PHOENIX — With about seven weeks separating us from the third Phoenix Suns-free playoff experience in a row, the Denver Nuggets rolled into US Airways Center.
Like the Suns, the Nuggets don’t have any current All-Stars or anyone truly deserving the tricky-to-define label of go-to player.
But after Monday’s 108-93 victory, the Nuggets are (43-22) and have won nine games in a row. Currently registered as having the NBA’s sixth-best record, they also hold the Western Conference’s fifth seed.
They’re third in the league in scoring, second in pace and sixth in offensive efficiency.
But are they elite? Or are they, at least, at a level the Suns are — or should be — hoping to reach? Either way, as aspirations go, it’s not a bad restarting point.
“We don’t have a dominant scorer… they don’t have a dominant scorer, but still they’ve figured out a great balance for them offensively and defensively and it work for them,” Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter said of the Nuggets. “I don’t know if that’s partly because George (Nuggets coach Karl) doesn’t want any more superstars or they just got lucky and have a great group of guys.
“Either way, it’s great watchin’ ’em play because they really share the ball. I think they’re right there… they’re budding to be an elite, balanced team.”
During a local radio interview last month, Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said “The goal is to be elite, to build something that’s sustainable, and do it a brick at a time, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Babby, it should be noted, was explaining why Suns fans were advised to disregard trade-deadline rumors erupting from the laptops of national basketball writers. But the marching orders still seem clear.
Anyway, as the Suns (22-42) attempt to build a culture of grit and lane-protecting defense (they surrendered 74 paint points Monday), the machinations of roster building are the rage around town. On talk radio and Suns-related websites, well-meaning franchise followers are reaching new heights of creativity in an effort to demonstrate how this team can rise again.
Although aspiring to the fifth seed may seem a bit pedestrian, it also will be interesting to see just when Phoenix can reach that level again.
A check of personnel reminds us the Nuggets do have four rotation players who entered the league as top-10 picks in the NBA Draft. The Suns have two (Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson). It also should be noted that none of the Denver four were actually drafted by the Nuggets.
This suggests that through wheeling and dealing (or just picking up a couple of guys who didn’t pan out immediately), a team can reach the fifth seed in the rugged Western Conference. Good news for the Suns, right? Well, sort of. Please remember that three of Denver’s current rotation players were directly or indirectly attained when former go-to All-Star Carmelo Anthony coaxed a trade out of town.
Current small forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wes Chandler were part of that deal coming back to Denver; backup point guard Andre Miller eventually was acquired when another former Knick, Raymond Felton, was shipped to Portland for him.
Denver wingman Andre Iguodala, perhaps the most previously decorated individual on the roster, was attained from Philly in a four-way deal that cost the Nuggets the services of shooting guard Arron Afflalo and forward Al Harrington.
OK, thanks to ‘Melo wanting out and the 76ers not exactly weeping over the loss of Iggy, the Nuggets had the chance to stockpile several good players — but nobody really great — on their roster. Adding to the cache of talent were prudent moves that landed point guard Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried.
Lawson, the 18th overall selection in the ’09 draft, was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ third point guard choice in that round and acquired by Denver for a future pick.
“The head of it all is the point guard,” Hunter said of the mercurial Lawson, who had 19 points and six assists against the Suns. “He makes them hard to prepare for and hard to read.”
Faried, an undersized power forward referred to as “Manimal,” was taken with the 24th pick in 2012. Faried, who has played in two Rising Stars games during All-Star weekend, averages more rebounds (and about four fewer point) than the Suns’ Morris twins combined. He had 9 rebounds on Monday, while Markieff and Marcus (16 points) teamed up for 6.
So, as Faried as our evidence, we know gems can be found later in the first round, and that certainly helps.
Since trading Anthony, the Nuggets have been beating the drum for winning as a collective enterprise instead of subduing teams through closing-time performances by a superstar. The latter wasn’t really happening to a high degree with ‘Melo, anyway. But now, Denver has what it has, so why not market that variable as a way to go?
The Suns, especially with Steve Nash now working in L.A., have been taking that tack. The “All For Orange” battle cry has been an attempt at embracing the “it is what it is” predicament of the current roster. The difference between the team-first approaches in Denver and Phoenix is quality — according to player-efficiency rankings on hoopsstats.com, the Nuggets are superior to the Suns at every starting position except center. To be sure, it seems easier to be more efficient with better players around you. (Please note Kosta Koufos, Denver’s starting center, had a career-high 22 points while the Suns played without Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal.)
Lacking an asset with Anthony’s chops, piling up a Noah’s Ark-type roster isn’t easy. With a mediocre free-agent crop and a widely-panned (at least at the top) 2013 draft class, the Suns may not be able to avoid this approach.
By the way, the Nuggets, who have the second-best home record in the league, are a relatively miserable 16th for percentage of seats sold, per game, in their venue.
Star players can do even more for the franchise than help create victories.