It ebbs and flows. It comes and goes. In many games, it’s the determining factor in whether a “W” or an “L” is recorded when the final horn sounds.
And George Karl has no idea what to do with it.
Oh, you thought I was talking about Momentum? I am. Sort of. I’m talking about McGee.
Here’s an equation that applies in Denver: The Big M = Momentum = JaVale McGee.
For Karl, The Big M might as well mean “Maddening.” Denver has a new version of J.R. Smith.
Now, before gasping at the comparison, hear me out. McGee is not Smith in the sense of being a total knucklehead. He’s not that at all. He’s young and sometimes immature in a basketball sense, but from my seat behind the Nuggets bench, it sure doesn’t look like McGee is a pouter. He’s not a malcontent and he’s not going to shoot the Nuggets into or out of a game on any given night.
Smith was all those things; McGee is not. Furthermore, and most importantly, I have yet to question McGee’s effort, which always appears to be there.
McGee is only “Smith” in the sense that he’s Coach Karl’s newest nemesis. From the same seat that tells me McGee isn’t a troublemaker, I can also see the veins popping out of Karl’s head with his young center’s every move. I watch the Old Ball Coach seethe and grimace whenever McGee makes a mistake. McGee is talented beyond belief – the very reason the Nuggets ponied up $44 million over four years for his services – but he is not a molded basketball player just yet.
Everyone, including and especially George Karl, knew that going in. But Karl can’t help but lose his patience with McGee on a nightly basis. That development is like death and taxes; it’s not a matter of if, just when.
Last night’s “when” came with exactly 9:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. On a play that epitomized McGee’s entire spectrum, Karl chose to look at the “bad” instead of the “good.”
On the play, Toronto’s Amir Johnson pulled up for a mid-range jumper. The long and athletic McGee came flying in to block the shot, making it his fifth rejection of the game. But he didn’t stop there; he kept running, beating everyone to other end. With McGee streaking toward the hoop, the ball was floated down the court. The pass ultimately connected, but too far ahead of McGee. Instead of gathering the ball and resetting, McGee tried to save it from going out of bands with a behind-the-head, no-look pass that was ultimately intercepted. The hustle was there; the end result was not.
Turnover Denver. And an infuriated Karl yanked The Big M.
As it turns out, McGee was indeed the momentum. To backtrack, McGee had gone into the game with 6:36 remaining in the third. At that point, the Nuggets led by 13 points. When Karl finally snapped at the aforementioned 9:39 mark in the fourth, the Nuggets, ironically, led by 13. Over that span, McGee hauled in four rebounds, had four blocked shots, dished out one assist and scored six points. To be fair, he also missed four free throws (to be even more fair, McGee was just 9-for-17 on the night from the charity stripe, and the Nuggets as a team were just 27-43).
Flash forward to the 3:41 mark. Toronto has closed the gap to eight points and Kosta Koufos gets his sixth foul. Begrudgingly, Karl has no choice but to insert McGee back into the game. A Ty Lawson foul and turnover, paired with a Danilo Gallinari turnover, and the Nuggets lead has been dwindled down to two points with just 2:18 remaining.
Who does Karl yank? You know the answer: McGee.
Denver ultimately went on to win the game, 113-110. In key situations, Karl has players he trusts; McGee isn’t one of them.
But trust this, too: The Nuggets are another one-and-done playoff team if Karl doesn’t begin to trust the only big man on his roster with true talent. Koufos is a nice player; he’s reliable and fundamentally sound, just like Karl likes ‘em. But no team devoid of a true superstar, and featuring Kosta Koufas at the five spot, is going anywhere in the playoffs.
McGee, for all his flaws, is a difference maker. His size and athleticism can change games. One doesn’t have to flip the calendar back too far to remember the last time this happened – when McGee single-handedly redirected the fortunes of the Nuggets against the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
In a nutshell, that’s why the Nuggets’ brass inked McGee to such a big contract – because he’s an asset that not every NBA team has. If Karl can get the most out of him, McGee can be the game changer the Nuggets so desperately need. Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke did not commit $44 million so that McGee could be the next J.R. Smith.
If the Nuggets are to do anything come April, they need The Big M on their side. Otherwise, the Nuggets are, well, the Nuggets.