If the Lakers have been the most underwhelming team relative to expectations so far this season, the Denver Nuggets may run a close second. After pushing L.A. to the limits in a tough, seven-game first round series during the 2012 playoffs, the ingredients appeared in place to build on that momentum. Andre Iguodala was brought into the fold. JaVale McGee and Andre Miller were retained. And with (Coloradan fingers crossed) improved team-wide health, roster continuity would allow George Karl to guide his deep team to the next level. Instead, the Nuggets stumbled out of the gate, and have spent November hovering around the .500 mark. Like the Lakers, the search for fluidity and consistency remains a frustrating exercise in trial and error for the Nuggets.
For more knowledge about tonight's guests, I sent five questions to Joel Rush, who covers the Nuggets for the True Hoop network's Roundball Mining Company. Below are his responses, and here is a link to my thoughts on five Lakers questions from Joel.
Andy Kamenetzky: The Nuggets haven't gotten off to the start that many (certainly myself) expected. Why have they struggled and what, if anything, has improved?
Joel Rush: Nuggets fans have also been surprised and disappointed by the sluggish start, and there's been a lot of head-scratching as to why. In reality, it was a combination of factors. It has taken Iguodala longer than many expected to mesh with his new team. Danilo Gallinari started off the season in a horrible slump stemming in part from a bad ankle. Wilson Chandler has effectively sat out the season due to his hip injury. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension, Ty Lawson came out of the gate stumbling with subpar effort and a lack of the aggression that's so critical in driving Denver's offense. JaVale McGee's potential was showcased in Games 3 and 5 of last season's L.A.-Denver playoff series, so Lakers Nation will understand why Nuggets fans were cautiously optimistic he was poised to make positive strides. But that hasn't yet happened.
The Nuggets have struggled in finding consistent, lasting solutions. Steps back repeatedly follow steps forward. Until they can find some answers that stick, the Nuggets may at times have winning stretches, but they'll have their share of setbacks as well.
AK: How is Andre Iguodala fitting in on both sides of the ball?
JR: Early on, Iguodala struggled to suss out where he fit, at times appearing lost, confused, aimless, distracted or frustrated. Fortunately for the Nuggets, he's recently been hitting his stride and figuring out his role. To assist him in the process, George Karl has been running some sets with Iguodala at point guard and Lawson as the off guard. As for expectations, the Nuggets were clear from the start: veteran leadership, a much-needed boost to their weak perimeter defense, an All-Star and gold medalist pedigree, and guidance for their crop of young players. But what they really need him to be is a sort of “glue guy-plus." He may be called upon to take big shots at times, but just as importantly facilitate better play from the team as a whole. But the prerequisite is finding his comfort zone in Denver's system with a clear understanding of his role, and jelling effectively with the other players.
He is making good progress, but isn't quite there yet.
AK: What type of impact is JaVale McGee having and how many "JaVale" moments typically take place over the course of a game?
JR: First, in his defense, JaVale has reduced the "knucklehead factor" to below the viral video threshold. That said, depending on the definition, we can probably find “JaVale moments” in nearly every game. There's usually at least one goal-tend, one ill-advised dunk or layup attempt a step too far away from the hoop, and one out of control sequence that results in a turnover or miss. For Karl, this is enough to limit his minutes to below 20 a game. Although not quite to "J.R. Smith" extremes, McGee is firmly located in the “not a Karl guy” camp, and sees lots of bench time because of it. The problem is he's also far and away Denver's most dynamic, talented and athletically gifted center. Given his age and that he's only been in a positive developmental environment for less than a year as a pro, he really needs more playing time to develop his game and learn to minimize his mistakes while maximizing his potential.
Lakers fans saw both sides of JaVale in the postseason. Expect to see both sides again on Friday.
AK: What matchup has you most intrigued?
JR: I'll cheat and name two matchups: Andre Iguodala guarding Kobe Bryant, and Metta World Peace guarding Danilo Gallinari. There's only a two-point differential between the Nuggets' top four scorers, but don't be fooled. Lawson may be the most important player on offense, but Gallo is Denver's most important scorer. The Nuggets have an extremely hard time winning if he's not putting points on the board and making a good number of free throws.
While MWP tries to shut down the Rooster, we could see an epic duel on the other end of the court as Iguodala attempts to play Kobe-stopper. Between World Peace and AI9, whoever gets the better of their respective defensive assignments could quite possibly be the difference-maker in this game.
AK: Finally, who wins and why?
JR: This is probably one of the hardest games of the season to predict. With both teams experiencing all sorts of headaches and discombobulation, it really all depends on which version of each team shows up. There are just so many wild cards for Denver. Whether Lawson will play aggressively and break down the Laker defense from the perimeter . . . whether Gallinari's shot will fall (especially his 3-pointers)... whether Karl will trust JaVale enough to keep him in the game down the stretch . . . whether the McGee/Kosta Koufos/Timofey Mozgov center triumvirate can do much to slow down Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol defensively. How these factors will shake out is anybody's guess.
However, the one thing that Nuggets fans can always count on, night in and night out, is the Manimal Kenneth Faried always shows up and brings it. So based on the Faried Factor, and the prospect that Darius Morris and Chris Duhon might have a hard time containing Lawson and Andre Miller, I'll tip the slight advantage to the Nuggets.