In danger of sweep by Lakers, Nuggets appear stuck on second tier

Allen Iverson drew heavy defensive attention that contributed to his 5-for-16 shooting in Game 3. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

DENVER -- This is the Denver Nuggets' winningest season in two decades, while the past five years have been the most sustained stretch of regular-season success in the franchise's NBA history.

It's hard to reconcile those facts with what is becoming an increasingly ugly ending to the campaign.

Saturday's 102-84 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers put Denver down 3-0 in their first-round playoff series, and elimination now seems as certain as death and taxes (no NBA team has ever come back from such a deficit).

Given the ease with which the Lakers won the first three games, nobody is expecting Denver to break that string. The game was such a laugher that many Denver fans exited, making the gold-clad, "MVP" chanting Lakers fans increasingly prominent in the crowd -- figure skater Michelle Kwan among them.

Certainly, Denver's fate had plenty to do with the opponent. L.A. again was flawless at both ends and got another star-caliber yet team-focused effort from Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, Luke Walton continued his unbelievable play off the bench (6-of-7, 15 points, five rebounds, five assists).

Yet it's hard to imagine Denver expected this result after going 33-8 at home this season. Especially after the weather gods threw them a bone and spooked the Californians with some mid-afternoon snow.

If L.A. completes the sweep on Monday, it would cement the Nuggets' status in the second tier of the NBA -- good enough to win 50 games, but not nearly good enough to hang with the league's elite in a best-of-seven series. With the team nearly $9 million over the luxury tax and two key players getting long in the tooth, it's an uncomfortable place to be.

Since pairing Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony at midseason last year, the Nuggets have twice been outclassed in the first round by one of the league's heavyweights; the Spurs did the honors last year. Thus, it seems probable that Denver -- much like Dallas and Phoenix -- will be among the Western teams contemplating major changes if they can't get out of the first round.

But for those of you who are wondering, a coaching change isn't on the menu. "We could lose both these games by a hundred and George [Karl] would still be the coach," a team source told me before Game 3.

Indeed, Karl has managed to keep everyone on board through a challenging season. For all their volatility, you don't hear these guys complaining about shots -- even with two big-time scorers to keep happy. Karl also helped J.R. Smith turn around his season, and possibly his career, while other young players have also shown positive development.

You also might wonder if attention-shy owner Stanley Kroenke has soured on having such a high payroll if it doesn't produce some postseason results. If so, the shedding of contracts would have painful results in the win column.

But while Kroenke remains elusive to the media, it appears he's still on board with the program. For a very recent example, he signed off on the last-week-of-the-season addition of Bobby Jones with the inclusion of a nonguaranteed second year -- something that added to his tax bill but gives the Nuggets flexibility for trades this summer (it was a similar deal with Howard Eisley that allowed the Nuggets to trade for Smith two years ago).

So Denver won't nuke everything just yet. But that doesn't mean it can stand pat.

Right now the Nuggets' problem isn't talent, and it isn't effort. It's more systemic: Simply put, the pieces don't fit real well. And while everyone focuses on their defense, it's on offense where the fit is the problem.

This team wasn't designed to be the Bad Boys, and by playing such a frenetic pace they're going to give up some points. But with two of the league's top four scorers in Iverson and Anthony, it should be an elite offensive team. Right now, it's not, and their attack seems weirdly disjointed.

That was obvious again on Saturday, when the Nuggets' attack degenerated into a one-on-one, "Whose Turn Is It Anyway?" type of offense. Denver shot 37.2 percent and had only 22 assists, after registering a mere 12 in Game 2. For the series, less than half of the Nuggets' baskets have been from a teammate's pass.

When I asked Karl before the game where his team needed to improve, the question wasn't even out of my mouth before he blurted, "Pass it!" Yet the interesting part of Game 3 wasn't that the Nuggets weren't making the pass, but how often there wasn't a pass available to be made.

Too often, Iverson and Anthony had three guys around them or were forced to drive into crowds because teammates weren't threats to score from the perimeter. Though both are great scorers, neither are great shooters and both prefer to operate near the basket -- Anthony on post-ups, Iverson on drives.

And with L.A. packing in the lane, the two shot just 10-for-38 in Game 3. For the series, they're 50-for-129 (38.8 percent).

"It seemed the Lakers had a good feel for when to bring double teams on [them]," Karl said. "And we forced shots."

For Denver's half-court offense to work, the other three guys need to create room by stretching defense out to the 3-point line. Do Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter strike you as the type of guys to do that?

Here's perhaps the most instructive piece of info about the Nuggets' need for floor-spacers. In terms of 3-pointers per shot attempt, Denver's three most prolific bombers this year were Smith, Linas Kleiza and Eduardo Najera. And other than Iverson, they were the three Nuggets with the top offensive plus/minus on the team.

Want more? Look at Denver's most effective offensive lineups and you'll see a similar trend. The top five-man units with more than 50 minutes, according to 82games.com, were:

1. Iverson-Smith-Kleiza-Anthony-Najera

2. Iverson-Smith-Kleiza-Anthony-Camby

3. Iverson-Smith-Anthony-Najera-Camby

4. Iverson-Smith-Kleiza-Najera-Martin

Notice a trend here? The Nuggets can score in bunches if they surround Iverson and Anthony with shooters. They can get by with one non-spacer -- either Martin or Camby -- at the 5. And otherwise, there just isn't enough room for their two big scorers to operate at peak effectiveness.

This offers a prescription for next season. As crazy as this sounds, the Nuggets need to play smaller and possibly even faster. Picture Anthony as the power forward with shooters like Smith and Kleiza around him. Picture a couple of more shooters, acquired in free agency or via trade for the likes of Nene and Kenyon Martin.

Picture the Nuggets, in short, as a faster-paced version of teams like Toronto, Orlando or, yes, these Lakers -- teams that had better offenses than the Nuggets this season despite appearing to have far less individual offensive talent, because they effectively space the floor around their star players.

In fact, L.A.'s ability to do just that was on display for all to see in these first three games, as L.A. rained in 29-of-71 (40.8 pecent) from downtown to keep Kobe's double-teamers at bay.

In the meantime, the Nuggets will come back on Monday for a final salvo with this gang, and one last shot at leaving this series with a shred of dignity intact.

"Don't give up," Iverson said of his approach. "I've been in this league 12 years and I never gave up one game."

As always, Iverson's effort is unquestioned. But he may need a few more shooters around him to make it a fair fight.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.