Nuggets’ run started with an emphasis on defense
DENVER ” When Anthony Carter first heard that George Karl was going old-school and preaching a defensive-first philosophy after two years of trying to run up the scores, he was a bit skeptical.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think we would really do it because he’s said that before and then when we needed some scoring, the defensive guys went back to the bench,” Carter said, chuckling.
“But I’m glad we stuck with it this year.”
It’s the main reason the Denver Nuggets have reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1985.
While waiting to see if they’ll be playing the Lakers or Rockets in the next round, the Nuggets spent Saturday working more on defensive drills, precisely what got them this far.
The switch occurred during a tumultuous offseason that started with their fifth straight first-round playoff exit and continued with the departures of defensive stalwarts Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera and assistant coaches Doug Moe and Mike Dunlap.
Before Camby and Najera were out the door, Karl’s right-hand man, Tim Grgurich, convinced him that he had to return to his roots and preach defense.
Mark Warkentien, the NBA’s Executive of the Year, did his part by signing two big bargains in Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Dahntay Jones before trading Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups, who has converted the Nuggets from perennial first-round fodder into championship contenders.
Even before Billups returned to Denver to lead his hometown team to new heights, Karl got a gift when Kenyon Martin immediately bought into the new approach.
“I agreed. I brought it to some of the coaches, as well. So, I had no problem with it,” Martin said Saturday. “Just look at it, if you want to be successful in any sport, no matter if it’s individual or a team sport, you’ve got to do something else besides what you do best.
“We always knew we could score. Shoot, we’re top 3 in the league in scoring for the last five years. But we’ve been in the bottom in defense all those years as well,” Martin said. “So, you’ve got to fix it. How do you fix it? You get in the gym and work at it. And that’s what we did every day in training camp and we got good at it.”
Despite appearances, the dumping of Camby’s big contract wasn’t the impetus for the shift in focus. It began in what Karl calls “the mope period,” immediately after being eliminated from the postseason party.
Karl said he realized “maybe I took too much of a risk,” in preaching an offensive-first philosophy for the first time in his life.
Grgurich persuaded Karl to go back to his defensive foundation after the Nuggets became the first 50-win team to get shut out in the playoffs.
So, in their summer league, “the whole game was defense,” Karl said. “Everything went back to the old-school drills, the shell drills, all the rotation drills, all the old-school stuff we had done in Seattle. We talked to everybody about it then the trades hit.”
Camby, gone. Najera, gone.
“That was kind of a funky period from mid-July to the first week of August, everybody was cussing and moaning,” Karl said.
Soon, he and Grgurich divvied up what remained of the roster and reached out to all the veterans to tell them about the back-to-old-school basics that were suddenly more important than ever.
Nene wasn’t happy about Camby leaving or his role changing, but Karl soon swayed him.
“I said, ‘Nene you’ve gone from an overpaid bench player to an underpaid star in one trade,” Karl said, admonishing him, “You’re not going to be able to do this with your habits. If you want this culture to change you’ve got to help me. The first way you help me is get in the gym.”‘
Starting Aug. 15, Nene was in the gym five hours a day.
Karl figured Martin would be just as tough of a sell as Nene was, but Martin jumped right on board.
“As soon as we got back here we met and he said, ‘You’re not going to have any problem with me. I’m going to be your leader,”‘ Karl recounted. “We had our first meeting of the season and he said, ‘I’ve been a problem for the coach and it’s not going to happen any more. I’m going to be his policeman.”‘
Without the money to hire a seasoned staff, the Nuggets turned to young assistants Jamahl Mosley, John Welch and Chad Iske, who quickly proved they, too, were ready.
And then came Billups.
“The culture was changing before Chauncey came,” Karl said. “And then Chauncey comes and here’s the spokesperson for everything I was basically saying.”