Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The "Bad Boy" Nuggets?

If John Salley were a Lithuanian small forward I would have found a transcendent paradox. But he is not, and so all I’ve really found is a grouping of curious similarities. But these similarities, albeit imperfect, are quite profound.

Think back to 1988. Do you remember how great basketball was that year? Magic and Bird had taken the game to a level that Cousy and West could only have dreamed. A young player named Michael Jordan was beginning to forge his identity as the greatest player who ever lived, at the unfortunate expense of Craig Ehlo. And one of the greatest teams of all time was quietly coming of age.

The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the 1988-89 season were known for tenacity and toughness, for playing as a complete unit and, most importantly, for getting under their opponents’ skin. If it wasn’t Bill Laimbeer throwing elbows, then it was Rick Mahorn grabbing a jersey, or Dennis Rodman flopping all over the court. The Pistons were the best at throwing their opponents off of their game. It took a very intelligent player to beat them, and in fact it ultimately would be Jordan, the most intelligent player of all time, who finally dethroned them.

The other night, as I watched the Denver Nuggets take on the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, I was thinking about these Pistons of twenty years ago. The Nuggets are not only a very physical team; they are a very passionate team as well. Much like the Pistons, these Nuggets are led by their guard play, but rely on their size and depth to keep them in games that they otherwise would be out of.

As I was subconsciously weighing these similarities while watching Game Four the other night, one play in particular snapped my conscious into focus and suddenly it all made sense. Which play? I am, of course, referring to Dahntay Jones tripping Kobe Bryant as he drove to the basket. It was a dirty play by anyone’s standards, and while I’m not about to call it a great play, it certainly was a good play for the Nuggets at the time. They got a much needed emotional lift out of it, and at the same time it took a lot of energy from Bryant to hold back and NOT retaliate. It was a game-changer of the likes we haven’t seen in, well, twenty years.

I decided it would be a fun exercise to break down each roster and see just how similar these two teams are. What I found out was that the resemblance is uncanny, so let’s just dive right in, starting with the starting point guards and finishing up with the key bench players:

Starting Point Guard
Pistons: Isiah Thomas
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups
The catalyst of their respective teams, both Thomas and Billups could take over a game if need be, but both also know that they need to spread the ball around in order to be a championship caliber team. In terms of competitiveness and talent, no starting point guard on a championship winning team had more of both than Thomas until Billups won the title with the 2004 Pistons.

Starting Two Guard
Pistons: Joe Dumars
Nuggets: J.R. Smith
This is where it kinda gets fuzzy. Whereas Dumars was arguably the 2nd-best player on the Pistons (and one of the all-time greats at that), that honor on the Nuggets belongs to Carmelo Anthony. But Smith is an obvious scoring option, capable of pouring in 30 points on any given night. So, while it’s a bit of a stretch, when we get to ‘Melo, we’ll see that it evens out.

Starting Forward
Pistons: Mark Aguirre
Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony
See, I told you it would even out. Aguirre was good, but on this team he was a little past his prime. I thought about using Adrian Dantley in this spot, and if you think about it, Dantley and Anthony are very similar: Natural scoring types with a selfish streak. Let’s hope that Anthony doesn’t miss out on a championship in the same way that Dantley did.

Starting Forward
Pistons: Bill Laimbeer
Nuggets: Kenyon Martin
Maybe Laimbeer was technically a center, but he definitely played more like a power forward. Martin, meanwhile, is a power forward who plays like a center. So, while Martin doesn’t have Laimbeer’s range, what he does have is a similar toughness on the court. These guys define how the game will be played down low for their respective teams.

Pistons: James Edwards
Nuggets: Nene
When the Pistons needed some consistency on offense, and their outside game was off, they would turn to Edwards and his exceptional field-goal percentage to keep them in games. Ditto for the Nuggets and Nene, These guys are the “cooler heads prevail” guys on teams of hot-heads.

Bench #1
Pistons: Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson
Nuggets: Anthony Carter
Apologies to the Microwave, Carter is the first guard off the bench for the Nuggets, but he is nowhere near the player that Johnson was. Johnson was one of the original NBA Sixth Men, and deserves a lot of the credit for both of the Pistons championships. Carter is a fine player, but he’s no Microwave.

Bench #2
Pistons: Dennis Rodman
Nuggets: Chris Andersen
Here’s a good example of my formula at work. I would define both of these guys as: Flamboyant, energetic, and stable forces off the bench that are critical to their team’s success. Both have rebounding ability and shot-blocking ability. Both come off the bench to provide much-needed defense when the opposition gets on a roll. Off the court, Rodman’s most interesting years were ahead of him at this point, while Andersen has put a lot behind him already.

Bench #3
Pistons: Rick Mahorn
Nuggets: Dahntay Jones
Ah, the coup d’état of my analysis. These are the guys you bring in after Laimbeer/Rodman/Martin/Andersen haven’t been quite disconcerting enough for the opponent. Mahorn would make up for a lack of vertical play by literally bringing his man down to his level. Jones, meanwhile, will do anything and everything to get in the head of whoever he is guarding until they are completely thrown off their rhythm. Oh, and by the way, these guys are really fun to watch.

Bench #4
Pistons: John Salley
Nuggets: Linas Kleiza
And we have come full circle. Needless to say, these two guys have almost nothing in common. Salley was a good, not great, rebounder off the bench. Kleiza is a streaky shooter who can play big minutes when asked. But I would point out that if these two teams were completely similar, well, that would just be creepy.

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