The Unsung HeroBy Kevin Pelton
Jan. 7, 2004
No one wants to believe it, but the Denver Nuggets are a contender. As of this writing, at 20-13, they are closer to first place in their division than eighth place in the Western Conference. Yet every time I hear fans discuss the Nuggets, the consensus is that they're going to be fighting for the eighth spot in the West, that they're not only not as strong as the Dallas Mavericks (currently seeded sixth), but also the Houston Rockets, currently two games back of the Nuggets and sliding after a strong start.
Why no love for the Nuggets? It could be that those with low expectations for the Nuggets are unwilling to admit they were wrong. It could also be that the things that caused fans like me to doubt the Nuggets haven't changed, other than the doubt that Andre Miller could ever regain his Cleveland form (he's not quite there, but he's close).
Marcus Camby remains prone to injury and is shooting poorly, Nené has not taken a major step forward, Voshon Lenard can't average twenty points per game forever, and Denver's best player is a rookie whose shooting percentage is under forty percent.
Given all of these issues, why have the Nuggets already blown by last year's 17-win total?
The answer is simple: Jeff Bzdelik.
Few NBA fans knew who Bzdelik was when Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe named him coach after a lengthy search during the summer of 2002. Bzdelik had kept a low profile to that point, spending several seasons as an assistant to Pat Riley in Miami and several more in Washington. During the 2001-02 season, Bzdelik served as a scout for the Nuggets.
Even after Bzdelik was hired, it was widely assumed that his tenure would be short-lived. After all, it was well known that, in Vandeweghe's plan, the 2002-03 season was but a waiting period for the Nuggets before they reaped the benefits with a high draft pick and a ton of cap space the following summer.
After the Nuggets traded Nick Van Exel, Antonio McDyess, and Raef LaFrentz, followed early in the season by James Posey, Bzdelik was left with a makeshift roster that forced him to start, for much of the season, an undrafted rookie (Junior Harrington) and a second-round pick (Vincent Yarbrough) in the backcourt. It says a lot about the Nuggets that both players were cut this year at the end of training camp.
Most everyone picked the Nuggets to be the NBA's worst team last season, and indeed they were (tying with the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 17-65 record), but not without their moments. Bzdelik's rag-tag crew won raves throughout the league for consistently playing hard, catching off-guard teams like the Portland Trail Blazers -- twice.
The Nuggets were historically bad on offense, posting the worst offensive rating of any team since 1990, which is the first season I have ratings for. Even relative to league-average offense, which continues to drop, the Nuggets were easily the worst team in that period.
Defense, however, was a different matter. Denver finished in the middle of the pack, 13th overall by my ratings, in terms of defense. That may not seem very good, but for a 17-win team, it is. By way of comparison, the Cavs finished 28th on defense. The Nuggets outplayed on defense a pair of teams, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, anchored by All-Defense first-teamers.
The Nuggets' performance was enough to earn Bzdelik a chance to coach a more talented team. He got reinforcements in the backcourt from Miller, Lenard, Earl Boykins, and Jon Barry, as well as Anthony at small forward.
The result? The Nuggets have stepped it up at both ends of the court. Largely on the strength of the newcomers, Denver has vaulted all the way into the NBA's top ten offensive teams, averaging 97.4 points per game and 88.5 points per possession. And defense? The Nuggets have been one of the league's stingiest teams on the defensive end this season, allowing only 85.9 points per possession, seventh in the league.
Granted, the Nuggets have the league's best pair of per-minute shot-blockers in Chris Andersen and Marcus Camby, but the rest of the team is not exactly filled with defensive stalwarts. Miller, Lenard, and Anthony are all considered average at best on the defensive end of the court; backups Boykins, Barry, and Rodney White don't even make that level.
Go down the list of the top defensive teams in NBA history, like the one compiled by Dean Oliver in Basketball On Paper, and a few coaching names jump out at you: Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, Gregg Popovich, etc. It's ridiculously early to place Bzdelik on that level, considering he's yet to coach even a top-five defensive team for a full season. Still, few active coaches can make as persuasive a case to be considered the NBA's top defensive guru as Bzdelik can.
More impressively, Bzdelik has done it without slowing his team's pace to a crawl and bleeding its offense dry. Yes, Van Gundy has improved the Rockets on the defensive end, but, despite the talents of Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Yao Ming, Houston is in the NBA's bottom ten in offense. Rick Carlisle's Pacers and Popovich's Spurs, despite the presence of two of the NBA's top big men, Jermaine O'Neal and Tim Duncan, are scarcely better. Only two teams, the Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves, can boast of ranking in the NBA's top ten in both offense and defense. That says something.
Few seasons have been as rich with Coach of the Year candidates as this season has been in the early going. There are those who believe, reasonably so, that we should call the race right now and give the award to Utah's Jerry Sloan, who has taken his crew of no-names to an above-.500 record thus far. As I mentioned earlier this week, Milwaukee's rookie head man, Terry Porter, deserves equal credit for beating his team's expectations almost as much in the Eastern Conference. Popovich, Phil Jackson, and the underrated Flip Saunders have all done terrific jobs integrating their teams' new talent, while Rick Adelman has kept the Kings rolling without Chris Webber and Tim Floyd has started to get the last laugh in New Orleans despite the absence of Jamal Mashburn.
Precisely where in this maze of candidates Bzdelik belongs is tough to say, especially this early in the season, but he would certainly be on my short list of candidates if I had a vote. I don't expect him to get much credit, even if the Nuggets keep playing as well as they have, if only because, like his team, there is nothing sexy about Bzdelik. The root of his success lies not in a gimmick defense or a unique sideline persona, nor in inspiring locker room speeches.
No, Bzdelik's success is far more fundamental. He gets his team to play hard, every night, especially at the defensive end. At the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about as a coach?
Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.