It wasn't too long ago that Brian Shaw took the Denver Nuggets on a seven-game winning streak and an 11-6 record. Now the Denver head coach is struggling to find the answers as his team has lost eight straight games by 12.1 points per game.
We expected the Nuggets to go through some ups and downs early on this season, but when you lose by 12 points on your home floor to a Philadelphia 76ers squad that gives up an NBA-worst 111 points and turns the ball over a league-worst 17.3 times, something is certainly off.
This is Shaw's biggest test since the regular season started. Frustration is beginning to surface.
As Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post mentioned, Miller showed his displeasure at Shaw when he didn't get to play for the first time this season on Wednesday. He's been suspended for the next two games versus the Memphis Grizzlies and at the Los Angeles Lakers.
#Nuggets G Andre Miller has been suspended for at least two games, according to sources. Team to release a statement soon.— Chris Dempsey (@dempseypost) January 2, 2014
Not only that, it was the first time Miller missed a game in his 15-year career because of a coach's decision, according to Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports.
Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post also reported that the 14-17 Nuggets had a three-and-a-half hour team meeting on Thursday.
Heavy fallout from spat: Nuggets in team meeting more than 3 1/2 hours after practice began. A Miller not in building.— Mark Kiszla (@markkiszla) January 2, 2014
Not even 40 percent of the regular season is complete, but changes are needed to turn things around in Denver.
Focus Purely on Defense
While a lot of the talk coming into this season was about how Shaw will get the Nuggets to play more half-court basketball and find more balance, the defense is changing from suspect to atrocious.
Shaw mentioned in an interview on NBA TV during the summer league games that defense was one of his priorities coming into this season. According to Kiszla, Shaw wanted to play, "smashmouth" basketball. Nate Timmons of Denver Stiffs reported that Shaw wasn't letting his team switch on defense to start training camp.
Shaw's defensive ideas were summed up best in Timmons' article.
We're starting with the bare basics. Right now, I'm not letting them switch at all. I'm making them fight over screens, making them talk, and just be accountable for their own man. Obviously, in game situations, there are times when you're going to have to switch, but when you have guards that are the size that we have ... we'll put ourselves at a disadvantage right away trying to switch a lot of things. We're going to try to fight over screens, give support, buy our teammates time to get back to their men, without switching, at least early on in the season.
Before we get into solving this from a lineup perspective, the Nuggets simply have to give better effort. They also can't let their missed shots turn into poor transition defense.
Right now they're switching too much, have a lack of communication and give up way too many easy buckets on both the perimeter and inside. Even when they switch and don't necessarily break down, their rotations are slow and they have inconsistent rim protection.
During the Nuggets' eight-game losing streak, they've given up 105.6 points, including just 89 to the Golden State Warriors. That translates to allowing 108 points in the other seven games.
But what's worse is that they've given up 44.8 points in the paint during this stretch. Whether opponents have pounded it inside against the smaller Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson or taken advantage of the soft defense against the high-ball screens, Denver can't get stops.
According to Teamrankings.com, the Nuggets are running 99.1 possessions per game and giving up 101.3 points. Last season, they ran 99.8 possessions and gave up 101.1 points, but they also had their NBA-best 106.1 points to lean on.
If the Nuggets truly want to be more balanced and not rely on their home-court altitude, they can't diminish one of their strengths by slowing down the pace while their defensive weaknesses continue to hurt them.
The Denver guards must do a better job fighting through screens and contesting shots. There can't be five feet of space for the opposing guard after the initial ball screen, nor can there be an easy pass to make on the roll or pop.
Because most of the big men are undersized and with JaVale McGee sidelined, they have to improve at keeping the opposing post players from establishing position on the low block. They also have to react faster and close out on the big-men shooters from the outside.
There's room for defensive improvement all around.
Tighten the Rotation, but Don't Overload the Starters' Minutes
Before the matchup with the 76ers, according to the Nuggets' official Twitter account, Shaw said he wants to condense his rotation moving forward.
#Nuggets coach Brian Shaw says he plans to shorten his playing rotation. He's been using 10 players on regular basis.— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) January 2, 2014
While four of the five starters played 31-plus minutes on Wednesday, oddly enough, seven other guys also received playing time.
But since Shaw mentioned in a video on Nuggets.com that the lengthy meeting that took place on Thursday gave everyone a chance to voice their opinions on the season, I wouldn't expect that to be the exact formula.
I'm all in favor of shortening the rotation. Over two months of regular-season play is in the books, and with the long-term injuries of McGee and Danilo Gallinari as well as short-term ones of Faried, Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler, nearly everyone on the roster has had opportunities to show what they've got.
Yes, the Nuggets have great depth. But when you are attempting to find team continuity and thinking about long-term plans as it pertains to the style you want to play, this is the correct move.
However, until the Nuggets at least get Gallo back, I would not start playing a majority of the starting five around 35 minutes. Because of their offensive diversity, Lawson and Chandler are the only two that should be playing that number, while the other three starters should get somewhere between 25-to-30 minutes.
How the Rotation Should Work For Now
We all know Lawson should get the most minutes, but with Miller's two-game suspension and trade rumors surfacing (per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports), Robinson is the guy to back him up.
Even so, Robinson has more explosiveness, can play at the 1 or the 2 offensively and is the energy burst Denver needs off the bench. Miller has shown he still has some game left, but the Nuggets are in a transition period for the future, and the veteran would be better off playing the backup role with another franchise.
At shooting guard, Jordan Hamilton must be the starter. He's has the highest three-point percentage on the team at 36.7 percent (minimum of one attempt per game) and is playing the team's best perimeter defense (0.93 steals in just 18.6 minutes) with his combination of speed and 6'7" length.
Randy Foye, who continues to be in a horrifically awful slump shooting wise, should be a reserve. Even if Foye turns it around, not only is Hamilton a better defender, he's averaging nearly twice as many rebounds than Foye in 5.5 fewer minutes.
Furthermore, since Foye and Robinson are both combo guards, Shaw still has the freedom, depending on the opponent, for who to sub in for Hamilton toward the end of the first and third quarters.
As for Evan Fournier, he needs some work.
It's not so much that his shooting is off compared to the end of last season, but more so that he struggles guarding just about anyone and is committing a ridiculous 1.8 fouls in 11.7 minutes (Lawson commits 1.7 in 34.7 minutes). He even found a way to rack up five fouls in 14 minutes against the 76ers and was primarily responsible for putting Philadelphia in the bonus at the 9:51 mark in the second quarter.
Chandler is clearly the guy at small forward until Gallo returns, but if Hamilton could start at the 2, this would be an ideal time to see what Quincy Miller can bring to the table. Miller has mostly been stuck at the end of the bench unless it's in the final minutes of garbage time, although Shaw has recently given him some chances with the second unit.
As Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com pointed out at the beginning of training camp, Shaw spoke highly of Miller and how he saw similarities between him and Indiana's Paul George. If that's true and since Miller's contract of just under $1 million is non-guaranteed for next season (via Hoopsworld.com), let's see if the 6'10" youngster can do some damage to opposing second units, even if it's for a short amount of time.
The frontcourt gets trickier. I would support Hickson at the 4 and Timofey Mozgov at the 5, but that would leave Faried and Darrell Arthur on the bench and, both under 6'10'', neither should be playing center. We need McGee back for that.
Therefore, I'd go with Faried and Mozzy as the starters. While Faried has been in a minor slump, he's coming off an ankle injury and isn't playing his normal number of minutes just yet. Even though his defense is questionable at best, the Manimal finishes at the rim and gets the crowd going better than anyone at the Pepsi Center.
As for Mozgov, while he's had some monstrous games in terms of points and rebounds, his 7'1" 250-pound body is a pain to deal with, especially when he's on defense. He's not going to swat shots into the stands like McGee, but he takes up space, won't allow someone to back him down in the post and alters shots.
With Hickson and Arthur coming off the bench, you first take Faried out and have Hickson play the 4. Then a few minutes later, you sub Mozgov out for Arthur, slide Hickson to the 5 and have Arthur at power forward.
What do the Nuggets need to improve on most?
At this point, you give up some length, but at least it's against the second string and Hickson has experience at center. You also maintain the pick-and-pop game with Arthur, while getting Hickson's athleticism and rebounding.
With Anthony Randolph, he has some athletic talents, can stretch the floor and find gaps in the defense, but he's inconsistent in shooting the ball from all areas of the floor and is too much of a liability on defense.
It's somewhat of a drastic change, but it's a necessary one. Shaw needs to prioritize defense while maintaining a rotation that works on offense.
Otherwise, given the depth of the Western Conference, Denver will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003.(All statistics are valid as of Jan. 2)