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Mile High Sports

Ottewill: Nuggets’ George Karl is a mad scientist

George Karl is like a mad scientist. A little of this. A taste of that. A dash of the other. It all makes for the perfect concoction.


The Mad Scientist, however, has not found the right recipe – not just yet, anyway. A study of the Nuggets box scores this season provides a small sample size, but it’s arguably big enough to draw some early conclusions. Or in the case of the Nuggets, it’s big enough to “not” draw conclusions.

The Nuggets are 0-3, but plenty of people (including myself) believe they’ll finish at “No. 3″ (in the West, that is). O-fer-whatever is always cause for concern, but it’s hardly time to panic. Denver will crack that goose egg tonight against a downtrodden Pistons team – mark it down.

Like Denver, Detroit enters the game with an 0-3 record. Losses to Houston (in Detroit) and the Suns and Lakers (on the road) have the Pistons reeling. On the L.A. swing, Lawrence Frank (who?) and his team were drubbed by 29 points. A trip to Denver to visit an angry Nuggets team in their home opener isn’t going to cure what ails the Pistons.

The difference between Denver and Detroit is simple: Detroit is lacking talent. Denver has an abundance of it.

But that could be the Nuggets’ biggest problem at the moment.

Sure, Denver is regularly referred to as one of the deepest teams in all of basketball, and that’s a good thing. But that depth will be most effective deep into the season, when tired legs need rest or when injuries inevitably come into play. Depth, at least at the moment, creates problems.

Don’t get me wrong; George Karl loves his team. The possibilities and wacky combinations within his roster are endless and enticing – perhaps too enticing. Karl has been tinkering with plenty of them, maybe to a fault. At 0-3, he obviously hasn’t found the exact right combination of personnel or allocation of minutes.

Anyone who’s ever coached a fantasy football team knows how maddening it can be to have too many options. Fantasy teams like this are generally filled with plenty of “good” talent, but often lack “standout” talent or even players who should never crack a lineup. In essence, the decisions are obvious. Conversely, when trying to deal with a team filled with respectable players, trying to push the right button on a weekly basis often boils down to a concept that no coach or manager enjoys – luck.

In the NBA, it’s often said that a team can’t truly win without two superstars. Could it be that it’s not necessarily the superstars that make all the difference, but rather, it’s actually the clear-cut definition of roles and distribution of minutes that create success? Nobody ever questions the way Erik Spoelstra slices the pie in Miami. At least 80 percent of his roster will play a consistent amount of minutes, night in and night out. There’s not much fluctuation in South Beach, no matter if a player is a star or simply plays a role.

At the moment, that’s not the case in Denver.

It will be, but Karl is still in the process of getting his head around all these options. He’s like a kid in a candy store, a carpenter with too many tools. It might take a while to figure out how to get the most out of all his assets.

It’s even possible that Karl knows the right combination already, but that he’s simply experimenting. After all, it’s early in the season, and knowing and understanding all the possibilities is part of the objective – not just winning. Throughout the year, commentators regularly shower the Nuggets with praise for having such a long bench. But like clockwork, Karl’s bench gets shortened immediately (sometimes seven, sometimes eight) as soon as the postseason commences. Karl knows which players and which combinations he trusts, and eventually, and inevitably, they will be revealed.

After three games one might conclude the following: The more combined minutes played by Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, the better off Karl’s team will be.

Faried’s presence was felt against Miami, and to be fair, he got off to a hot start, scoring 12 of the Nuggets’ first 26 points and pulling down six rebounds (all in the first quarter). But he also played more than 36 minutes. In the Nuggets’ previous two games – both bigger losses – Faried played just under 37 minutes combined.

In the case of McGee, it’s probably not a matter of “if” but “when.” With a sizeable $44 million contract attached to the young center, there’s got to be an expectation for Karl to get him on the floor. Karl played McGee for almost 23 minutes against Miami; in return, the coach got 16 points and nine rebounds. In the opener against the 76ers, McGee saw 18 minutes on the floor; he posted four points, seven rebounds. Against Orlando, he was limited to 11 minutes, and consequently, his production was pretty limited – four points, two rebounds.

No need for a math wizard to identify the trend.

To be fair, that’s overly simplistic. Karl would likely scoff at such a topline conclusion. After all, he’s going to stick with a hot hand – as he did with Faried against Miami, and as he didn’t with McGee in game two. Plus, there are literally hundreds of other variables that go into a team’s ability to win or lose. Subjectively, one might conclude that Karl simply trusts the skillset and experience of Kosta Koufos in the here and now. But the future – make no mistake – has got to belong to McGee. His athleticism was the reason he was paid handsomely. His athleticism will be hard to keep on the bench for long.

Andre Iguodala and Ty Lawson will likely contribute 35-plus each and every night. Danilo Gallinari should be in the neighborhood as well, assuming he doesn’t shoot 3-for-17 like he did against the Heat. But Karl is busy trying to figure out the proper playing time of virtually every other Nugget.

Options can be great, but they can also make a coach pull his hair out. Karl, the mad scientist, will continue to experiment, and the Nuggets will continue to experience plenty of ups and downs – at least until December. Come April, Karl and the Nuggets will know exactly who they are, and who they are not.

In the meantime, they’ll win three of their next four. And Denver’s opponents will see a steadier dose of Faried and McGee.

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