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Video Playbook: George Karl’s ‘enver Nuggets

US Presswire

US Presswire

While their fast pace may not translate into postseason success, there are few teams that are more entertaining to watch on offense than the Denver Nuggets.

George Karl has transitioned as a coach, moving on from his days as a defensive-minded manager to a transition offense wizard in his old age. Led by speedsters Ty Lawson and Corey Brewer, the Nuggets have the potential to take  a turnover straight down the floor and score before the shot clock reaches the teens.

The Nuggets have averaged an insane 62.6 points per game in the paint over their last three games (Charlotte, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland), which is just five points above their season average, floating around 57 points.

Former UNC Tar Heel Ty Lawson is leading the charge, with an incredible month of February that included ten games with over 20 points (game against Portland not included below).

47 2013-02-01 36:16 6 14 .429 1 3 .333 8 8 1.000 0 0 0 13 2 0 0 2 21
48 2013-02-05 36:37 6 11 .545 1 4 .250 9 11 .818 0 2 2 7 2 0 2 2 22
49 2013-02-07 30:31 5 11 .455 0 1 .000 6 8 .750 0 3 3 12 2 0 2 3 16
50 2013-02-09 35:02 3 11 .273 1 2 .500 4 4 1.000 0 2 2 5 2 0 1 1 11
51 2013-02-10 54:40 13 22 .591 3 6 .500 0 0 2 4 6 9 1 0 5 2 29
52 2013-02-12 39:16 12 20 .600 1 3 .333 4 6 .667 0 1 1 9 3 0 2 0 29
53 2013-02-13 37:12 8 11 .727 5 5 1.000 5 7 .714 0 2 2 9 2 0 5 3 26
54 2013-02-19 37:13 8 13 .615 2 5 .400 8 10 .800 1 5 6 6 1 0 0 1 26
55 2013-02-22 38:13 8 20 .400 0 6 .000 11 12 .917 0 4 4 12 0 0 2 3 27
56 2013-02-23 39:34 6 15 .400 1 2 .500 7 9 .778 2 3 5 5 0 0 3 2 20
57 2013-02-25 40:30 8 19 .421 1 6 .167 5 7 .714 0 4 4 8 1 0 4 3 22

But, as of late, the Achilles’ heel of the team has been their inability to keep the other team from scoring. In their four losses in the month of February, (all on the road) the Nuggets gave up an average of 116.25 points per game. Forget Lawler’s Law – with the Nuggets, it’s been first to 105 wins.

The defense has seen an improvement this season, and it may be because of one player – Andre Iguodala, who improves their Defensive Rating by six points when on the court.

“With Andre Iguodala, I think we have a stopper,” Karl said of his new starting shooting guard, an All-Star last season. “I don’t think we’re going to be statistically high in a lot of traditional defensive categories. But I think differential is the key for us — field-goal differential, points differential, turnover differential. How we control the other team. Can we have moments of defensive momentum rather than offensive momentum? Can we have moments when we intimidate with our presence on the defensive end on the court? And, in the fourth quarter, I still believe you win most games with stops, extra possessions, offensive rebounds, making free throws. I just think defensively you win so many close games with intimidation.”

How does Denver stack up in the categories Karl listed? Outside of free throw shooting, fairly well.

eFG% FT% Points Turnovers Off. Reb. Steals Points 2nd half
Denver 51.2 69.2 105.4 15.2 13.5 8.9 51.7
Opponent 49.6 73.8 101.7 15.6 12.3 8.3 48.6
Difference 1.6 -4.6 3.7 -0.4 1.2 0.6 3.1

The problem spot is opponents lighting up the Nuggets from behind the arc, where Denver allows 25.8 points per game on 37.0% shooting. In losses this season, the Nuggets are allowing opponents to shoot 43.1% from the perimeter, compared to 33.2% in wins. For comparison, that rate of 33.2% shooting in wins would be good for third best in the league if applied to every game, behind Indiana and San Antonio.

What is the problem in Denver? George Karl had one of the top defensive teams of NBA history in Seattle, with Detlef Schrempf, Shawn Kemp, and Gary Payton. With the Nuggets, he has made offensive efficiency more of a focus, but it’s not like he doesn’t know what it takes to run an excellent defense.

After doing some research, the answer for why Denver is not able to defend the perimeter well came down to a few factors, in my opinion.

  1. An emphasis on steals, which lead to points in transition.
  2. An emphasis on preventing layups, even if said action results in shots from the perimeter.
  3. An emphasis on switching after screens, which generates confusion due to miscommunication.

Here are some examples:

Switching On Defense, Miscommunication

The Nuggets have just begun the game, with the Wizards scoring right after the tip and the Nuggets missing their first shot. The Wizards aren’t in transition, and all the starters are still on the floor.

Nene, one of the most underrated offensive power forwards in the game, sets a screen on the right elbow for John Wall, but it is well defended by Lawson and Faried. Emeka Okafor is being fronted – sort of – by Kosta Koufos, while Iguodala marks Bradley Beal, and Danilo Gallinari is covering Martell Webster.


Wall passes back to Webster, and Nene fakes a screen before rolling back into the paint, which Okafor has left to set an off-ball screen for Beal. When Webster receives the pass from Wall, no one is open, and he begins to dribble at the top of the key. With Webster at the top of the key, and Wall heading to the corner where Beal is preparing to leave, the entire left wing is vacant.


With the left side of the floor completely unguarded, the defensive scheme begins to breakdown. Iguodala inexplicably jumps up to the perimeter after the screen, playing excellent defense on that spot of hardwood. He is too high to guard Okafor, who would be wide open for a lob pass for a cut to the rim. While he may have expected to switch off of Okafor for Koufus, Koufus has no knowledge of this decision, and is in-between the rim and Okafor.


Webster sees that Beal’s defender, Iguodala, is literally on the opposite side of the court, making the easy pass while Nene screens Faried, freeing up the rookie to make a 3-point shot. If the post defenders were supposed to switch onto Beal as he ran past, neither did so. Koufos could have switched onto Nene when Beal ran past him, allowing Faried to apply pressure after Beal catches the pass.

While Faried makes an effort to close out on Beal, he is in no position to defend the shot, and if he was able to get past Nene, he would have left his man open for an offensive rebound.

Also, this isn’t related to the play, but it’s obvious Beal is going to shoot – find a body!



Here is the play in realtime:


Preventing Layups, Allowing Corner 3-Point Shots

I don’t believe that this is a bad defensive strategy, depending on personnel. If a poor shooter is in the corner, help off of the player and protect the rim. NBA players should be converting attempts at the rim at a higher percentage than they do from the perimeter. Also, creeping in can help gain a better position for a defensive rebound, which puts the team back on offense where they can score.

I want to get this out early – Anthony Randolph played good defense here! Now that I’ve made that statement, let’s examine the play.

Kobe Bryant has used a screen from Earl Clark, who is playing the center position, and is driving against JaVale McGee towards the rim. McGee would finish with four blocked shots, and had good JaVale going. All the Nuggets are playing sound defense against this play, with the threat being Bryant with the ball and Clark cutting down the lane. Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison can score from the perimeter, as evident from their 54 combined points with 12 three-pointers on Nov. 30 against Denver.


McGee guards the rim well, forcing Bryant to either attempt a reverse layup or pass out to the perimeter.

Notice Miller’s position in the first picture compared to the second picture. This is the bad habit of creep – watching the ball and moving out of position as a defender instead of guarding your man. What is confusing is why Miller would move in towards the rim. He can’t block Kobe at this point – the only reasoning is that he is anticipating a rebound, although Bryant has taken off from nearly behind the backboard.


Miller’s movement away from Blake frees up the backup point guard, who easily catches Bryant’s outlet pass. Miller is unable to close the distance quickly enough, and Blake rises up uncontested and knocks down the corner shot.



Here is the play in real time:


Applying A Trap, Get The Steal

The Nuggets will frequently trap defenders in an attempt to create an opportunity to jump a passing lane and create a transition opportunity. While some of the defenders are more apt to jump for steals, giving up positioning (Corey Brewer), the system calls for traps, either in the post or high on the wings.

In this example, the Nuggets are on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, shortly before the All-Star break. They are missing Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, two of their better defenders. Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler get the nod to fill their roles off of the bench.

In this play, the Nets have given the ball to Brook Lopez, a proficient scoring center in the league. Matched up against Koufos, the Nuggets want to limit his ability to score one-on-one, and send Chandler to double. As soon as Lopez receives the pass from C.J. Watson, the double team is coming.


This leaves Gerald Wallace open at the top of the key. Wallace is shooting 33.6 percent this season on 3-point shots, with the other perimeter threat, Joe Johnson, who is shooting 38.1 percent, in the corner.

The mistake is made here by Brewer, and confounded by Faried. Brewer leaves Johnson to close out on Wallace, and Evans – who is not a scoring threat – sets a down screen on Faried to prevent him from closing out on Johnson. This results in Chandler having to rotate from the right block across the floor to close out on Johnson.

It isn’t fair to say that Chandler should have been there – the ball moves faster than the player, and he has no chance to contest the attempt. It is fair to say that Brewer should have allowed Wallace, who has attempted 16 shots from that location, making six, to take that shot instead of leaving Johnson, who has attempted 91 shots from the wing and 63 shots from the left corner, connecting on 58 of them (combined).


Johnson did miss from there, for what it is worth.

Here’s the play in real time:


That main weakness of defending the perimeter? While George Karl may draw the ire of local fans for not playing McGee more minutes, or Faried late in games, the numbers don’t lie. When Faried, McGee, and Gallinari are on the court, the opponent is making a higher percentage of shots from the perimeter. All three players have many years ahead of them in Nuggets blue and yellow, and with more time and coaching, their perimeter defense will begin to improve.

In the meantime, enjoy the hustle and energy of the Manimal.

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