By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The Denver Nuggets will face a very difficult first-round opponent in the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are the total opposite from the Nuggets. The Nuggets are more sizzle and flair, and the Jazz are more vanilla and bland. The Nuggets will be without head coach George Karl, who is battling cancer, and in his place assistant coach Adrian Dantlely will be in charge.
Since the arrival of Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets have become a much more consistent team, a much better defensive team and have bought into doing what is necessary to win.
Billups has brought tremendous leadership to the Nuggets. They were a dysfunctional team before he arrived and he has brought a calming influence to this team. Billups is an assist machine. He knows how to run a team and his veteran influence without the presence of Karl will be invaluable. In addition, his ability to make clutch baskets will be needed in order for the Nuggets to beat the Jazz
Carmelo Anthony is capable of carrying a team on his back. He is a prolific scorer and he has the ability to put up 30-to-40 point games in the playoffs. Anthony is a nightmare matchup for the Utah Jazz. He is so strong and powerful and he bullies opponents in the post and on iso situations. Anthony will be invaluable to the Nuggets in the playoffs versus the Jazz because he can create his own shot and he loves contact, can finish and he gets to the foul line at a high rate.
The Nuggets have a big problem with their bench this season. They lost their two best players in Dantay Jones and Linas Kleza from last year’s team and did not totally replace them. They bring J.R. Smith , Chris Anderson and Ty Lawson off the bench. Smith is a big-time scorer, Anderson is a high-energy guy, and Lawson gives Billups a rest.
The Nuggets will need a big effort from Smith in the first round. He can be a game changer because of his talent, athleticism and scoring abilities.
The Jazz have had another successful season under head coach Jerry Sloan. This will be a series with two teams that have drastic styles of play. Denver is a fast-paced offensive team while the Jazz are a more predictable half-court execution team.
The Jazz pride themselves on being an efficient offensive team. They execute and are precise and fundamental. They continually are ranked among the best teams in the NBA in field goal percentage. This year they finished shooting .491 from the field. They do not take bad shots and they know how to grind out wins in the postseason. They are built for the playoffs. If they can stop the Nuggets in transition, slow the game down and keep it in the half court they have a very good chance of defeating Denver. In addition, the Jazz will need All Star performances from Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. They need these two players to carry the team offensively and let the complimentary players play off of them. If Kyle Korver, Mehmet Okur and Wes Matthews can make the Nuggets pay from the three-point line it will open up more scoring opportunities for Williams/Boozer.
The Jazz will need a big defensive effort from their team. The Nuggets have a lot of weapons and it is imperative for the Jazz to limit their opponent’s offensive efficiency. The most important statistic may be fast-break points. The Jazz can’t give up easy baskets and they must be able to contain Anthony. This will be a very tough matchup for the Jazz, even if Andrei Kirilenko plays Melo he will be a load for him to handle in postups and iso’s.
Point guard matchup
Chauncey Billups is not the most conventional point guard but he is a very productive and efficient. He has good size and unbelievable strength. He has strength in both his upper and lower body. In addition he has good foot speed and quickness.
Billups is dangerous in transition where his aggressive, attacking style puts defenders on their heels. He gets to the rim, finishes because of his body and gets fouled. In addition, on the break he will pull up at the three-point line and knock down a deep shot. Billups can score in a myriad of ways in the half court, but it is his shooting that sets everything up. He is a knock-down three-point shooter. His strong lower body, coupled with his tremendous form, have allowed him to develop a wonderful stroke. Billups is one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA. Whether it be side or middle picks he is tremendous at coming off and being able to pull up behind or coming off the pick. He puts incredible pressure on the defense because of his shooting ability. Chauncey is not a big driver in the half court, but if he sees an opening he will take it. He will back down or post smaller point guards to create mismatches, get fouled or get doubled.
Billups has a killer instinct, he has never has been afraid to take or make big shots in the playoffs.
Chauncey is a great defender. His upper and lower body strength allow him to guard anyone, he is a very physical defender. This helps him defending screens and pick-and-rolls. He uses his strength and toughness to get over both very well. He knows how to play terrific team defense. He has great hands, gets deflections and steals. He will come back and rebound for a point guard.
Deron Williams is one of the league’s top point guards. Deron is very tall, long and strong for a point guard. He has a very strong upper body, is a very good athlete and has explosive abilities. Deron is a tremendous playmaker with excellent ball-handling skills. He is a perfect point guard for Jerry Sloan. He has the ability to excel in the open court or run the disciplined Utah Jazz offense.
Williams may be the best offensive point guard in the league. He is a tremendous combination of playmaking and scoring. Deron can push the ball and score in transition. He has an attack mentality on the break and because of his strength and handle he gets wherever he wants with the ball.
He is a big-time pick-and-roll player. He can turn the corner and attack the defense, get in the lane, shoot or make the appropriate pass. Williams is also very effective in one-on-one situations early or late in the shot clock. He can get his own shot, is very creative with the ball, and can really finish in the lane. He has a wide assortment of shots with a soft shooting touch around the basket.
Deron has a very nice shooting stroke. He has really improved his mechanics since college and has extended his range and consistency. Williams is terrific off the dribble. He can shoot the mid-range jumper off the pull up. He can go either right or left with the jumper. In addition, he will take the ball to the rim without regard for his body. He will attack the rim on drives and finish or get fouled. He has a real good touch in the lane.
Deron is a tremendous passer who makes good decisions with the ball most of the time. His only problem with the ball is he tends to be a bit too creative and makes some tough passes at times. This sometimes leads to high-turnover games.
Williams has made himself into a solid defender. He is very effective because of his size and strength and that allows him to cover the majority of point guards in the league. He really gets down low in a stance and tries to defend. He is not the greatest athlete in terms of quickness and so the real quick jets give him problems. His strong body and mindset help him fight through screens and pick-and-rolls. He has excellent hands, which gets them slap downs and steals. He averaged 1.1 steals per game last season. He is a tough kid and is not afraid to take charges. He rebounds the ball for very well for a point guard and will come back and grab the defensive rebounds and ignite the break.
Shooting guard matchup
Aarron Afflalo is an average athlete for the perimeter but he has a great body and tremendous strength. Aaron does not have great size, or ball-handling skills, but he is a hard worker, can score with his mid-range game and he can defend. These qualities are why he got drafted and why he has been a productive member of the Nuggets this season.
Afflalo is terrific in transition where he is a very aggressive offensive player. He can attack off the dribble in the open court and get to the rim and finish. He can take a hit and still finish because he has a strong body. Aaron has a nice shooting stroke and has shown good consistency from 17-to-19 feet. He came into the league much more of a mid-range shooter than a three-point shooter. However, he has worked hard on his perimeter shot and this past season shot .434 from behind the three-point line. Affalo can put it on the deck, one or two hard dribbles and get into mid-range jumper, but he can’t create his own shot. He is a smart and crafty player, who knows how to play without the ball, come off screens, cut and find openings versus his defender. Because he can’t create off the dribble, he has to find other ways to score.
Afflalo works hard at the defensive end. He is a fundamentally sound defender. It is one of the main reasons he gets quality minutes for the Nuggets. Although he is not a great athlete, he has the ability to move his feet, and he has the strength to guard people at his position. He struggles with taller scoring guards who can shoot over him. He must work harder to fight through screens and pick-and-rolls.
Wes Matthews has been a fill-in starter due to numerous injuries to Kirilenko and C.J. Miles earlier in the year. When Ronnie Brewer was traded back in February, this young man moved into the Jazz starting lineup on a permanent basis. Matthews is a real success story because he was not even drafted last year. He came to training camp to make the Jazz roster and he has surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Wes is a hard working, tough young man. He has taken to coach Jerry Sloan’s direction and flourished. He is a bona-fide NBA perimeter player and he has given the Jazz a big lift this season. He has started 48 of the 82 Utah games this season and brings a lot of intangibles to the court. Matthews has logged 24.7 minutes per game and has produced during that time. Wes averaged 9.4 points on a very efficient .483 field goal percentage. In addition, he can space the floor and knock down the three. Wes hit .382 percent from behind the line this year. Matthews needs to improve his mid-range game. He has the drive game and is aggressive taking the ball to the rim, and he can shoot. He must mix in the 10-to-15 foot pull-up jump shot. He must also become a better passer which is extremely important in the Jazz offense.
Matthews has proven to be a tough defensive player, which fits right into the Sloan mold. He brings energy to the court and he does not back down to anyone. He will fight through screens and picks which is very unusual for a rookie player. Wes must continue to improve his rebounding. Matthews will be challenged in the playoffs where he will encounter some of the toughest perimeter players in the NBA.
Small forward matchup
Carmelo Anthony is the go-to guy for the Denver Nuggets. He has developed into an All-Star because he has the natural tools and fundamental skills, which allow him to be an elite player. Melo is a born scorer. He averaged 28.2 points this season for the Nuggets. He scores in every way possible. He can post or iso on the elbow or block. He can pull the jumper in his defenders face or stretch his opponent out to the three-point line. Hiss bread and butter is when he bullies mismatches around the basket and just backs them down and overpowers them in the paint.
Anthony has a very reliable jump shot, especially when he gets the ball in the mid-range area. He consistently knocks down the jumper. He has gets nice arc on the ball, due in large part to his almost textbook high release point and follow-through on his jumper. Anthony does not have to over-dribble to get his shots off, opting to efficiently score with exerting wasted energy. He does a great job of using his body in addition to his strength to score on defenders. Anthony loves to play with his back to the basket in the mid-post area, where he brutalizes defenders with his physical play or he uses his silky smooth jumper on the turn-and-face. Melo can penetrate to the basket, though he has a tendency to rely a little too much on his jumper at times. He would benefit from improved ball-handling as well as better shot-selection. Due to his strength, Anthony can rebound the ball on both ends, especially when he sets his mind to accomplishing the task.
Carmelo has the strength and quickness to be a better defender but he does not exert the same energy on defense that he does on the offense. He does not put much pressure on the ball and he plays very poor help defense. He played a lot harder on defense when he was with the USA Olympic team. When he is with the Nuggets, he has a tendency to allow his offense to affect his defense. If he gets enough touches to his liking and his shots fall, he will exert more effort on the defensive end.
Andrei Kirilenko has been out of the Jazz lineup with a calf injury and may not be able to start for the Jazz in their first-round playoff series. If he can’t go, look for Miles to be inserted in the Jazz lineup.
Kirilenko has spent his entire career with the Jazz. He is a very unique player. He has been a dependable scorer and a defensive specialist. Due to his incredible wingspan and athleticism, Kirilenko has been one of the leaders in steals and blocks during his entire career. Andrei is 6’9” and has incredibly long arms. He is very sleight of build, although somewhat wiry strong. He can run like a deer, and he has big-time hops. Kirilenko is such a versatile basketball player. He can run the floor on the fast break and finish at the rim. He can score, defend at a high level, rebound, handle and pass. He is not the focal point of the Jazz offense due to the presence of Williams and Boozer and he is fine with that. Kirilenko has settled into a very nice role with the Jazz and he compliments everyone in the starting lineup.
Kirilenko is well suited for the Utah offense. He is a very effective player both in transition and in the half court. Kirilenko has the ability to cut, slash, and use screens to find openings in the defense to score. Although Andrei has a nice jumper he has never been a knock-down shooter. He can catch and shoot, make three-point shots and shoot off the dribble, but that is not his game. What he does well is find ways to score. He is extremely active and this sets up his offense. He utilizes his motor and he runs, gets on the glass, tips balls, and cuts into openings in the defense to catch and score. When he catches the ball he finishes around the rim because of his incredible length and soft touch around the hoop. Kirilenko is a favorite target of Williams on the break because of his athleticism and leaping ability. Kirilenko is a big time offensive rebounder. He has put up numbers his entire career. His height, length, and activity are hard to match on the glass. Andrei is an excellent passer. He has great vision for a big man and loves to throw look-away, or home-run passes.
Kirilenko has been one of the top defensive players in the NBA since he entered the league. He can not only guard his man, but he might be the most disruptive force from a perimeter position. His steals and block numbers for a wing forward are scary. He can guard multiple positions on the court because of his wingspan and athleticism. He can move his feet, still give cushion and contest and block shots. Usually he is assigned to the opponents best perimeter player.
Power forward matchup
Kenyon Martin has been with the Denver Nuggets for the past six years. He has provided them with a rugged power forward that is athletic, can run, and defend. Kenyon is a limited offensive player. He does not have a strong skill set and relies on hard work, and brute strength and power. He does a lot of the dirty work for the Nuggets. Martin plays with a great deal of emotion and effort. Sometimes that is great and sometimes his emotions get him in trouble. Martin, who has been injured this season, played in 57 games and recently just came back. He has averaged 11.6 points and grabbed 9.5 rebounds for the Nuggets
Martin has shown considerable improvement offensively, but he does not possess great offensive tools or very polished post moves. In the post with his back to the basket, Martin will use a right-handed jump hook turning over his left shoulder. He will also attempt to use the jump-hook with his left hand, though he does not consistently connect on the shot. Martin likes to use his quickness in the mid-post area, where he can catch the ball, turn-and-face, looking to use his quickness to drive past bulkier power forwards. He will shoot the jumper out to about 15-feet, though he does not rank as a consistent jump shooter. Martin, due to his quick leaping ability, also relies on the offensive boards for to score from follow-ups and put-backs. He is a big time offensive rebounder. He averaged 2.4 offensive rebounds per game for the Nuggets. He runs the floor well and finishes off fast breaks above the rim, though not as effectively as he did earlier in his career.
Martin excels on the defensive end, using his quickness and timing to block a number of shots. He has a great deal of success as a shot-blocker, coming over from the weak-side as a help defender to swat shots. He also uses his quick feet to cover quicker players on the perimeter. Martin's athleticism, quickness, and defensive tenacity will sometimes allow him to cover small forwards on the wing in addition to defending his conventional power forward slot. He also has very quick, active hands and comes up with a number of steals on defense.
Carlos Boozer is a true professional and this has been evident throughout his entire career. He has provided Sloan with toughness and scoring at the power forward position. Boozer is the player that the Jazz have gone to in the low post. He has delivered for them in a big way. Boozer has always shot a very high percentage for his career. In addition, Boozer is a rugged rebounder.
Boozer has a strong and powerful body and is a tough matchup inside. He is built more like an old school power forward. He is not the high flyer, explosive athlete of today, but rather a polished, fundamental throwback player. He has a high level offensive skill set. He can score in a number of ways on offense. The Jazz will utilize him in pure post up situations where they just throw him the ball. He knows how to get position and uses his strength and power to get deep position in the paint. Carlos likes to back down his defender in post and he can finish with either his right or left hand. He does not have great explosion but is very crafty and knows how to shield the ball and create space with his body to get shots off. He has a little trouble with the longer forwards getting his shot off. He has an unstoppable turnaround in the low post. In pick and pop situations Boozer has worked diligently to perfect his jumper. Boozer has great hands and feet to go along with excellent footwork. In addition he has a high basketball IQ and understanding of the game. He reads defenses very well and can make the correct passes out of the post when doubled.
Nene has had some real health issues that have hindered his career and his development as a basketball player, but when healthy, he provides the Nuggets with a big, physical presence with the ability to affect the game on both ends of the court. Nene understands and embraces his role as a scorer on the low-block. He rarely ventures outside of his comfort zone for shots. Consequently, he shoots a high-percentage from the field. He scores his points almost exclusively in the paint. He has an above-average post game and decent footwork, but Nene also has the strength and sheer size to overpower defenders. He has decent hands, which allow him to catch passes in traffic in the paint. Nene has the size to dominate on the boards, especially when he uses his size to establish position in the post for rebounding. He has the athleticism to run the floor and finish in transition.
Though Nene has good size and adequate athleticism, he does not use these gifts to shut down the lane defensively. He could make better use of his strength and power to become more of a physical force on the defensive end. Nene has the length and athleticism to block shots, but he is not a shot blocking force at this point in his career.
The Jazz signed Mehmet Okur as a free agent in 2004 and he has really blossomed in Utah under Jerry Sloan. Okur has been a starter since his arrival in Utah and his scoring numbers have skyrocketed during his time there. Okur has averaged double figure points in each year with the Jazz. Mehmet has also developed into a productive rebounder.
Mehmet is an European big man. He can really shoot the perimeter shot and stretch the defense. This is a big advantage for the Jazz, it really helps Williams and Boozer. He provides room and space for them to operate on the perimeter or in the post. He puts a lot of pressure on opponents because of how far he can come away from the basket. He has very good shooting mechanics, and can stroke the three. Has a shooter’s mentality, and is not afraid to take a shot at any time.
Okur is an excellent pick-and-pop player with Williams. He can really catch and shoot the ball for a 6’11” player. He can handle and pass decently for a big man. He is hard to guard because of his versatility. He can’t really put the ball on the floor and drive. He does once in a while, but he is not that athletic and somewhat awkward and plodding when he does. He can play in the low post a bit but that is not his game. He does not love to go down in the paint and fight for position. He can catch a bit on the left hand block and go middle or shoot the turnaround jumper. Okur is a very good offensive rebounder. He gets on the glass and has a nose for the ball. He can be a terrific option for the Jazz but has not proven to be a go-to guy late in games or in a big playoff series.
Okur has struggled during his time in the NBA to be a proficient and effective defender. He has the size and frame to defend but just like on the offensive end of the floor, he does not embrace contact and does not deal with low post defense very well. He is not athletic enough to keep the faster big men in front of him and he does not have the foot speed to make rotations quick enough. He has been a decent rebounder during his career.
J.R. Smith ranks as one of the biggest enigmas in the NBA. He has all of the natural talent to be one of the better shooting guards in the NBA, but he has never been able to put it all together and become a consistent and reliable player. He can be a very dangerous player in the playoffs because when he gets hot, Smith can knock down shot after shot and put up big numbers for the Nuggets. Smith has supreme confidence in his abilities and has never seen a shot he did not like. Sometimes his confidence causes him problems on the court. In addition his effort and focus over an 82-game schedule have been called into question by his coaches at times.
Smith has explosive athleticism and quickness, which enable him to be a prolific scorer. He uses his quickness and leaping ability to drive the ball to the basket for highlight-reel finishes at the rim. However, Smith does not drive the ball nearly enough, because he falls in love too often with the 3-point shot. Smith has deep range on his jumper, however he shoots it way too much. Over half of his shot attempts coming from 3-point range. He needs to continue to mix in his drive game with a mid-range game in order to become a more complete player. He has the ability to take one or two dribbles and elevate over defenders for the jump shot. Smith also needs to tighten up his ball-handling skills and improve his willingness to pass and find the open man.
Smith has the natural gifts to rank as a good defender, but his offensive effort and level of interest does not translate to the defensive end. Smith rarely looks to place great ball pressure on opposing ball-handlers, instead preferring to concentrate almost exclusively on the offensive end. Smith is a gamble and steal guy who does not concentrate on sound defensive principles. He would rather get a steal and convert it into a highlight reel dunks. His gambling style of defense leads to problems and missed coverage for his team.
If Kirilenko can’t go in the playoffs due to his calf injury, look for Sloan to insert CJ Miles into the starting lineup. Miles was a high school player who went directly to the NBA. Miles is a young perimeter player, who is very athletic and explosive. He has been with Utah Jazz for several years, and has fulfilled a very important role off the bench. He has never been able to get big minutes until this year because he is so young and raw.
Miles is more suited to an open-court fast break game. He runs the court extremely well, attacks the basket and is fearless finishing around the rim. He has big-time athleticism. He does not get much of an opportunity to score in the Utah offense other than an occasional spot-up jumper or a cut or flash to the bucket. He has worked hard to develop his perimeter shot which was only adequate when he came to the NBA. This season Miles shot a very credible .341 3-point field goal percentage. C.J. needs to continue to improve his ball-handling skill for a wing player. He needs to put the ball on the floor be able to take the ball to the rim in the half court.
Prediction: Jazz in six