Here are a few random observations from the first NBA game at American Airlines Center in almost six months after a tumultuous offseason.
The energy in the arena was non-existent and the Mavericks and the Nuggets had nothing to play for, but it was still fun to watch NBA basketball in person. The one thing TV cameras don't capture very well is the length and breadth of the floor and the sheer amount of space there is on the court. There's something to be said for watching a guy live and seeing how he moves and covers ground in comparison to nine other NBA players, even if a preseason game starts to feel like an open run in the gym by the middle of the third quarter.
- I have never been a big Kenneth Faried fan. It just kind of feels like he's running around out there without any real purpose as to what he is doing. He's got very little touch on offense and his interior defense is pretty much non-existent. In my mind, he's a classic empty stats on a bad team type of player. I know he had a big role on that 57-win team in 2013, but I thought the Warriors exposed him pretty badly when they went small against him in the first round. He's not a guy who is able to dictate the match-up at the position - he can't consistently create his own shot and he doesn't play much defense. I'd rather go with a smaller guy who can spread the floor at his spot.
- The problem, of course, is that the Nuggets aren't paying Manimal $15 million per year to come off the bench. That to me is where coaching comes into play. Are you going to be a coach who plays his best players or are you not? A coach who doesn't have the backing of management to go with the guys he thinks can win can only be so valuable. The most important coaching decision Steve Kerr made last season was benching David Lee. Coaching starts with putting the right combinations of players on the floor and I don't really care about a guy's schemes if he doesn't have the standing in the locker room to play the best line-ups and maximize the talent on hand.
- Joffrey Lauvergne was pretty interesting. He's not a big body for a center and Pau Gasol demolished him at Eurobasket in the post, but he looks pretty well suited for the modern NBA game. He's an active big man who can move his feet and play above the rim. That alone should keep him in the league. The really interesting part is that he went 2-2 from the three-point line. I had no idea he had that in his game and if he can consistently make that shot, that obviously raises his ceiling by a significant margin. I'd have him in the rotation as the backup center behind Jusuf Nurkic because I have zero time for JJ Hickson.
- This was my first time seeing Emmanuel Mudiay in person since his high school days in Dallas. I think this has been pretty well established at this point but it bears repeating - you can throw out the John Wall comparisons immediately. Mudiay just doesn't have that type of speed. He's a 19-year-old with the body of a grown man (6'5 200) and he's reasonably athletic for a guy with his size but he doesn't have that turbo button acceleration to where he can out run everyone on the break or the athleticism to dunk on people like it's nothing. He's big enough to get his shot pretty much whenever he wants, but I don't think he's going to just be blowing by people either. He'll have to learn how to change speeds and how to use his size to his advantage.
- The key for Mudiay is going to be his jumper. That's the type of groundbreaking insight that you can expect in this column all year long. What's going to happen is defenders are going to play off him and force him to beat them from the perimeter. That's not a problem for a guy like Wall, Russell Westbrook or prime Derrick Rose because they can use that extra space as a running start to blow by their defender. Mudiay isn't that type of guy - he's going to need the threat of the jumper to open up driving lanes when he goes up against bigger defenders. My man Bobby Karalla said it well in the press box - he's probably going to have a lot of 6-for-18 type games this season.
- Here's a question I'm not sure I have the answer to. Would you take Mudiay over Marcus Smart, another super-sized Dallas point guard with a questionable outside shot? They have fairly similar skill-sets and physical profiles. I feel like Mudiay plays more under control than Smart, once you take into consideration the differences in age and experience level. Smart is more active defensively and I suspect he'll end up as the more productive box score player in terms of rebounds, steals and blocks.
- Gary Harris is a guy who could really benefit from playing next to Mudiay. His best chance of being an impact player in the NBA is playing off the ball and using his size and athleticism to hound PG's on defense - basically a bigger version of George Hill. I think it's going to be hard for him to make an impact as a pure shooting guard because he doesn't have great size at 6'4 to be an elite defender and he doesn't have an elite skill in terms of being a scorer, shooter or passer. There has to be something really special about a 6'4 guard for him to stand out in the NBA or he just becomes a face in the crowd, which is what Harris was as a rookie.
- Danilo Gallinari just doesn't look like the same player before the knee surgery. He used to be pretty comfortable as a 3 and pretty fast as a 4, and now he just seems completely immobile. I don't ever want this version of Danilo playing at the 3. He can't get around people and he's got no chance of guarding smaller players on the perimeter. He's still a really skilled player but he just had a difficult time getting any lift off the ground tonight. How worried would I be about the defense if Gallo is the starting 3 and Faried is the starting 4? Very.
- Here's one prediction I feel comfortable making about the Nuggets this season - if Faried and Hickson are playing a lot of minutes, they are going to be pretty terrible.
- Wilson Chandler is going to be really interesting because he's the one guy on this Nuggets team who could step in and play a big role on almost any contender. He's big, he's fast, he can shoot 3's and he knows how to play basketball. He would instantly be the starting 3 in Memphis and for the Clippers and he'd make the Thunder a much more dangerous team when Kevin Durant goes to the 4. He's the type of guy who could make a good team better, but is not going to have much of an impact on a bad team. Chandler for future assets is a trade that needs to happen at some point this season.
- I've always liked Will Barton and I'm curious to see what he can now that he has been given a long-term contract and an NBA home in Denver. He's one of those guys whose athleticism and energy really stand out. A guy like Gary Harris you have to watch specifically or you can forget that he's on the court for large stretches of the game. Barton is going to do something to get your attention - one way or the other - whenever he is out there.
- Randy Foye and Jameer Nelson are who they are. There are no surprises with those two for anyone whose watched the NBA for awhile. I guess it's good to have veterans around who can be dependable and show young guys the ropes but they aren't making the difference between winning and losing games at this point in their careers. At some point in the season, if things aren't going well in Denver, they are going to have to pull the plug and see what they have in young guys like Barton, Harris, Erick Green and Nick Johnson. It's the circle of life - an old guy on a bad team is one step out of the league already.
- Here's how I would set up the rotation in Denver:
- The problem for Mike Malone is that leaves two proven vets - JJ Hickson and Darrell Arthur - out in the cold. I think Arthur could be a solid role player on a good team, but I'm not sure what value he provides to a rebuilding team. I certainly wouldn't want him getting minutes over an interesting prospect like Young Joffrey.
- I'd also be stunned if Malone gave up on Manimal that quickly, which really puts him in a bind. If he's starting Manimal and giving minutes to Hickson and Arthur, that moves Gallinari up a spot in the line-up to where he's nowhere near as effective and it leaves him with a frontcourt rotation full of traditional big men who don't spread the floor or play much defense, which isn't great in any situation, much less when you are starting a rookie PG and playing a lot of youth on the perimeter.
- If it isn’t obvious already, I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic about the Nuggets this season. I like Mudiay and Nurkic as a long-term combo going forward and I think they have the personnel to spread the floor for those guys and be a decent team on both sides of the ball. However, even in a best-case scenario, that still leaves them counting on winning games in the West off the strengths of two 21-and-under guys, one of whom (Nurkic) is coming off a knee surgery.
- The worry I’d have with Mike Malone is that the limited success that he did have in Sacramento came from bucking the trend league wide of going small and playing super sized line-ups that pounded the ball inside and didn’t do a great job of spreading the floor. The problem is the personnel in Denver doesn’t really justify that approach, even though that would be the path of least resistance for him in terms of keeping the locker room happy. I could see a scenario where the Nuggets are posting up Faried at the 4, Gallinari at the 3 and Mudiay at the 1 constantly and that could get pretty ugly.
From a long-term perspective, the Nuggets should be drafting pretty high in the lottery this season. They put off doing a proper rebuild when they got rid of Carmelo Anthony and it worked for awhile, but they never found the right building blocks and the cracks in the foundation became pretty clear in the playoffs. The good news is that Nurkic was as an outright heist in last year’s draft and Mudiay has a chance to be a really good player as well, which means they were able to steal a few marches and get a head start on rebuilding before the true horrors of multiple 50+ loss seasons started setting in.
If Denver can develop Mudiay and Nurkic, hit a home run in this year’s lottery, flip Chandler for some good young assets and find some usable parts out of the rest of their young talent - Lauvergne, Harris, Nikola Jokic, Erick Green, Nick Johnson - they shouldn’t be on the downswing for too long. That’s a lot of ifs but none of them are all that unreasonable and there are no guarantees when it comes to rebuilding, not in the West.