The Denver Nuggets are a pretty stacked squad in the tougher of the two conferences. In the East, they would be a top three team. Fortunately for the Celtics, they aren’t in the East, and any potential series against the Nuggets would come in the unlikely event that the two underdogs squared off in the Finals. We’re going to ignore the extreme implausibility of that event and analyze these teams as though they are going to square off in June.
Denver has no true superstars on their team, but they are stacked—make no mistake. Their starting lineup boasts three fringe All-Star types in Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, and two very good youngsters in Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, who both worked out with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon this summer.
It all begs the question, “Can the Nuggets follow the path of the Detroit Pistons of last decade and win a title without a premier player?”
It’s a very debatable topic in today’s NBA atmosphere, because the teams that are winning are super teams like the Miami Heat, stacked with two superstars in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and a semi-star in Chris Bosh. Can the Nuggets win a title with only the semi-star type?
The Celtics face better odds in Vegas of winning a title than the Nuggets, who come in on Bookmaker with 66/1 odds to win the title. Comparatively, the C’s are 22/1. I’m not a mathematician, but it seems the odds of these teams squaring off in the Finals would be pretty rare. Either way, we’re going to fast forward to an implausible June and pit the Nuggets against the C’s in a seven game series, with our usual position-by-position breakdown.
Rajon Rondo / Dionte Christmas vs. Ty Lawson / Andre Miller / Julyan Stone
Rajon Rondo is an elite point guard and ranked in the top 15 of ESPN’s player ratings. He’s a jumpshot away from being legendary. But Ty Lawson is on the rise and could make his push to be among the elite guards in short time. He’s just not there yet.
Lawson is only 24 and has only gotten better since coming out of UNC three years ago. He posted an outstanding PER of 17.99 last season and John Hollinger predicts (subscription required) him to have an even bigger impact this season, with an projected PER of 19.43. — Hollinger expects Lawson’s scoring to increase from 17.7 points per-40 to 18.8. Lawson is capable of scoring in bunches, and is backed up by one of the best backup point guards in the NBA in Andre Miller.
Often, the Nuggets will go small and put both Lawson and Miller on the court together. The added strength of ball handling is a tough look for opposing teams, and having two point guards on the court only makes it that much easier for Denver to do what they do best—run.
As good as Lawson and Miller are as a tandem, or even individually, they don’t hold a candle to Rondo. Still, they must be factored in when discussing the shooting guard situation, which is a tougher match for the C’s still.
Avery Bradley / Courtney Lee / Jason Terry vs. Andre Iguodala / Corey Brewer / Evan Fournier
Defense vs. Defense. Between Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee (and to a lesser extent Jason Terry), the C’s have a great backcourt duo for defense. The Nuggets have quite the same, as Paul Pierce last year said Andre Iguodala was a first team All-NBA defender, whether he was selected for the honor or not.
Iggy’s calling card has been shutting down the premier wing players in the league, and it’s quite likely that the Nuggets will choose to matchup Iggy against Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, particularly if they go with their dual-point guard backcourt, that I mentioned already. That lineup would keep the Cs small in the backcourt, to match the speed of the Nuggets.
The Nuggets back up Iguodala with another premier defender in Corey Brewer. Brewer has been something of a disappointment coming in as a high lottery pick (No. 7 overall in 2007), but his defense has been solid throughout his five year NBA career. He’s a great backup, but likely never will pan out to be the starting talent that the Minnesota Timberwolves thought he would be when they drafted him coming out of Florida. All that said, Brewer is not a liability off the bench, and the third stringer Evan Fournier has impressed George Karl so far in camp.
The reality of this backcourt situation is that we really must evaluate it on a three-on-three basis:
Rondo, Bradley, Terry vs. Lawson, Miller, Iguodala
It’s difficult to say which backcourt has the edge when viewed this way, because merely at face value, the shooting guard position would be pretty close to even. When combining the potential rotations of the respective teams, they equivocate pretty well to a stalemate.
Paul Pierce / Jeff Green / Kris Joseph vs. Danilo Gallinari / Wilson Chandler / Jordan Hamilton / Quincy Miller
Danilo Gallinari has had a career plagued by inconsistency and injury. And yet, there is no denying that “The Rooster” is still one of the most deadly shooters and is capable of having a huge scoring night on any given occasion.
Fortunately, the C’s can counter Gallinari’s scoring with the tough perimeter defense of Jeff Green. Paul Pierce will encounter a lot of problems with Gallinari, who will keep him working both on and off the ball. But Green is a perfect matchup for Gallo.
If the C’s stuck with Pierce, however, he could give Gallinari just as many problems as he was given by the Rooster on the other end of the court. Gallinari isn’t the greatest defender, but he is backed up by a very good one in Wilson Chandler. Against a team like Boston, we may see a good bit more of Chandler, who compares favorably to a poor man’s Shawn Marion.
It basically boils down to two scorers in the starting lineup backed up by a defender on their respective squads. As to which team is forced into going with the defensive minded backup hinges upon who gets it cooking first—Pierce or Gallo. Either way, the edge here has to go to the Celtics, since they trot out an All-Star and proven closer. The Nuggets may have the most promising young talent In Gallinari, but this position isn’t determined by promise, only by what is.
Brandon Bass / Jared Sullinger / Chris Wilcox vs. Kenneth Faried / Anthony Randolph
Jared Sullinger has exhibited a lot of promise thus far, but will have a difficult time with the more athletic power forwards in the league, of which Denver has two. Kenneth Faried led the NCAA in rebounding two years ago at Morehead State and showed his ability to snag boards last year when he averaged 12.2 rebounds per-36.
Brandon Bass is the only answer to keeping Faried off the boards. Bass can box out Faried enough to keep him from going Rodman-esque on the Celtics, but that still isn’t a great proposition because Faried’s athleticism will give Bass problems, too. Just less problems than Sullinger.
Anthony Randolph will see some minutes, but has never panned out as an NBA player, nor seemed to “get it.” Chris Wilcox is a bench redundancy who will only see minutes if the other Celtics big men get into foul trouble.
The real issue here is whether or not the Celtics will choose to go big and start Darko Milicic at center so they can throw KG at Faried. If they do, that changes the entire landscape of this matchup. Using only depth charts though, and the players that will usually start on most nights, the edge has to be given to Faried and the Nuggets.
Kevin Garnett / Darko Milicic / Fab Melo / Jason Collins vs. JaVale McGee / Kosta Koufos / Timofey Mosgov
JaVale McGee has all the potential in the world and the mentality of an eight year old child. That won’t suit him well against someone like Kevin Garnett, who will seek to bully McGee into child-like submission. There’s no guarantee that McGee will submit to KG’s over the top excitement, and this matchup has a lot of potential.
Again, the real issue here is whether or not Doc Rivers decides to use KG on McGee at all. Because of the matchup problems posed by Kenneth Faried, it’s likely that Milicic sees a lot of time here at center. That would give the Nuggets a nice advantage here, while reversing the advantage at power forward.
Perhaps the best way to look at these front court match ups is holistically:
Kevin Garnett, Darko Milicic, Brandon Bass vs. Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee
With Rivers rotating the trio of KG, Darko, and Bass against the tandem of Faried and McGee, the C’s have more fouls and more bodies to throw at Denver, whose only recourse will be to counter with stiffs like Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mosgov, if they can manage to get the Denver starters in foul trouble. The depth that the C’s have does give them an edge, and it will show when Jared Sullinger comes in with the second unit and the best guy the Nuggets can throw at him is either Anthony Randolph or Kosta Koufos.
All those positional quandaries taken into account, the simple matchup between KG and McGee (and the scrub backups) goes to the Celtics, on the strength of KG’s leadership and experience.
Doc Rivers vs. George Karl
George Karl became only the seventh coach in NBA history to win 1,000 regular season games and he has the fourth highest winning percentage of the seven that have done it, trailing only Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Jerry Sloan. The man has won some basketball games, and while his merits as a defensive coach are debatable, his overall resume is brilliant. He’s won 75 career playoff games (12th all-time) and won coach of the month ten times. Karl also coached USA basketball in 2002 at the FIBA World Championships.
Then, there is Doc Rivers, an infant in coaching compared to the grizzled Karl. Rivers has one thing that Karl doesn’t have though: an NBA championship as a coach. Karl has coached the Nuggets to the Conference Finals in 2009, but never secured a ring like Doc did in 2008. Rivers also has the distinction of having coached a horrible Orlando Magic team to a .500 record, when the team should have won about half as many games on paper.
This coaching matchup pits two NBA greats at their game, and while Karl has the experience on his resume and the accolades to prove he’s an all-time great, Rivers will likely be mentioned in that same breath when it’s all said and done. You can’t hold Rivers’ smaller body of work against him either, can you?
Though the Celtics have an advantage at point guard and center, the Nuggets have a better power forward in Faried and shooting guard and small forward are stalemates. So the Celtics have the edge here, right? They win the series, surely, right?
Not so fast.
The Nuggets are one of the few teams in the league that pose matchup problems for just about every team in the league. Their arsenal of scorers and depth makes them an exhausting team to play, particularly in the high altitude of the Pepsi Center. Also, if their record was adjusted as though they were in the east, they would be given an additional 4 to 6 wins just based on the quality of competition.
That said, the Celtics have one thing that the Nuggets don’t have: veteran championship experience. This wouldn’t likely show up so much in the regular season, but in the hypothetical NBA Finals matchup we discussed, it would tip the scales in Boston’s favor. So, when these two teams meet in the regular season, it’s quite possible that we don’t see the caliber of play from the Celtics that we would if the two teams actually did square off in June.
Series Prediction: Celtics in 7