Nuggets Attempt to Break the Mold

The proven way to achieve success in the NBA is to build around a marketable superstar—either one that you’ve traded for, or have been lucky enough to draft. This isn’t rocket science, of course. Every team that’s won a championship in the past 20 years or so, has had that single dominant player who can carry his team’s scoring load—be it Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Tim Duncan.

In-fact, no team except the 1998-99 Portland Trailblazers has even succeeded in winning a single playoff series without an all-star on its roster. Those Blazers had players that went on to become all-stars later in their careers, but none had that designation on their resume during that aforementioned season.

And there have been teams that have excelled in the playoffs, despite being below average as a whole, because they possessed that all-world star. Think Dwayne Wade on the 2006 Miami Heat, or Dwight Howard leading an underwhelming Orlando Magic team all the way to the Finals in 2009. Neither of those two teams will go down as all-time greats. The ’86 Celtics or ’96 Bulls they were not.

On the other hand, a good, solid team, with balanced scoring, but no real superstar on the roster—no one that can truly demand that all-important double-team—tends to hit its ‘NBA ceiling’ pretty quickly. That ceiling tends to be the first or second round of the playoffs. Over the past couple seasons, Denver Nuggets G.M. Masai Ujiri has constructed such a team—and very admirably given the circumstances.

Two seasons ago the Nuggets faced losing their disgruntled superstar Carmelo Anthony, with much the same surrounding drama that the Magic just went through with Dwight Howard. Unlike the results of the Howard trade, however, Ujiri and the Nuggets succeeded in getting solid pieces back from their trading partner—in this case, the New York Knicks.

The Nuggets were forced to construct a new identity, however, one built around utilizing their speed, athleticism, and scoring by-committee—as opposed to relying on a single transcendent talent. They’ve undoubtedly had some success in the process. Last season the Nuggets gave the Lakers all they could handle, forcing a Game 7 in L.A, by playing to those aforementioned strengths.

Of course, in Game 7 of that series it was Lakers forward Pau Gasol who stepped up and put on a performance worthy of the term ‘superstar’. The Nuggets youngsters, Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, who had performed fantastically well up until that point, just didn’t have that same gear to transition into.

This off-season, Ujiri has continued to fashion the Nuggets into a run-and-gun style team—a team that uses the high-altitude of Denver to it’s advantage, and attempts to wear it’s opponents down. The Nuggets upgraded significantly in the 4-way Dwight Howard trade, picking up immensely talented swingman (and recent Olympic gold medalist) Andre Iguodala from the 76ers, and trading Aron Afflalo to the Magic in the process. Iguodala is an upgrade in every sense and should drastically improve the Nuggets’ perimeter defense—a point of weakness last year.

Make no mistake about it; Denver will be a fun team to watch in 2012/13. George Karl will have his boys playing an up-tempo style that will be very easy on the eye. McGee and Faried are raw, but hugely talented, Lawson just might be the quickest player in the game, and Russian centre Timofey Mozgov showed some great promise during his country’s run to Olympic bronze. If Danilo Gallinari can replicate his form from the first half of last season, for a full 82 games this year, the Nuggets could well be one of the dark-horse teams in the NBA.

Whether the expected regular season success (Denver should be able to finish 4th or 5th in the West) actually translates to post-season glory, remains to be seen. Previous history states that the Nuggets might win one series, but no more. The game slows down in the playoffs, of course, and teams become more reliant on elite scorers who can create offense out of nothing in the half-court game.

Having a balanced team, but one without a big-name superstar, is good for 50 regular-season wins, but never for those all-important 16 playoff wins. Given the basketball philosophy in place in the Mile-High City, however, Denver’s attempt to break that general rule of thumb will provide compelling viewing.

Brooklyn Is A Fresh Start For Johnson

The blockbuster deal that saw Joe Johnson traded to the Brooklyn Nets was one of the few NBA trades where both teams, and their respective fans, were reasonably happy. The Nets acquired the big name they desperately needed to kick off life in The Big Apple with a bang.

Just as importantly, the trade proved to be the clincher as far as Deron Williams re-singing with the team. Williams spent months torn between re-signing with the Nets, and signing for his hometown Dallas Mavericks. The ambitious trade for Johnson sealed the deal.

From the perspective of Hawks’ fans, the trade was viewed as nothing short of a miracle. Johnson’s ridiculous contract, of which he had four years and around $90 million still remaining, was seen as untradeable. However, new G.M. Danny Ferry worked his magic and sent Johnson to the one team that wouldn’t have a problem paying through the nose. Mikhail Prokhorov has deep, deep pockets.

By shedding Johnson’s crippling contract, the Hawks are finally able to begin a much overdue rebuilding process. They had hit their NBA ceiling—good enough to make the playoffs, and sometimes even the second round, but never good enough to roll with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.

Can the same be said about Johnson and his respective NBA ‘ceiling’?

If you could use one word to sum up Joe Johnson’s time in Atlanta, it would be ‘frustrating.’ When Johnson signed with the Hawks, after asking Phoenix not to match Atlanta’s offer, the team was a mess. They had finished the 04-05 season with the worst record in the NBA, 13-69, and were genuinely awful. Johnson’s arrival led to an upturn in fortunes for the Hawks, culminating in the team making the playoffs as an 8th seed in 2008—the first time the Hawks had made the postseason in nine years. They took the eventual champs, the Boston Celtics, to seven games.

Everyone remembers Johnson’s 20-point 4th quarter in Game 4 that tied the series at 2-2. That was Joe Johnson at his absolute best; hitting trifectas, fade-away jumpers from ridiculous angles, and showing a level of aggression in the lane that wasn’t always seen during his seven years in Atlanta.

The rest of Johnson’s time with the Hawks settled somewhere in-between that high against the Celtics, and moments of ‘pull your hair out’ frustration. Johnson was consistent, there’s no doubt about that—averaging around 20 points per game and making all-star appearances. But Hawks fans were left wanting more from their superstar. Perhaps some of the criticism was unfair—Johnson’s always been targeted for not showing enough passion during games, but he’s never been one to express his emotions publicly.

Johnson’s game has been alarmingly passive at times, however. Just like his Atlanta team on many occasions, Johnson’s coasted through big games like they really didn’t matter. If his Game 4 heroics against the Celtics in 2008 represented one of his highest points in a Hawks uniform, then Game 4 of the 2012 series against the same opposition was one of his lowest. Johnson took just eight shots in massive must-win game (the Hawks were trailing 2-1 in the series), to finish with a meager 9 points. It was the type of game that Atlanta needed their superstar to step up in, and he failed miserably.

Big players show up in the biggest moments and Johnson’s come up short more than once.

Of course, Johnson’s huge contract didn’t help his relationship with Hawks fans. Since 2010, it’s hung around his neck like a noose, ready to choke him when he failed to hit the heights expected of someone making $120 million. That wasn’t all his fault, however. No one should blame players for signing big contracts. If the owners put the money on the table, any sane, rational individual is going to sign on the dotted line.

Despite Johnson’s consistently good, but never great, career thus far, he has been given a chance for a new start—a rebooting of sorts. Johnson has the opportunity to shine under the bright lights of New York, and live up to his superstar billing.

This might say more about the dearth of great 2-guards in the NBA right now, but after Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, Johnson is probably still the best shooting-guard in the league. He’s got great size for the position, and despite his disappearing act at times in Atlanta, does possess that elusive ‘clutch gene.’ Johnson can hit the big shots when it matters.

In Brooklyn, unlike in Atlanta, Johnson won’t be the main man. The Nets are Williams’ team. Johnson will play a big role, but he’ll be expected touch the ball far less. We should see a lot less of the ‘Iso-Joe’ version of Johnson that was on show in Atlanta—and that’s a good thing. Johnson has great range, and the potential to be extremely effective coming off screens, and working off Williams’ penetration. Johnson hasn’t played with a point-guard anywhere near Williams’ quality since his brief time with Steve Nash in Phoenix, and he will find himself open far more in Brooklyn.

The pressure is still on Johnson. There’s no denying that. With the Nets, however, he’ll be able to function in the background more, and maybe that’s something he’s always secretly needed. Johnson can now be the second option, and not always the first.

As it stands, Joe Johnson is going to go down as a pretty good NBA player once his career is over. He now has a few years in Brooklyn to see if he can elevate his historical standing from simply good, to great.

Pressure To Win Now Firmly On Howard

At some point in the next few days Dwight Howard should pick up the phone and call his good buddy LeBron James. Howard can pick James’ brain about winning a championship for the first time, wish him luck in next months’ Olympics, and most importantly, ask him what it’s like to be the most heavily scrutinized basketball player on the planet.

The answer to that last question might stand Howard in good stead because, fairly or unfairly, that distinction is about to fall squarely on his massive shoulders.

In the two years between his move to South Beach, and his recent glorious redemption in the NBA Finals, James faced relentless questioning and criticism—some of it fair, but much of it irrational and ridiculously self-righteous and preachy.

But now that James has his ring, and has dispelled the notion that he lacked the necessary intangibles to pair with all the amazing tangible facets of his game, the pressure is off.  James will now pass that burden of pressure onto Howard.

Just like James, Howard is a pretty nice guy. He hasn’t broken the law, he participates in charity work, signs autographs for kids, and probably pays his taxes on time. Unfortunately, for those in the spotlight, especially those making millions of dollars, the standard that qualifies you as being a ‘good guy’ is quite a bit higher.

You and I can make lousy career decisions, say things that we shouldn’t, and on occasions, slack off at work. It certainly isn’t amplified in anywhere near the same way.

But don’t get me wrong, in the vicious court of public opinion, Howard has rightly been found guilty on a number of counts. He held his team hostage for a good portion of last season, with an excruciating contract saga that made him seem immature and in serious need of a good P.R. rep.

Just when we thought that the drama was over, after Howard opted in for one more year, the revelations regarding Howard requesting Stan Van Gundy’s termination, once again painted the big-man in a not-so-positive light.

Fast forward to the present, where accusations of blackmail and, of course, another inevitable trade request, has meant that public opinion on the league’s most dominant center has never been lower.

What all this essentially means in the long run, however, is that wherever Howard ends up—be it Brooklyn, Dallas, Atlanta, L.A., or somewhere else unforeseen—the pressure to win, and win soon, will be immense. And not just because of all the recent ugliness in Orlando.

Even setting aside a year’s worth of negative headlines, the jury is still out on Howard regarding his abilities on the court. Admittedly that sounds a little ridiculous at first. Howard is undeniably the game’s most dominant big-man and a top-ten player in the NBA. Quite frankly, Howard was robbed of another Defensive Player of the Year award last season—likely because of all the aforementioned negative drama.

At the offensive end, you can mark him down as one of the few players in the league who demands a double team on every possession. Just like it was with James, however, the finer points of Howard’s game are continually in question.

Does he take the game seriously enough? Can he add another dimension to his limited low-post game? Will he ever improve his free throw shooting to the point where he’s not a complete liability down the stretch?

Those are just some of the questions surrounding Dwight Howard the basketball player. Add those to the emerging questions surrounding Dwight Howard the man, and it’s clear that the intense glare of the media will be firmly fixed on his every move.

Can the NBA’s premier center emulate the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell? Or, will Howard fail to live up to his massive potential and end up like the ring-less Patrick Ewing — a career unfulfilled.

This type of legacy debating was going to fall on Howard sooner or later, but a combination of poor decision making on his part, and the fact that the media now needs a new whipping boy, has drastically accelerated the process.

The fix is in. The narrative is set.  And like it or not, Dwight Howard, the pressure is on.