There are giants smaller than Jusuf Nurkic. At 6’11”, 280lbs, and having just turned 20, the massive Bosnian takes up space in ways that call to mind an Eastern European Jahidi White. He’s a rookie for the Nuggets, just drafted this past summer by the Bulls, but immediately traded to the Denver. It’s only pre-season so all this evidence we’re piling up is merely a miniscule sampling of a kid dipping a giant big toe in the paint of American pro basketball, but the early returns are cause for intrigue beyond the Mile High City.
Nurkic on left
Just ask Taj Gibson, the 6’9” all-world sixth man, ball of quick energy who’s held down the Bulls bench units since before Nurkic was even playing ball. Gibson was tasked with bodying up Nurkic in Monday night’s pre-season game and was soundly manhandled. In some ways it’s not surprising since Nurkic outweighs him by around 50 pounds, but if mass and weight were the only indicators of post-play success, then Luther Wright and Oliver Miller would’ve been enshrined in Springfield long ago. But there was Nurkic, a basketball beast in high tops, making seven of his nine shots, scoring 15 points in just 14 minutes on what SB Nation’s Denver Stiffs blog described as “very nifty post moves.” On the flip side, he also committed six fouls. If anything, I guess we know he was active.
Having seen snippets of Nurkic play in Denver’s pre-season opener against the Lakers, his feel for the game was evident even in a night where he shot a crummy 1-8. Laker reserve center Ed Davis looked like Billy Madison against a bunch of little kids as he repeatedly rejected Nurkic’s predictable interior attempts, but the big man still found ways to impact the game with nine rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in 20 minutes.
It’s still too early to make declarations about a guy who projects to be the Nuggets’ third-string center, but his size, feel, and ability to improve game-over-game are positive indicators for the Denver faithful. We don’t love you just yet, Jusuf, but we’re happy to get to know you and see where it goes.
I guess there’s a lot to take away from the draft and at some point during the dog days of summer’s labor discussions, perhaps I’ll try to organize my thoughts on it. But today’s just about a trade that occurred during the draft that for some reason rankled me.
The Nuggets gave up Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and the 26th pick, Jordan Hamilton. Head-to-head, it’s a fair trade for both teams as Felton’s still priming while Miller’s getting older and grouchier. Denver’s getting a few younger pieces almost for free. They’re cool with the deal because Miller’s willing to do what Felton wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been): Back-up and mentor the young Ty Lawson. It’s likely the Nuggets were never going to keep Felton. Lawson’s their guy and has been steady proving he can take the car out for a spin without papa (Chauncey Billups) or big bro (Felton) sitting shot gun.
So what’s wrong with a teacher, especially a willing teacher? Absolutely nothing. Maybe my gripe here has to do with a few things: The teacher is being paid $7.8 million this year. The teacher/back-up is going to eat into young Lawson’s minutes which on a per 36-minute basis produced 16pts, 6.5 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting over 50%. Even if Lawson/Miller share the backcourt for stretches of games, it’s going to take away from Lawson’s leadership and point guard opportunities.
From Denver’s perspective, the benefits are easy to identify: Andre Miller’s been around the block (in Denver once already and four other NBA cities) and has a clear understanding of his role on any team. This is part of the reason George Karl went after the former Nugget (Karl coached him during his last season in Denver). So far, everything’s peachy in Denver with Miller reportedly amenable to coming off the bench. He can continue the tutelage that Billups started and further Lawson along in his NBA PG studies while providing starter-quality production off the bench. This fits in with the depth the Nuggets have been cultivating—other than Melo, no Nugget played more than 33 minutes/game last year. Nine players saw at least 20 minutes/night and it’s hard to argue with Denver’s post-Melo success. Additionally, it relieves Lawson of carrying all the duties that come with being the court general. Over 82 games, that weight can burden any man.
The numbers also support the move. In 31 games Lawson started in 2010-11, the Nuggets won 22 and lost 9—winning 70% of their games. In 27 games where Lawson played more than 30 minutes, Denver was 16-11 (59%). In 10 games he played 35 minutes or more, Denver was 6-4. For the season, the Nuggets were 50-32 (~61%), so the biggest place the Lawson lift was visible was in games where he started. Everything out of Denver is pointing to him being the Nuggets starter in 2011-12—the same role he took over after the Melo/Billups trade. He started the final 25 games with the new faces from New York so it’s not fair to credit him with the team’s late season turnaround, but his availability and improvement made it that much easier for Karl to fill in the hole that Billups left.
So why is my gut reaction to less Lawson opportunities automatically anti-Andre, anti-time share? Philosophically, I’m open to anything that stands apart from convention. Don Nelson never reached the Promised Land with his small-ball, run and gun style, but I was on board anyway. Doug Moe and Mike D’Antoni had partial success, but were both thwarted by convention. Teams have tried small ball, big ball, gimmicks, wacky and wild game plans and I love and respect them for it. I’ve defended the Suns version of D’Antoni for years and for what? Because I love the break from NBA norms—which is exactly what George Karl’s doing in Denver. Unless you count the delicate Danillo Gallinari, Denver has no go-to guy—huge NBA no no. Instead of a standard 7-8 man rotation, they roll deep with anywhere from nine to eleven players getting heavy minutes. And lastly, most egregiously, instead of giving Ty Lawson the freedom to run around for 35-40 minutes, they’re stifling him with the presence of old, crotchety Andre Miller and it clearly upsets me or else I wouldn’t be writing over 700 words about it.
Karl’s going against the NBA grain here and I’m staying stuck in a world where a good, young starting point guard should get 35-40 minutes a night. My motivations for being anti-timeshare come from the same place that NFL running back-by-committees grind my gears. In most timeshares, one of the players is better and gets a few more reps; whether it’s a change of pace thing or just getting guys an extra breather. For running backs and Ty Lawsons, the split is the ultimate in team sacrifice. The individual gives up opportunities for the immediate benefit of the team and potentially for the longer-term development of the individual. The fans get more Miller and less Lawson.
As I was always aware, my beef with Denver’s approach to the point guard position was associated with my own inability to open my mind to the possibilities unlocked from sharing. I’m still not sure what Karl’s ultimate motivations are, but I’m willing to go into this open-minded and not pass judgment until we’ve arrived with both feet (or all four feet?) firmly rooted on solid ground.