The beginning of every season is all about survival. Players are still rusty, teams have yet to forge clear identities, and every squad still feels hopeful. No matter how many well-researched, well-written season previews and preseason scouting reports get printed, there’s still a dangerous level of mystery in early season opponents (see: Suns, Phoenix). Friday night in the Pepsi Center, the Trail Blazers will meet a Denver Nuggets team with a new coach, a new offensive system, and without last year’s star, Andre Iguodala, who now suits up in Oakland for the Warriors. Still getting used to the all new everything, the Nuggets fell to the Kings on opening night in Sacramento in a tight 90-88 scoreline.
After George Karl received the Coach of the Year Award last season and a swift severance package to go with it, the Nuggets brought in Brian Shaw, a well-regarded assistant who most recently sat down the bench from Frank Vogel in Indiana. You may remember Shaw from his playing days with that purple and gold club in Los Angeles, or from when his name was bandied about with every coaching vacancy in the league over the last few years. But unlike his Zen Master mentor, Shaw does not preach the Triangle Offense apart from a few elements. Nonetheless, his system is still different enough from the high-tempo, aggressive attack of George Karl that the Nuggets will need time to understand its intricacies and learn that running and gunning, while heaps of fun, is not always as wise a strategy as carefully working the ball into the big men in the paint. Quoth former skeptic Ty Lawson in the Denver Post on Thursday:
“Especially within the offense, pick and pop, just different things that I just realized. I’m probably going to talk to coach a little bit. He realizes it too; he’s a smart coach. We’re just figuring out each other. We’re going to need a couple games, and we’ll be alright.”
Those special moments of relationship building may take a bit more time to be realized than Lawson’s letting on, as small forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler remain sidelined due to injuries. The same article would go on to describe Shaw’s lineup creativity given his shallow bucket of healthy swingmen, even running the ageless—or perpetually aged—Andre Miller at small forward for short stretches. Yes, that Andre Miller. Such is the depth of despair on the wing in Denver.
While Nico Batum should be able to feast on Anthony Randolph’s sinewy limbs and whatever anonymous henchmen lie behind him, the real tasty parts of the Nuggets defense are found in the post. Denver started the incomparable JaVale McGee and former Trail Blazer J.J. Hickson in the first game in Sacramento. Unsurprisingly, the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins went off for 30 and 14, punishing McGee in particular, who could only stay on the court for 10 minutes due to his four personal fouls. CBS Sports’ Nate Timmons quoted Shaw after the game:
“[…] For [McGee], he was having the most difficulty following the plan in terms of keeping DeMarcus Cousins out of the middle, not allowing him deep post catches. I thought Timo [Mozgov] and J.J. [Hickson], late in the game, did a better job on him than Javale was doing and that’s why he wasn’t in the game.”
Yes, you read that correctly. J.J. Hickson, one of the worst post defenders in the entire NBA last year, if not the absolute worst, was recognized as one of the better defenders on Cousins in the first game. Oh, the endless wonder of small sample sizes. Ever gracious to scoring-minded big men and sarcasm-minded bloggers everywhere, Shaw went on:
“And late in games, you’ll probably see that lineup a lot because I think defensively, at least right now, that’s our best lineup with Darrell Arthur at the four and J.J. at the five with their activity and their flexibility.”
Kenneth Faried is still getting back in form; JaVale McGee is an inconsistent weirdo; so the Nuggets crunch time lineup will be Darrell Arthur and J.J. Hickson. Would you like a side salad or jo-jos with that, LaMarcus? Maybe even Robin Lopez can get his He-Man impression on against that bunch and toss up a 20 and 10.
In the words of JaVale—ahem, “Pierre” McGee’s Twitter account:
“IT TAKES A LOT MORE MUSCLES TO FROWN THAN TO SMILE… IF U’D SMILE U’D HAVE A LOT MORE ENERGY!”
“KIDS HAVE FUN IN COLLEGE … CUZ A C DEGREE IS THE SAME AS AN A DEGREE!”
Like the Denver big men, take your pick.