Wednesday, February 27, 2008

great piece on the Nuggets

Nuggets: Pick Up Team or Playoff Team?

Go to any park or playground in any major city in America – from D.C. to Memphis to L.A. – and you will see pickup games with a style and rhythm of basketball unique to the outdoor run.

Or, you can watch the Denver Nuggets.

This team is super-talented and entertaining. However, their resemblance to a team getting a run on the blacktop might let them hold the court for a few hours or get regular season wins, but it won't lead to any success in the NBA playoffs.

In the tough Western Conference, it may even keep them out altogether.

These characteristics of the Nuggets pickup mentality were on full display in their home loss to the Detroit Pistons Monday night, and anyone who has ever hooped at the park could have easily recognized the signs:

Too Much One-on-One Play

No one can argue the individual offensive abilities of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. But, their monopolizing of the ball and forays to the basket against one, two or three defenders hurt their team's offensive development – and it will kill them in the playoffs.

The Nuggets have good perimeter three-point shooters in J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza and Eduardo Najera, but they often find themselves standing all alone watching Iverson and Anthony take on the whole team. Stop the tape at any time at the end of an Iverson or Anthony move, and you will see them surrounded by defenders while shooters are standing all alone.

You see it at the park all the time.

Dependence On "Bail Out" Calls

The Nuggets depend entirely too much on calls by the officials at the end of plays. From Allen Iverson sticking out his legs and hitting the deck or flailing his arms on a drive to Carmelo yelling " OHHHHH!" every time he goes to the basket, Denver relies on the officials to bail them out of many bad or forced shots.

A lot of these calls they get are weak at best; the kind of calls that at the park lead to arguments ("That's a bull---- call") and altercations.

One typical reaction for the pickup defender getting chumped on calls is the universal "take the ball and heave it over the fence" – which has been perfected in cities across the country.

Every playground in America has a guy who bails himself out with weak calls when he misses shots. The Nuggets have a team full of them. These guys would be a nightmare at the park – every game would end in an argument, a fight, or the ball bouncing through the intersection down the block.

If they don't get the call, there is a momentary delay in getting back defensively – even players standing and glaring or arguing the no call. This leads to poor transition defense and last night led to some easy baskets for the Pistons, who don't exactly race down the floor 100 mph.

Anthony, Iverson and Kenyon Martin were all guilty of this last night, and Detroit time and time again got easy scores on the break.

In a pickup game, this happens all the time.

In an NBA game, it is inexcusable. And it leads to an early exit in the playoffs – or a failure to qualify.

Poor Overall Defensive Effort

Defense is first and foremost about effort and hard work. Forget blocked shots and steals – those are the "Sportscenter" moments of defense – which take brief, momentary effort. Good athletes can get these in their sleep. These plays are usually the result of "early" or "late" defense – going for a steal on the first or second pass, or reacting late and getting a blocked shot at the rim.

Stand outside the fence of any pickup game with good athletes, and you will see plenty of these.

Good, consistent team defense requires constant effort and communication on every play – which means running the floor, picking up men early and helping teammates.

Pickup 5-on-5 tends to become a lot of 3-on-2, 4-on-3, and 5-on-4. Every team seems to have a guy or two who just doesn't seem to have much interest in getting back. Either that guy is out of shape, doesn't care, or well…maybe a little bit of something else. These are the same guys who all of a sudden "come alive" on the offensive end.

When arguably the most athletic starting five in the NBA – which means on the planet – is consistently beaten down the floor by speedsters like Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, your team is in trouble.

Inability To Defend Key Situations

Check out the local five-man outdoor run or game at the rec, and there's also not a whole lot of team defensive rotation or communication on key possession or in certain offensive situations.

There is always increased effort on "game point" or "point game" (depending on your city of origin), but usually the execution isn't there from the local pick up squad.

Ditto for the NBA's Denver Nuggets last night.

In Detroit's halfcourt sets, the Nuggets got picked, rubbed off and lost on possession after possession.

Whether is was Wallace or McDyess catching at the elbow and reading cutters and screeners, or on screen/rolls for Chauncey Billups, Detroit got whatever they wanted. Only a poor shooting night kept them from winning by double digits.

In defending screens on and off the ball, sometimes Denver switched, sometimes they sort of switched, sometimes they thought they were switching but both defenders went with the same guy, and sometimes they just didn't do anything.

Switching defensively takes the least effort, and Denver does that a lot on screening situations. Guess what most guys do at the park in those same situations?

But, it creates horrible mismatches in the NBA good offensive teams just destroy.

On double-teams and rotations, Denver usually had three or four guys who did, and one or two guys who didn't – leading to easy jump shots and lay-ups for Detroit all night.

This was especially true at the end of the game when team defense wins and loses games.

With under three minutes to play and the Pistons up 88-85, Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess worked a ballscreen on the left side. J.R. Smith and Marcus Camby failed to communicate, both stayed in no man's land – not really guarding either guy - and Billups rifled a pass to McDyess for the baseline jumper to put the Pistons up five.

On the next possession, Billups came off a high ballscreen, the Nuggets let him turn the corner and Camby switched onto him. Billups ate him up with a snap-back three putting Detroit up seven.

Switch your center onto an All-Star point guard and that's usually what you get. Good defensive teams hedge, force and recover. Bad defensive teams switch and hope.

Denver has as much talent as anyone in the NBA. They could be one of the top teams in the league at both ends of the floor. They could beat any team in the league in a seven-game series.

They would never lose at the park.

That kind of talent will get them lots of wins in the regular season, but as long as they play more like a pickup team and less like a playoff team, they will be much more feared at playgrounds across America than in arenas around the NBA.

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