Toronto Raptors Denver Nuggets December 10, 2010

The Raptors are on a three-game losing streak, George Karl is gunning for 1000th win as an NBA head coach; the stage is set for some fireworks tonight.

Had a chat with Jeremy Wagner from Roundball Mining Company about the Nuggets, Raptors and everythign in between:

How is Shelden Williams the starter for this team? I mean, seriously?
Shelden Williams is a solid player, definitely deserving of minutes on a good team. As far as being a starter, that is another conversation altogether (and in memory of Canadian comedy great Leslie Nielsen let’s all say, “That is another conversation.”). If Kenyon Martin were healthy, Williams would be just playing spot minutes here and there. Martin should return sometime in the next month and once he does, Williams will return to the bench. The saying goes it does not matter who starts, but who finishes and you will not see Williams finishing a game unless there is another injury, ejection or foul trouble.

This does hit on a larger issue. George Karl likes to have plenty of scoring off the bench and he has started players like Anthony Carter, Arron Afflalo (last season when he was less of an offensive threat than he is now) and this season Williams because he likes to attempt to set a good defensive tone to start the game while preserving some of the offensive punch to go against the reserves of the opponent. It certainly worked in the last game in Boston when the starters fell behind by 19 in the first quarter only to see Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith bring the team back against the Celtics bench in the second quarter.

Realistically, what can Denver expect back in a trade for Carmelo since he seemingly wants to go to New York, and the Knicks playing a very patient game of wait-and-see?
If the Nuggets get painted into a corner where the only option is the Knicks, they will be stuck with Eddy Curry’s decomposing contract, Danilo Gallinari, a future first round pick, way in the future, and probably the Prospect Formerly Known as Anthony Randolph. The ideal trade partner is New Jersey, with players like Derrick Favors and Devin Harris available along with one or two first round picks, one from Golden State, thrown in for good measure. With the Knicks playing well the potential of playing with buddy Amare Stoudemire and possibly Chris Paul in a couple of years could be too much of a draw and will convince Melo to hold out for the Knicks.

As much as it would benefit Denver to make a trade sooner rather than later, the players, coaches and fans all know it is just a matter of time, I expect this will become a staring contest between Denver and Melo. If Melo blinks first, he will end up in New Jersey. If Denver blinks first, he will end up in New York.

The hammer the Nuggets wield is money. If they do not trade him before the trade deadline, he will have to walk away from $85 million over the next four years in order to become a free agent. He will have to opt out of the final year of his current contract worth over $18 million and thus lose the three year, $65 million extension. Of course he will get a big chunk of that back through whatever contract he signs. The danger for Melo in that situation is if salaries are rolled back by 25%, as the league wants in the new CBA, Melo could be looking at a max deal that will earn him possibly only around $50 million over those four seasons. That is a big pay cut just to play in Manhattan with Amare instead of Brooklyn with Brooke Lopez.

Of course Melo wields a hammer as well, and it is a weapon that Toronto fans know all too well having seen their former star player tag along with his buddies to Miami.

The Nuggets seem to play better with Lawson manning the helm, what’s the plan with Billups? Will he get traded while he as some value? What’s the market for his services?
What happens to Chauncey when Carmelo is traded is the big variable in this entire situation. As you may know Billups is a hometown hero. He is widely, and I believe rightly, credited as the player who pushed the Nuggets from a playoff also ran into a contending team. He has made apparently conflicting comments suggesting both that he has no desire to be part of a rebuilding project, even in the city of his birth, and also that he wants to retire a Nugget. The truth is Chauncey does want to be a Nugget for life, but not at the expense of hanging around on a lottery team after Melo is dealt.

Chauncey has also been very vocal about his deep desire to see Melo remain in Denver long term. He has two significant motivations for that. First of all, he wants to play on a winner in Denver. The other secondary reason is his contract. If Melo is in Denver, the Nuggets likely pick up the final year of his current deal worth over $14 million. However, only $3.7 million of that final season is guaranteed. Denver is likely the only team in the NBA who would pick up that final year of his deal. If Melo is dealt, it only makes sense Chauncey will be on his way out of town soon after. If that happens, no matter Billups ends up, the trade will probably cost him about $8.5 million.

As far as who would be interested in Chauncey that is not an easy question to answer. Denver would be looking for a pick and expiring deals along with Billups. Obviously, Billups would have to be sent to a good team; if not a contender, at least a strong playoff team. Before the season I thought the best match would be the Bobcats. Charlotte was a solid playoff team last year and it would reunite Chauncey and Larry Brown who both have a deep respect for each other. Add in the unknown quantity of D.J. Augustin and it seemed like a good match. However, the Bobcats have not built on their solid season last year and Augustin has played well. Miami makes sense, but does not have the contracts. Portland has been mentioned, but I do not think they are a good fit as Denver would have to take back Andre Miller and that is not an upgrade for Portland anyway. Sacramento would have been a dark horse if they were a fringe playoff team, but that is not the case.

In surveying the landscape one team keeps coming back to me, the Lakers. L.A. can cobble together enough expiring contracts to make it work, thanks to Sasha Vujacic’s 5.4 million in the last year of his current deal, and they could certainly use a player like Billups to go along with Derrick Fisher. Plus the Nuggets are high on rookie Derrick Caracter, and tried to trade into the second round to draft him last June. Seeing Chauncey in the Forum Blue and Gold would be a terrible pill for Nuggets fans to swallow, but it would be a great situation for Chauncey.

The Nuggets have said publically that the only players who are untouchable are Chauncey and Lawson. I suspect the former is only to try to retain some semblance of sanity in the locker room and the latter is because they are really high on Lawson.

At this point in their respective careers I believe Lawson is the better player. Billups was an All-Star last season, but that was due to a career best stretch from mid-January to mid-March where he was simply amazing. The first part of the season was disappointing and he definitely did not play well over the final month. Billups followed that up with a poor showing in the World Championships and now he has really struggled to start the season. It looked like his shot was coming back before he had an atrocious 2-10 night in Boston. He will still make plenty of threes although the rest of his game is nowhere near the level fans are used to seeing.

Lawson is very good in both the half court offense and obviously is great in transition. He is actually a better defender than Billups who cannot stay in front of anyone anymore. Ty is learning to be more assertive at the request of the coaching staff and he is still a little inconsistent. It will be interesting to see how he follows up his big night in Boston against the Raptors.

Arron Afflalo has been a pleasant surprise, posting a career year across the board. Does he have what it takes to be a rebuilding piece once Carmelo and Chauncey get sent elsewhere?
I think Denver will try to hang onto Afflalo. He has shown a great work ethic and has improved dramatically every summer. He is a solid defender and is developing into a more than adequate offensive player. His name did briefly surface in the rumors swirling around the four team trade which fell apart prior to the start of the season. Who knows if there was any truth to those whispers? Add in Denver’s rumored preference of finding a taker for J.R. Smith and Afflalo, while certainly not untouchable, would seem to be part of the Nuggets long term plans.

Denver has owned the Raptors over the years, last year around this time, they dumped the Raptors 130-112. What will be the game plan this time around against the Raptors, especially with Carmelo being listed as game-time decision?
Not knowing whether or not Melo will play makes it difficult to project much about this game. Deep down I would expect Carmelo to sit. He will certainly want to play in Denver’s next game at Madison Square Garden and after playing horribly over his last five games, it would make sense for him to miss the Toronto game in order to be as strong as possible against the Knicks.

Denver plays a iso heavy offense and it works fine when Melo is on the floor and can get his own shot. He also draws so much attention from the defense that it opens up lanes for his teammates. Without Melo, that same iso offense looks much worse. Ty Lawson is the only player who can penetrate at will and the rest of the team ends up taking plenty of bad shots. You know Denver is in trouble when Al Harrington starts trying to wheel and deal with the ball. On the other hand, if Denver shows the patience to move the ball around, they can get good shots and have offensive players who can make jumpers. Afflalo, Billups, Smith, Lawson and Harrington can all hit the three although Harrington has been shooting blanks for quite some time now. Plus if Denver can play up tempo, they have good athletes and finishers and need not bother with trying to get good shots against a set defense.

Look for Denver to try to get Nene involved early, especially if Bargnani is guarding him. However, if the Raptors double him or front him, Denver will try something else and likely will not go back. Billups will probably also look to be aggressive shooting plenty of threes and posting up Calderon.

Defensively, Bargnani could feast on the pick and pop as Denver has shown a complete inability to deal with that play. They are not much better on the straight pick and roll either. Calderon can get any open midrange shot he wants as Denver’s bigs hate to hedge on the pick and if he wants to go all the way to the rim, they usually give enough ground that the drive is a good option as well.

There is definitely a cloud over this team as they simply wait for Melo to be traded. Still, they showed a lot of heart in their comeback in Boston. Denver may regularly defeat the Raptors, but Toronto will definitely have a shot in this one, whether Melo plays or not.

Injury Report

Toronto
Reggie Evans – Out
Peja Stojakovic – Out

Denver
Kenyon Martin – Out
Chris Andersen – Out
Carmelo Anthony – Game-time decision

Match-ups

Point Guard
Even though he’s not what he used to be, Chauncey Billups is still a top-flight PG in the league. His numbers are down across the board this season, however, it’s more than his age that has reduced his effectiveness. Carmelo’s been injured, the front court is decimated with injuries and the distractions of George Karl’s health and Carmelo’s status on the team, coupled with Josh Kroenke taking the helm have all been a factor (phew, I wanted to get that out in one sentence, my apologies). Don’t get it twisted though, he can still go off and has had a couple great games already this season; there’s a reason this team is 13-8 and holding steady at 7th in the West. Depth-wise though, the Nuggets fall off considerably after Billups, giving Calderon and Bayless a chance to really attack him.

Interestingly enough, this team looks a whole lot better with Ty Lawson running the show. The kid is bloody fast off the dribble, and hits his shots from the perimeter. In a half-court game, he has trouble creating space since he’s so small (5″11 195lbs), but both teams play at a faster pace, so he could be a big factor. Would like to see both Bayless and Calderon take advantage of their size and force him to pick up some fouls.

The one area of concern is perimeter defense, namely coverage beyond the arc. The Raps have allowed something like 629 looks from beyond the 3-point line the last couple games. With Billups averaging about five 3-pointers a game, things could get sticky. That said, I like the different looks/styles we can throw at him, and for once, I’m calling a match-up against Billups in the Raptors favour.
Edge: Toronto

Shooting Guard
so I called him out against the Knicks, and to his credit, DeRozan responded with a strong game. It will take more than one good game to get out of the Republics doghouse, but I know the kids trying. Tonight, he matches up with Afflalo who doesn’t do any one thing great, but is playing mighty fine this season. Afflalo does well off the dribble, and is a crafty scorer. Being on the wing alongside Carmelo has helped him get better looks, but with Anthony potentially out for the game, a lot of the scoring burden will fall to him, which could be a good thing since he’s not an elite scorer. Attack. Attack. Attack. Hit or miss, that’s all DeMar has to do tonight since the Nuggets don’t have much in the paint in the paint to slow him down when he gets by Afflalo.
Edge: Toronto

Small Forward
If Carmelo’s healthy, and in the lineup, he’s going off for 34; if he isn’t, Denver has some guy I never heard of (rookie Gary Forbes) getting burn in his place. This team is totally different with Carmelo out of the lineup, they squeaked out a win against the Suns, and got thumped by Boston on Wednesday. With him though, they are the 6th ranked offense in the league. Off the bench, J.R. Smith will be gunning hard. The guy is instant offense and isn’t shy; Wednesday against the Celtics he took 18 shots in 26 minutes, 10 of them were cringe worthy. I’m actually looking at Barbosa for a big game tonight. He has the speed and determination to get to the rim every chance he gets, and since the Nuggets don’t have anyone to really contest him there, he should be dangerous.

As long as Weems (don’t you dare call him money) does exactly the opposite of what he’s been doing the last few weeks or so, he should be fine. A note on Kleiza…I’m done with him. To regress the way he has over the course of this young season is stunning after the great performance he turned in during the FIBA championships. I only wish the leash Triano has him on would extend to other folks who aren’t carrying their weight.
Edge if Melo’s Playing: Denver
Edge if Melo isn’t Playing: Toronto

Power Forward
No joke, Sheldon Williams is starting for this team, that’s how brutalized the front court is. Since he’s so useless, Amir shouldn’t be getting into any early foul trouble early, which bodes well for him to log 30+ minutes. Off the bench, Harrington is someone to be concerned with, even though he’s only scoring about 12 a game this season; historically he’s feasted on the Raptors, averaging 21 a game over his career.

That said, between Amir and Davis, the Raptors have the size, speed and athleticism to own this match-up. Ed Davis has an opportunity to really step up defensively and on the boards.
Edge: Toronto

Center
What was just as impressive as the 41 points Andrea dropped on Wednesday, was the 7res and 6ast he stacked alongside it. A complete game, I don’t think I’ve ever said that about Andrea during his time with the Raptors. He’s really stepped up this season in Bosh’s absence, and I really couldn’t be happier about it. Triano has done a good job of hiding his rebounding woes (averaging 5.7 which is brutal for a 7 footer getting 35+ minutes) with creative line juggling with Evans and Johnson, allowing him to concentrate his energies on the offensive end.

Nene will be a handful, the Brazilian is super active in the paint, takes very good shots (and hits them to the tune of 62%FG), and gets on the boards. He’s an undersized center, so Barg’s shouldn’t have too hard a time backing him into the post. Nene will win the hustle match-up, but he doesn’t have the tools to really affect Bargnani on either end of the floor. If he starts to float and crash the boards though, he could prove to be trouble.
Edge: Toronto

Keys to the Game

Own the Paint; both ends
I assume that the Nuggets will be shooting the lights out, but they don’t have the forwards to battle in the paint and crash the glass with the Raptors. There is significant drop off after Nene, with Harrington mostly concerned with his own scoring and one-upping himself with shooting threes (I can’t stand him). In Evans’ absence, the Raptors have continued to rebound the hell out of the ball, and with Alibi getting called up from D-League purgatory, the bench has another long kid to get after it.

X’s & O’s
In the dieing minutes against the Knicks, the Raptors ran two brutal out of bounds plays that yielded them exactly nothing. Triano needs to do a much better job at diagramming plays out of the timeouts, on the fly, actually calling good plays in general; especially going head-to-head with Karl, who is one of the better coaches in the league.

Consistency
Three losses in a row, against two teams who are under .500, all in the last week. This after a 6-2 stretch that saw wins against Houston, Boston and Oklahoma. I don’t understand it either, but it speaks to the Raptors not bringing the same effort on a game-to-game basis, which comes down to preparation and motivation, which comes down to Triano and Carlessimo doing their jobs.

With or without Carmelo, the Raptors need this win, have to stop the bleeding and build some momentum heading into the next week where 5 of the next 7 are at home, and against weaker teams (obviously the Bulls and Lakers aren’t weak teams).

Excuse the spelling/grammar mistakes, didn’t have time to go through this with a fine tooth comb; at least I never said ‘literally’.

***UPDATE***
The gamblers have spoken, and the Nuggets are 2 point favourites with an over/under of 217.5.

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