As the playoffs continue and team after team falls by the wayside, the cream slowly rises to the top which gives us a better and better view of the wide gulf between our team of choice and those still playing basketball. Take the Nuggets as an example, when you compare their build and composition to the Raptors it quickly becomes an exercise in comedy. The strength, skill, passion and experience at each position is so much greater than the Raptors that the 39-point blowout in Denver seems something you’d expect rather than be surprised about.
As much as we’d like to compare Carmelo and Bosh that’s hardly where the reason for the difference in success. You have to start with the wings, more specifically their ability to penetrate and slash. Dribble penetration is an acid that can destroy any defense and Chauncey Billups brings it by the barrel. From the Raptors end, nobody brings it. Well, maybe Roko Ukic, but a drive without an eye for an outlet is like flashing food to a starving Ethiopian kid and not giving it to him. Everything the Nuggets do is spawned off dribble penetration via Billups, Anthony and J.R Smith, two of whom are capable passers while the other one doesn’t mind finishing over anyone. An agile and motivated triumvirate like that is the starting point for a great team and they don’t just stop there.
This is a sport where hustle and aggressiveness is rewarded more than in any other and the Nuggets have that base covered. When they pack the frontcourt with Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson, it puts our counterparts of Kris Humphries, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Jake Voskuhl to shame. Really, to shame. I actually have to step back and wonder how in the world our roster got filled with so many players who contribute little to nothing, and I haven’t even touched on Banks and Kapono. When you’re a hustle guy and you don’t hustle you become an absolute liability on both ends of the court, that’s so far been the main problem with both Humphries and Pops. For example, Humphries might to a good job of crashing the glass in the second quarter but when you put him on later he’ll take a jumper or fail to box-out or do something that he’s got no excuse for doing. Pops had some big games this year which were followed by performances where he was invisible, I’m talking 0-9 with 3 rebounds type games where he looked disinterested. If your hustle guys aren’t bringing it then nobody on the team will. I don’t recall Birdman or Nene playing like that.
Comparing our “star” players with theirs is a moot point. It doesn’t matter how good Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani are, we’re just so out-matched in every other area that two of Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon would have to have monster games for us to have a fighting chance in the fourth quarter. It also doesn’t help that our two best players are perimeter-oriented big men, reflected nicely in our fourth worst “inside points” ranking. The Nuggets are #2. Stats can be misleading though, the point that I want to make is that when you have big men that are constantly making the defense shift and work by going to the rim, forcing help and recovery, it not only creates shots for others, it also takes a physical and mental toll on the defense which is an intangible that comes into play in every fourth quarter. If you’ve played competitive team basketball in any sort of setting you’ll know what I’m referring to.
More than anything, the rosters speak of two different team-building philosophies. The Nuggets have got tough players (Nene, Birdman, Martin) to go with proven veterans (Billups) who can be relied on in the clutch. They’ve recruited athleticism (J.R Smith, Dahntay Jones) and to top it off they’ve got a young athletic wing scorer that can manufacture his own shot. If you had a checklist on how to make a team everything would be ticked off for the Nuggets. The knock on them over the years has been their discipline and effort, but this year they’ve got that missing ingredient sorted out thanks to George Karl. For the most part, J.R Smith is likely to take a 30-footer on any given possession but even he’s learned to use his raw athleticism and shot-making ability within a team concept. They’re a team that have great tools and are figuring out how to use them, while the Raptors can’t figure out how to use their two tools in a manner which will yield success.
When I watch the Raptors I can sense and feel our inferiority on every possession. I’m sitting their waiting for Bosh to bail out the defense with a jumper, or for Calderon to get beat at the top of the key, or for the offense to get stagnant without anybody being there to bail them out. We’ve got a flawed team whose philosophy has become trying to run and net easy points on the break, and teams only do that when they know that pound-for-pound they’re lacking in the half-court set, which is still where games are won and lost. And that will never change. It’s almost like we’re looking for a short-cut to success rather than building a team piece-by-piece by investing in draft picks, smart long-term free-agent contracts and trades.
There’s definitely a need for a team to have a certain philosophy which takes into account their strengths and weaknesses which they’ll try to exploit and hide as appropriate, but run ‘n gun is probably the hardest of them all to have success with. Simply put, the components that constitute a successful running team are rare commodities. A pushing PG with great vision, rebounders who can outlet, slashing wings that have the stamina to do their thing for 48 minutes, great three-point shooting, a defense that causes turnovers etc. This ain’t exactly easy to do. I much rather go the Nuggets route and build a conventional NBA team which has more than one tooth and can adapt to whatever the other team’s playing.
I think Steve Kerr finally recognized this in Phoenix and tried to add another dimension to the Suns by trading for Shaq, things didn’t work out and it was a bad trade to start with, but give the guy credit for recognizing that his team wasn’t going anywhere. Colangelo tried to first supplement his running team of 06-07 by adding Kapono, it didn’t work. Then he recognized the need for toughness and rebounding which would come at the cost of sacrificing break opportunities and he acquired O’Neal. Then he decided that he’d reignite the 06-07 formula and added Marion into the mix. He’s trying to recreate Phoenix in Toronto but the parts here are of lesser quality and to make matters worse, good ones are very hard to find.