This Week’s Sign the Apocalypse is Upon Us: JaVale McGee Handed Keys to Denver Nuggets
Is anyone else paying attention to what is happening in Denver? The Nuggets have turned over their entire franchise to JaVale McGee. This is no exaggeration. They fired their future hall-of-fame coach—who had just won the Coach of the Year Award—because he would not play McGee. They hired Tim Connelly, the guy who drafted JaVale when he was director of player personnel for the Washington Wizards, as their new general manager; Connelly had been an assistant GM under Dell Demps in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, Connelly is a “big JaVale McGee fan,” which you sort of have to be if you get the job as GM in Denver. And you can bet that every prospective head coach started their interview with a PowerPoint presentation on how they plan to use McGee. The final step in handing JaVale the keys to the Pepsi Center was dumping the incumbent starter Kosta Koufas on draft night, clearing the path for McGee to join the starting five, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. The edict from ownership is clear: there is no room for JaVale doubters in Denver. It’s Pam McGee’s dream come true. She always said JaVale is the future of the NBA. In Denver, the future is now.
But for Washington fans, watching Denver reconstruct its front office, coaching staff and roster for the singular purpose of appeasing JaVale McGee seems almost comical.
We get the fascination with JaVale’s athleticism. We were all enamored with his potential at one point. We’ve all marveled at him effortlessly soaring two feet above the rim for an alley-oop or emphatically blocking a 3-point attempt after taking only one step out of the paint. We’ve all had the same conversation: “If only he developed a go-to post move. . . .if only he stopped biting for pump fakes. . . .if only he learned to box out. . . .” But this conversation has been going on for five years.
It’s not like JaVale is a rookie. He’s entering his sixth season. Did everyone in Denver collectively forget the first five years of McGee’s career? Despite Hakeem’s predictions of dominance after tutoring JaVale last summer, McGee appears to be the exact same player now as he was in Washington. The conventional wisdom outside of D.C. is that McGee’s 2012 playoff performance against the Lakers was his coming out party. But that’s not really true. McGee had a couple great games (and one good game) in a seven-game series against Andrew Bynum. He did the same thing in Washington where he would often be the most dominant player on the floor for a two or three game stretch and then disappear for the next two weeks.
At what point do you accept that he is what he is—an athletic freak who at any given moment is just as likely to perform the most amazing, jaw-dropping display of basketball as he is the most mind-numbingly dumb play.
To be fair, JaVale—and his mom—blames his inconsistent play on inconsistent minutes, both in Washington and Denver. McGee may have a point. He will be playing for his sixth head coach in six years this season and none has had the intestinal fortitude to let JaVale play through his mental mistakes for 30-plus minutes per game. However, that has a lot to do with the fact that McGee averages more goaltends per game than assists and steals combined.
George Karl’s final year in Denver highlights the inherent conflict between coaching to win and coaching to develop players. In a candid post-firing interview with the Denver Post, Karl made clear which he prefers:
“We won 57 games and are in a great place. Continuity, consistency, togetherness all are so much more valuable than what they have on their priority list of playing JaVale McGee or the young players.”
Karl was asked specifically about his handling of McGee’s minutes and his answer (especially the last two lines) foreshadows a potential problem for new coach Brian Shaw:
Q: Looking back, is there any way to have regrets about not playing McGee major minutes, knowing that they paid him big money?
A: “I’m sorry, I’ve never had management tell me that money’s important (for playing time). Every team I’ve ever coached, it was, ‘It’s your job to distribute minutes.’ I think JaVale built a foundation that next year is going to be very good with him. I don’t think our relationship was in a bad place. It wasn’t in a great place, but it wasn’t in a bad place. … I felt pretty good that JaVale, with a good summer with us, probably would have been the starter next year. But, in the same sense, I don’t think JaVale and Kenneth fit. They have similar limitations. I still think having a passing point guard for JaVale, like Andre Miller, is an asset.”
If Karl is right (and his concerns don’t seem unreasonable), Shaw may find himself in a tough position next year. McGee and Faried are both energy players with limited offensive skills. Both players score their points off hustle plays. If it turns out a McGee-Faried front court places too much pressure on Denver’s perimeter offense, will Shaw have the freedom to move JaVale back to the bench or must he find a solution that does not impact McGee’s minutes?
And then there’s the question of who will be passing the ball to JaVale. Karl preferred to play McGee with Andre Miller (as opposed to Ty Lawson) because Miller is a pure point guard who knows how to throw an entry pass. That skill is critical because JaVale’s most efficient offensive move is an alley-oop. With Miller rumored to be out in Denver, the job of setting up McGee falls to Lawson. It remains to be seen whether Lawson, who is best known for his quickness, penetration and scoring ability, will be able (or willing) to capitalize on the handful of possessions each night where JaVale slips a pick, dives to the basket and points his finger high above the rim.
Despite the uncertainties, one thing is for sure: From ownership on down, for better or worse, the Denver Nuggets have hitched their wagon to JaVale McGee’s star. We are about to find out what McGee is capable of when given complete freedom. And that means Washington fans will finally get their verdict in “The Great JaVale McGee Debate” of 2008-2012.
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