Behind Enemy Lines: Denver Nuggets

The Hornets hit national TV for the second time in less than a week. Except this time, instead of facing Earl Watson and Jeff Green, they'll have to contend with Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. And half the fans in the building won't be cheering for them. To get a little more insight into the matchup, I talked with SBNation's Nuggets blog Pickaxe and Roll.

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At the Hive: Is this team better or worse with the Chauncey for Iverson swap?

Pickaxe and Roll: Absolutely 100% better.  During the offseason I called for the Nuggets to get away from this fast paced offensive oriented basketball and switch to a more deliberate defense first style that works year after year.  This trade pushed them in that direction further and faster than I ever anticipated.

Allen Iverson is a great player, but he provides several problems for any team that employs him.  Offensively you never know what he is going to do.  You basically give him the ball and get out of the way. His style stifles motion and results in inefficient offense.

Defensively Iverson was much better to start the season than he had been in the past, but traditionally he has been a poor all around defender.  His primary weaknesses are his size and overall disinterest.  He typically covered the less explosive player in the opposing backcourt.  Even so he was usually guarding someone bigger than he was and that caused problems.  Everyone likes to talk about what a warrior AI is and how he plays his heart out for 42 minutes a
night, but the truth is he takes plenty of plays off on defense in order to give it his all when the ball is in his hands.

Chauncey BiIlups excels in many of the areas where Iverson left much to be desired.  Offensively he is a deadly shooter from three point range.  He gets a little more credit than I think he deserves as a distributor and pure point guard, but he is clearly a pass first player and has done a good job with fostering a half court system that emphasizes movement and sharing the ball.  The Nuggets can actually run half court sets now, which is nice.

Defensively there is no comparison between AI and Billups.  Chauncey has very good size for a point guard and eliminates the lack of size issue for the Nuggets on defense.  He can stay in front of his man, understands positioning and rotation and most importantly he knows the role defense must play in the process teams must follow to get to the next level.

AI was good enough to get the Nuggets to the playoffs, but they had no upside beyond that point. They were a borderline playoff team before the trade.  Now I honestly believe they have an outside chance of earning home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as the fourth seed behind the Lakers, Jazz and of course, the Hornets.

@tH:How is the cap space situation looking for Denver? Do you think they'll have enough space to make a run at a premier free agent in 2009 or 2010? If so, who would you like to target?

PaR: The Nuggets will not be in position to add a free agent in the next two or three seasons.  There was a chance they could have had some cap space in a couple of seasons thanks to Allen Iverson's expiring contract, but that is out the window now that they have acquired Billups.  They do have a $9.79 million trade exception that expires next November that could be utilized to bring in a player or players.

The problem is next season they will be flirting with the luxury tax level once again so I think it is unlikely they use it to bring in a high salary player.

The primary area the Nuggets will be looking to address with any roster moves would be front court depth.  They could also use a shooting guard who is a better scorer, which would allow J.R. Smith to move into the starting lineup, and with Anthony Carter getting up in years they will be in the market for a back up point guard.

@tH: It seems like nobody talks about Carmelo Anthony any more with the LeBron, Kobe, and other hype. The numbers suggest that 'Melo has started off really slow (39% shooting, career high turnovers/36 minutes, below 20 points per game for the first time). What's going on with him?

PaR: The reason no one is talking about Carmelo Anthony anymore is he has never been able to make the Nuggets any better than a postseason doormat.  Melo is posting his lowest shooting percentage and scoring average of his career right now, but do not let that fool you.  He is honestly playing the best ball of his career.

He has taken major step forward this season in his style of play and his concentration on the defensive end.  Offensively he is in a shooting slump, but he is posting his highest assist numbers of his career and his assist rate is far and away the best he has posted.  I have contended that Carmelo is a more dangerous player if he averages 20 points and six or seven assists than if he scores 28 points with
two or three assists.  The way Melo is double teamed he can help the team more by passing to cutters than by forcing a shot and he is finally realizing that.  As far as his scoring goes apart from his poor shooting the Nuggets are playing at a slower pace and Melo is taking three less shots a game this season than last so that is a
factor in his decreased scoring too.

The turnovers are problematic, but I believe he will cut those down as he learns what risks are worth taking and which passes should be avoided.

Defensively Melo is still the weak link amongst the starting five, but he is miles ahead of where he was last season.  He still can get a little sloppy with his positioning here and there, but he is paying attention and doing his best to not only guard his man, but to help and rotate as necessary.  He has also taken more of a responsibility for rebounding over the past couple of seasons.  He is averaging 8.7
rebounds a game and as with his passing has realized that rebounding is something he can do every game regardless of how well or how poorly he is shooting the ball.

I think Melo has a shot at averaging nine rebounds and five assists per game this season.  If he does he will get some MVP buzz for the first time in his career regardless of how many points he ends up averaging.  However, if the Nuggets are dumped out of the playoffs in the first round again it will all be for naught.

@tH: Same question as above, but replace 'Carmelo Anthony' with 'J.R. Smith." Many speculated that Iverson's departure would benefit Smith a ton. Instead, J.R. is shooting a career low 29% from three, and just struggling in general. What's the deal here?

PaR: I have no explanation for why J.R. Smith is struggling shooting the ball.  He has cut down on the bad shots and as a result one would expect he be shooting better, not worse.  The good news is that his misses are mostly good misses where the ball caroms off the back of the rim signifying the shot was on line just a little strong.  I think we will see J.R. heat up at some point and push his shooting back up to the ranges we expected of him starting the season.

As I wrote about Melo you cannot judge J.R.'s performance this season strictly on his shooting and scoring average.  He too is playing the best all around basketball of his career.  Last season J.R. would step on the court with nothing on his mind but hoisting shots and he averaged about a shot for every two minutes of floor time.  This year I have seen him go as long as nine minutes before taking his second shot of the game.  His minutes per shot is approaching three, which during a 20 minute stint of playing time is a difference of three shots compared to last season.  He is working to get his teammates good shots to the point he is passing up open looks to get a teammate a better shot.  Really his pick and roll game is excellent.  He has a knack for feeding the roller with a little bounce pass that splits the defenders.  I would love to see J.R. and Nene run about ten pick and rolls a game.

Like Melo, Smith has seen a spike in his rebound and assist rates and is playing very good defense.  He still gets beat off the dribble a little too frequently, but he knows where he is doing a great job of understanding the defensive philosophy and being in the right place at the right time.

I was definitely expecting 20 points a game from J.R., especially after the AI trade, but we have seen a more mature and well rounded player to the point where the lack of expected offense is really not that big of a deal.

@tH: Has the introduction of Chauncey Billups created a noticeable difference on defense? Billups has long been noted as perhaps the best defensive point guard in the league, but has the rest of the team noticed the change?

PaR: I think it is only fair to note that Denver had started the season playing more disciplined on defense, but the trade has pushed them even further in that direction.  The primary difference I would say Chauncey has brought with him was a strengthened sense of resolve and belief in themselves as a defensive team.

Before the trade I think they wanted to put in more effort to be a better defensive team, but I am not sure they had it in them to carry that desire throughout the season.  Now that Chauncey is here the ceiling for this team has been raised and that has infused them with energy and purpose.  They believe in themselves as a defensive squad and I look for them to carry that mindset until they are eliminated
from the playoffs or are crowned the champs.  OK, until they are eliminated.

As far as play on the court Chauncey has impressed me with his ability to stave off penetration.  I knew he was a great team defender, but I did not realize he was so quick laterally at this point in his career.  He does a great job of staying in front of his man which has not been a something the Nuggets could count on from their point guard in the past.

Thanks again to Pickaxe and Roll. You can check out my answers by heading over there. Hopefully the Hornets pick up another win tonight on this mini road swing. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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