By: J.R. Smooth
In this week’s edition, I take a different tact. I jump headfirst into the Denver Nuggets-Golden State Warriors series and breakdown what each coach should do moving forward. Thanks for reading.
When news came down Sunday afternoon that All-Star power forward David Lee was done for the playoffs after tearing his hip flexor in Denver’s game one victory of its best-of-seven series with Golden State, I was fairly mum in my reaction. While losing Lee does hurt the Warriors’ chances moving forward, his production can be made up in other areas by other players.
That said, replacing 18.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game certainly appears insurmountable.
In 79 regular season games with Lee on the floor, the Golden State Warriors scored 106.2 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number precipitously dropped to 98.7. David Lee makes Golden State a different team. He just doesn’t make them better defensively, as the Warriors surrender 103.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 101.1 with him off. It is his production that Mark Jackson must seek elsewhere.
But, here’s the thing about production: It can be replaced. The Warriors outscored Denver 31-26 in the fourth quarter – almost all of which was played without Lee. Similarly, the Nuggets played all of game one without Kenneth Faried, as Wilson Chandler performed incredibly well in his steed. The production provided by players like Lee and Faried is replaceable. What’s harder to replace is defense, basketball I.Q., and deft-passing (two of which, Lee has).
Mark Jackson has a multitude of options at his disposal to make up for David Lee’s absence. He could go small and slide rookie Harrison Barnes to power forward. This would put four capable 3-point shooters on the floor and really stretch Denver’s shaky perimeter defense (which could become even shakier once Kenneth Faried gets back into the lineup). Jackson could start his other rookie, Draymond Green, at power forward as that would keep his rotations intact and help Andrew Bogut on the interior defensively (special thanks to Los Angeles Lakers’ Forum Blue and Gold blogger, Darius Soriano, for the head’s up on that idea). Or, Jackson could do the natural thing and slide Carl Landry into Lee’s starting spot.
The Nuggets were outrebounded 55-45 (including a 13-7 disparity on the offensive glass) in game one. Despite that statistical anomaly, Denver still won the points-in-the-paint battle, 52-40. Kenneth Faried’s return in tandem with David Lee’s exit *should* aid the Nuggets’ cause on the glass and further exacerbate their points-in-the-paint advantage. That is one reason why it might be wise of Mark Jackson to send in defensive reinforcements for Andrew Bogut in the form of Draymond Green. However, if he were to go the Harrison Barnes route, it would do much to mitigate both the loss of Lee and the return of Faried – at least offensively. Kenneth Faried is a below average defender and can get especially lost in space guarding stretch-fours.
With Draymond Green on the floor during the regular season, Golden State opponents shot an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 47.5%. With Green off the floor that number jumped to 49%; this is perhaps one reason why the Warriors gave up only 100.1 points per 100 possessions with him in the game and 103.5 with him not. Harrison Barnes, on the other hand, didn’t drastically improve Golden State either way (104.5 ORTG on/104.0 off; 102.4 DRTG on/102.7 off). Of course, a lot of that has to do with how he was used, particularly offensively. If Barnes was moved to power forward to play the role of stretch-four, his offensive impact could be more pronounced. There is no way of knowing.
I have always liked Carl Landry. The only problem is that he, like David Lee, leaves much to be desired defensively. Landry needs to be teamed up with a defensive-minded center in order to maximize his potential. Andrew Bogut fits that bill nicely. Landry and Bogut only saw the floor together for 53 total minutes during the regular season. In those limited minutes, the Warriors scored 93.7 points per 100 possessions while allowing only 89.4. However, that tandem absolutely dominated the glass, as Golden State had a 31.1% ORB, 82.0% DRB, and a 56.6% TRB in their time on the floor together.
In ten minutes of court time during game one, the results weren’t so stellar, as Golden State scored 133.7 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 135.4. Landry and Bogut’s court time coincided with JaVale McGee’s (and for a brief stretch, even Anthony Randolph) – players very prone to high variance. That is why Bogut and Landry’s respective offensive and defensive ratings during game one should be taken with a grain of salt. McGee and Randolph aren’t particularly sound basketball players.
The Warriors will need a different Carl Landry in game two, as his game one performance was among the worst I’ve seen from him in a very long time. The return of Kenneth Faried could be both a good and bad thing for Landry. On one hand, Landry’s ability’s from mid-range will pull the Manimal away from the basket and force him to guard Landry in space. That’s not a positive development for the Nuggets. On the other hand, the Manimal’s activity level never wavers. Boxing-out Faried is an exhausting chore. The only concern for Denver with respect to Faried’s return is we’ve never seen him come back from injury. Will his sprained right ankle diminish his mobility and by extension, his energy level? Faried’s athleticism is his meal ticket. Without it, he’s not much of a basketball player.
If the pace is going to remain slowed, as it was in game one, then Landry might be the best option. However, if it at all quickens, Golden State might turn to Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes. If it were me, I would recommend Mark Jackson use a combination of Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes while Wilson Chandler is occupying the four or five spot for Denver. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Green excels defending in isolation, allowing only 0.67 points per possession. Harrison Barnes, however, is the superior defender when covering pick-and-rolls with the ball-handler as the primary option, allowing only 0.78 points per possession. Where Mark Jackson doesn’t want Draymond Green is in covering the roll-man in pick-and-roll situations, as he surrenders 1.24 PPP in such circumstances. This is why you will often see Green switch during pick-and-rolls, as he’s a superior defender in isolation (see above).
However, when Kenneth Faried is Denver’s power forward or center, Jackson should run with Harrison Barnes, as Faried is ill-equipped to defend Barnes on the perimeter. Can Barnes, with the help of Andrew Bogut and/or Carl Landry, keep Faried off the glass? That is the question.
Where it gets tricky is when Karl throws out his small-ball lineup without a center (as it is occupied by Faried). If Faried is anything like his old self (pre-injury), then Bogut is going to have a very difficult time countering the Manimal’s activity – in which case, Jackson might consider going small(er) himself, without Bogut in the lineup at all.
Basketball is very complex, with the playoffs highlighting that fact. People who think it’s like a video game, where a head coach can arbitrarily play his “best five” no matter the circumstances, are clearly mistaken.
As for the Nuggets, I don’t know. They defy explanation. It just seems George Karl has the Midas touch with this group. He has a formula that won a franchise-record, 57-games. I see no reason for him to change now.
However, if I were to recommend one thing, it would be this: Evan Fournier saw just 22 minutes in game one. Only Anthony Randolph (6 minutes) and Corey Brewer (21 minutes) saw less. I realize Fournier had a cold-shooting night (0-for-3 from 3-point range), but, Denver is going to need both his defense and ability to get to the free-throw line, where the Nuggets went an abominable 18-for-28 (64.3%) in game one. When you consider the Nuggets performed that poorly from the free-throw line without Kenneth Faried in the lineup and with Andre Iguodala going 4-for-6 (a 57.4% free-throw shooter on the season), you begin to understand Fournier’s importance.
Going into game two, you might see even more small-ball out of Denver than usual – with Faried playing center, Wilson Chandler at power forward, Andre Iguodala at small forward, Andre Miller/Corey Brewer/Evan Fournier at shooting guard, and Ty Lawson/Andre Miller at point. The presence of Andrew Bogut in the middle is extremely difficult for the Nuggets to counter, especially with Kosta Koufos slumping. That is why George Karl would go small. Of course, as has been previously mentioned, it is very dependent on what kind of Kenneth Faried shows up coming off injury. If he’s like his old self, Denver should have no issue deploying such a lineup. If he’s at all hobbled, Denver might reconsider.
Andrew Bogut saw just 31 minutes in game one. With David Lee out, I would imagine that number to spike. And if that number does increase – even just a little bit – it becomes even more imperative that Golden State control the pace in the same way they did during game one; which is why the return of Faried is so crucial. Kenneth Faried is Denver’s spark plug. The number of easy looks he creates coming off both made and missed opposition baskets are incalculable. Andrew Bogut has very little chance of running the floor with Faried.
Golden State led the league in 3-point shooting during the regular season (40%). That number fell to 36.4% (8-for-22) in game one, with Jarrett Jack’s 0-for-5 from distance being the main culprit. I’m thinking there won’t be a repeat performance in game two (at least not from Jarrett Jack). However, Denver’s game one 3-point shooting (3-for-16; 18%) was an even greater deviation from the regular season (34.5%), with Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, and Evan Fournier going a combined 0-for-10. I’m not thinking we see a repeat performance of that, either.
Mark Jackson has plenty of options for replacing David Lee. But the balancing act becomes even more difficult than normal. Denver is an incredibly difficult monster by which to contend. Here’s hoping Jackson and his players are up to the task, or this series could be over sooner rather than later.