in the Western Conference with a steady game and a half lead over the Blazers who sit behind them in the sixth spot. This was a Nuggets team that most thought was doomed after the Carmelo Anthony rumors started to pick up but once the trade was made and the Nuggets got such a stellar package in return from New York, Denver looks like it could challenge any team in the league in the post-season.
And don’t look now, but the New York Knicks are 35-36 on the season, they are 3-7 in their last ten games, they are on a four game losing streak and Mike D’Antoni’s seven seconds or less offense has been tossed aside in favor of Carmelo Anthony isolations.
Perhaps Bill Simmons was on to something with his Ewing Theory?