There have been a few recurring themes for me during this NBA season. The first is that I ruthlessly attack anyone that promotes the meme that "small ball" is the optimal strategy in the modern game. The optimal strategy is to play your best 5. For the Heat, this means playing LBJ at the 4 so they can get Ray Allen/Shane Battier on the floor. For the Thunder, this sometimes means Durant at the 4 so they can get Martin on the floor more (and Perkins OFF the floor more). And this works because those teams have insanely talented 3s with the physical gifts to play the 4.
For the 2007 Warriors, playing small meant that Matt Barnes and JRich got more time, and it wasn't a big sacrifice because they had a terrible front court. Johnson, of course, decided to counter with his own small ball team, which meant his best rebounder (Erick Dampier) sat on the bench. Unlike Nelson, Avery was not playing his best 5, and unsurprisingly, that didn't turn out well for his team.
Another recurring theme for me so far in the 2012-13 season is that I am pretty disappointed about the injury-ridden and underperforming Timberwolves, but at the end of the day, at least Corey Brewer is no longer a T-wolf, and George Karl is not coaching them. The Nuggets have several problems right now, and those are two of their big ones.
Here's a quick look at the Nuggets:
Faried is by far the best Nugget so far (an opinion which should not surprise regular readers of this blog). Yes, Faried has defensive limitations. But his net rebounds, his low turnover rate, and his shooting efficiency more than make up for this, in particular his offensive rebounding, which is behind only Anderson Varejao and Jordan Hill. He is followed by the two big men McGee and Koufos, which again, for readers of this blog, should not be surprising.
If you sort by minutes, we see that the rank changes a bit:
Clearly, the best players have not been getting the most minutes. Now, not all of this is truly something you can blame George Karl for. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have historically been good players, and Iguodala is usually even better than the above-average pace he's been on this year. It's not really surprising or controversial that those players would be in the top 3 in minutes (although, frankly, Lawson has earned the benefit of the doubt in prior seasons, but Gallinari has not. We'll get back to that). And it is very bad timing that all three of them are underperforming their career averages at once.
But what is surprising is that no center is in the top 6 in minutes played, and only one power forward is in the top ten. Yes, Denver, your coach thinks that Corey Brewer is more important to winning than either Kosta Koufos or JaVale McGee, and that Gallo, who in 4+ seasons has never once posted average numbers in rebounds or blocks, is the team's best power forward (and sometimes center, based on lineups I have seen!) after Kenneth Faried.
This is madness. This is not brilliant strategy, clever coaching juggling, experience, savvy, or anything like this. This is just sheer stubbornness. George Karl is just essentially being Johnny the Gamer.
What the hell does that mean? Wll, I'm glad you ask. This will make you realize why "geek" is in this blog's name. If you have ever talked to any game designers, they will often tell you that there are three kinds of gamers: Jimmy, Johnny and Spike. Think of these like customer profiles, except made by game designers to evaluate how their games will appeal to gamers. The idea originated with Magic: The Gathering but has also been applied to plenty of computer games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc.
Timmy is what we in R&D call the "power gamer." Timmy likes to win big. He doesn’t want to eke out a last minute victory. Timmy wants to smash his opponents.
One of the misconceptions is that Timmy has to be young. While its true that younger players are more apt to fall into this category, players of any age can be a Timmy. What sets Timmy apart from the other two profiles is that Timmy is motivated by fun. He plays games because they are enjoyable. Timmy is very social. An important part of the game is sitting around with his friends.
Timmy cares more about the quality of a win than the quantity of his wins. For example, Timmy sits down and plays ten games. He only wins three games out of ten but the three he wins, he dominates his opponent. Timmy had fun. Timmy walks away happy.
Spike is the competitive player. Spike plays to win. Spike enjoys winning. To accomplish this, Spike will play whatever the best build is. Spike will copy strategies off the Internet. Spike will borrow other players’ strategies. To Spike, the thrill of the game is the adrenaline rush of competition. Spike enjoys the stimulation of outplaying the opponent and the glory of victory.
And, finally, Johnny:
Johnny is the creative gamer to whom the game is a form of self-expression. Johnny likes to win, but he wants to win with style. It’s very important to Johnny that he win on his own terms. As such, it's important to Johnny that he's using his own strategies. Playing a game is an opportunity for Johnny to show off his creativity.
Now change the wording to be about coaching basketball, and it's easy to see that George Karl is Johnny:
Johnny is the creative coach to whom basketball is a form of self-expression. Johnny likes to win, but he wants to win with style. It’s very important to Johnny that he win on his own terms. As such, it's important to Johnny that he's using his own lineups, not the traditional PG-SG-SF-PF-C lineup that everyone else uses. Coaching basketball is an opportunity for Johnny to show off his creativity.
If he was playing monopoly, Karl would refuse to buy Park Place or Boardwalk because he wants to win by getting Hotels on Connecticut, Vermont, and Oriental Ave and bleeding you to death slowly. He's that poker player you know who says that he always loses with Aces and that his favorite hand is J-7 of hearts. He's the guy who always takes Gen or Viper in Super Street Fighter IV because he doesn't want to cheese it up with Ryu. If you're playing NBA Live, he's not happy unless he's beating you with the Bobcats.
I'd like to re-iterate that not everything about the Nuggets has been Karl's fault. Lawson has been awful, Gallo has been worse, and the schedule has been brutal. But he simply has not been making the most of it. JaVale McGee should be playing more minutes. Maybe his asthma is a factor but I call bullshit on it being so bad he cannot even play 20 minutes a game. He should be playing 25. Furthermore, if conditioning is an issue, there is no acceptable reason that Koufos doesn't get the minutes that McGee cannot play. And lastly, the nonsense lineups with Miller, Lawson, Iggy, Gallo, and Faried (with Brewer in the mix as well) have just got to stop. Gallo maybe tall but he is not a power forward and never will be. And asking him to play a position he isn't very good at is not the best way to help him overcome his struggles this season. This lineup is particularly bad because it exascerbates Faried's defensive shortcomings. One of the reasons that Faried's fouls are so high is that Karl is often asking him to guard the opposing center, a hopeless assignment.
Which brings me again, back to Gallinari. Why is he being asked to do so much, and being given so much trust? He's had about one season of above average play (the end of 10/11 and the beginning of 11/12 before he was injured). And although he looked very much like a player about to break out into a star, he never completed that break out. His shooting has been all over the place this year, and much of his decision making has seemed suspect (he seems to be passing up lots of open threes, probably from doubts about the aforementioned shooting, and driving into congestion a lot). It would seem logical to try something else, like a lineup with two bigs and Iggy at the the three.
Finally...seriously, why is Brewer being paid to play basketball? For a supposed defensive specialist, he makes an enormous number of defensive bonehead plays per game. In particular, he must lead the league in two categories: committing stupid fouls while trying to make up for a previous mistake, and leaving his defender open for a corner three to help out a teammate that doesn't need the help. And, I'm sorry, but if you are as eye-gorgingly aweful at the offensive side as Brewer is, your defense ought to be perfect for you to get any burn at all. He's one of Denver's worst performers, and that's despite being hotter than the sun from 3-point land for the first ten games. As he continues to regress to the mean, his minutes are going to hurt Denver, a lot. He really shouldn't be playing.
I am convinced the Nuggets have lost a couple of games through this kind of mismanagement, and with the Nuggets playing such a brutal schedule in the beginning of the year, a record like 10-6 or 11-5 would make them one of the best in the West, with lots to look forward to as the schedule gets easier. Instead, they're 8-8 and digging themselves a hole they'll have to climb out of. Future games against weak opponents now have lots of extra pressure because they become "must wins".
But hey, Nuggets fans, when you win, you win with style.