Gosh, what a sticky situation!
There’s no need to fear. The Fall Breakers are here!
You’d have to work at Reynolds Wrap to find more silver linings than our Atlanta Hawks have been dishing out to opponents this season. Our Fine Feathered Friends have arrived in Denver, where a once-upbeat Nuggets team (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN) finds itself in dire need of a trust fall catcher.
Memphis needed a big bounce back after debuting with a 111-83 loss at Indiana. They got one from the Hawks, and the Grizzlies are grinning at 8-5 now. One night after getting burned, 135-106 in Charlotte, the Bulls traveled to Atlanta and found their salve, a 12-point margin representing their biggest victory to date.
Were it not for a road win in the ATL just over a week ago, the Knicks would be mired in a six-game skid. After dropping five of their prior six games, the Pistons stopped by The Farm to get themselves back above .500 on the season. Even the Cavs, who lost to the Hawks and later fell to 0-6, firing their coach, losing their star to injury, ran it back and were gifted a 22-point win for their first victory.
Your iconic team president is feuding with your head coach? You say your champion All-Star is embroiled with one of the other ones, threatening to tear your dynasty asunder? Relax! We Got Y’all. As the autumn temperatures plummet and the leaves turn crisp, look to the Fall Breakers to help you out.
A couple weeks ago, Denver could not have imagined they’d need the Hawks as a boost. These Nuggets were golden, rolling to a 9-1 record to kickstart their playoff-return campaign. They beat Golden State, and Boston, and their hated division rivals in Utah along the way.
Those three wins, and four others, came without their super-soaking wing scorer, Will Barton, who went down to a hip injury after just two starts. All of Denver’s success came without free agent pickup Isaiah Thomas, and a pair of rookie additions intended to fill the crater at small forward. Through the Nuggs’ first ten games, only Milwaukee and Golden State could boast of a better Net Rating. Forget just reaching the postseason, why not dream about the conference finals?
The slide started innocently enough, with a two-point defeat at Memphis. Then came a bad loss back home versus Brooklyn. The losing homestand continued with the Nuggets (9-5) dropping games versus Giannis’ Bucks and Harden’s Rockets here at Pepsi Center.
So what gives? You could start with the reliance on the second-youngest roster (barely behind the Bulls) in the league right now to compete for over 80-plus games. Yes, that roster includes Uncle Paul Millsap, the soon-to-be 34-year-old former Hawk who missed much of last season, his first as a Nugget, due to injury, and I.T. (hip), who has no timetable for a return. Shortly after Millsap’s and Thomas’ birthdays this coming February, team minutes-leader and top scorer Jamal Murray (17.8 PPG) will blow out 22 candles on his cake.
Both Murray (27.7 3FG%) and 24-year-old backcourt mate Gary Harris (29.4 3FG%) have been wayward with their marksmanship beyond the arc. Despite a lot of familiarity among returnees from last season, he Nuggets have nine active rotation players with only 1-4 seasons of NBA experience under their belts, and Harris is the sole player with four. After Sap, there is Miles’ brother, Mason Plumlee, who has technically been around for five seasons, and that’s it as far as experience goes.
Young players tend to start out like gang-busters, but struggle with plateauing once they read the press clippings and feel they no longer have much to prove. The similarly-sized guards in Denver’s starting unit have languished on the defensive end as well, and their similarly-green backups, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, aren’t much of an upgrade on that end of the floor, either.
That leaves the fort-holding to the interior, where Uncle Paul (team-high 1.1 BPG) and the esteemed Nikola Jokic await their guards’ many blow-by opponents. Over the past nine days, Denver’s defensive rating (114.6) was worse than everyone’s in the league aside from New York (FWIW, winless Atlanta’s ranked 18th during that stretch).
Whether it’s defending, passing, or making exterior shots, a lot has been left for the Nuggets’ bigs to handle. That’s especially the case for Jokic (17.5 PPG, 40.0 3FG%), who rings up more per-game assists (6.9 APG) than Murray (3.8) and Harris (2.8) combined. I’m not sure if it’s all the Coors and the Rocky Mountain Oysters available, but Jokic’s conditioning has left much to be desired.
When he’s on the court, Jokic (#1 in VORP and Box Plus/Minus, as per bball-reference) is playing at MVP-quality level, displaying an improved touch with his defensive rebounding. But it has been tough to keep him running the full court for more than 30 minutes per game.
When Nikola is not on the floor, the defense improves marginally but the ball movement and shot selection becomes stifling. When he is not drawing fouls and earning trips to the line, the Nuggets’ offense becomes even more of a grab bag.
Layer on the notoriously thin air, and the inherent home advantage dissipates for the Nuggets versus high-tempo teams, like Bud’s Bucks and perhaps the Hawks, or squads with spread-and-pick-apart offensive schemes, like the Rockets.
I’ve long been a fan of Mike Malone, the unfairly deposed former Kangz coach who freshly inked a two-year contract extension just last month. But I posit that he is among the dying breed of “Gumption” coaches in the NBA. These are the sideline taskmasters who aren’t renowned for their X’s and O’s but rely, more so, on the well-worn tactic of insisting his players just play harder, no matter the efficacy of the plays being designed and called.
“Last four (games), the defense fell-off big time,” Malone explained to the Longmont Times-Call and media after the loss to Houston. “It’s one-on-one containment, the blow-bys are at epic levels right now, just the inability to guard one-on-one and then just having pick-and-roll awareness.” Hinting at the issue with Jokic and others on what should be an energetic roster, Malone added, “We have some guys that look like they are exhausted two minutes into a game.”
Help isn’t coming, consistently, at the small forward spot. They started the season with Torrey Craig, a second-year pro out of South Carolina-Upstate, but he has struggled to make a mark the way he did for years in Australia’s pro league. After Denver’s loss to the Nets, Malone replaced on the top line with Juan Hernangomez (team-best 44.7 3FG%), but signs of improvement haven’t been immediate.
One presumes that a triumphant return by Melo is not in the works around here. But filling the 3-spot with backup 4’s, like Hernangomez and Trey Lyles, depletes the frontline options, and makes it more important that Millsap stays fresh and out of foul trouble. With their beefy lineups, Denver has been rebounding as well as anybody (1st in D-Reb%, 2nd in O-Reb%), but it’s the frequency of taking the ball out of the net that has been troubling lately. In Denver’s last four games, Nugget foes have shot a scintillating 40.0 percent on threes (5th-highest in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 40.1 3FG%), and 48.9 percent overall (3rd-highest in NBA).
Fortunately for Nuggets fans, there are few Western Conference staffs who would be more familiar with Atlanta, even in its current incarnation. Sharing the bench with ex-Tech shooting coach Mark Price is former Hawks head coach Bob Weiss – yes, he’s still at it, at a spry 76 years of age. The video coordinator for Atlanta during the Woody-era turnaround, John Beckett serves as Denver’s player development coach.
It shouldn’t take an Ivy League degree to figure out how to tackle the downtrodden Hawks (3-11). But Tommy Balcetis, the Nuggets’ analytics and team strategy director, was about to play alongside Jeremy Lin (seven points away from 5,000 for his career) with the Harvard Crimson back in the day, before having to hang it up due to a heart condition. Mason knows a little bit about Miles Plumlee, Atlanta’s backup pivot who will get even more action than normal, what with Dewayne Dedmon (out, a hopefully bouncy Baby Ded on the way) and Alex Len (questionable, sprained ankle) among the likely inactives.
They don’t have the All-Defensive talents that Golden State had to fluster Trae Young (2-for-12 FGs, 9 assists and 3 steals @ GSW in Tuesday’s 110-103 defeat). But panning out an easy victory for the Nuggets tonight will require keeping Young out of the paint, having him settle for high-arching, contested shots outside the flow of Atlanta’s offense, and denying catch-and-shoot opportunities for swingmen Taurean Prince (4-for-7 3FGs, team-high 22 points on Tuesday), Vince Carter and Kent Bazemore. Atlanta’s woeful perimeter shot accuracy (33.8 3FG%) elevates to a modest 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot chances, 36.9 percent on wide open shots, as per NBA.com stats.
The Hawks have more than their share of inexperienced talent on the floor tonight, as well. Omari Spellman will likely get the default start again, despite being unimpressive on the road lately (1-for-10 FGs past two games). A solid rebounder like Spellman, two-way contributor Alex Poythress could earn some more playing time, especially if he can mix it up inside and draw productive trips to the free throw line (46.7 FT%, no FTs in past four appearances).
Only the injured Barton and Harris remain from the 2014-15 outfit coached by Hawks assistant Melvin Hunt, the last time the Nuggets had a coaching crisis. Hunt and the rest of Lloyd Pierce’s staff will try to draw production out of DeAndre’ Bembry (3 steals in under 17 minutes @ GSW) and rookie Kevin Huerter, exploiting Denver’s struggles at the wing spot.
The outcome tonight may come down to Young’s and Lin’s ability to kick the ball to open shooters off dribble penetration, and the Nugget defenders’ willingness to thwart the point guards and make secondary ballhandlers beat them.
Harden (2-for-10 FGs, but 11 assists @ DEN) drew plenty of attention on Tuesday, allowing Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and James Ennis to feast (combined 9-for-18 3FGs). It was a similar deal two nights before as Brook Lopez (8-for-13 3FGs) had himself a night while all Nugget eyes were on the Greek Freak (8 assists).
After tonight’s game, the December 8 rematch in Atlanta will close out a run of nine road contests among the next 11 games in the Nuggets’ schedule. With competition in the NBA West starting to percolate, Denver is going to prefer turning the momentum around today, at home, and not weeks from now. Atlanta’s Fall Breakers are knocking at Denver’s door. Will the Nuggets be the latest team smart enough to invite them in?
Let’s Go Hawks!