Updated: November 1, 2013 at 5:59 am
DENVER - The Nuggets have a problem.
Oh, boy, do they ever. And it's a big one.
The Nuggets are paying $44 million to play JaVale McGee at center. For the majority of crunch time in their season opener Wednesday at Sacramento, do you know where he was?
Taking up 7 feet, 252 pounds, of space on the bench.
"Until JaVale shows that he can handle those types of situations ..." coach Brian Shaw said Thursday on their practice court at Pepsi Center, his voice trailing off.
This is a problem. This is a problem for Shaw. The Nuggets leader enters Friday's home opener against Portland with the ultimate burden of a first-year coach: lofty expectations.
Denver overachieved its way to 57 wins in George Karl's final season. That's a high bar.
This is also a problem for the Nuggets. Their best asset right now is financial flexibility. But they are hamstrung because they envisioned a game-changing defensive presence and went all-in on McGee.
Why isn't McGee playing with games on the line, under Karl or Shaw? His defense.
"Although I want JaVale to be in that position and I'm going to continue to be patient with him in doing that, he has to earn the right to be on the floor at that time," Shaw said.
If the Nuggets are serious about overhauling their operation to win a championship, those plans can't include McGee. The new system is built around solid defense and a structured offense that can score in the half court.
McGee fits somewhere, but it's not in that system.
I expect this Nuggets season won't be remembered by a franchise-record win total, but by a major trade that shakes the foundation of the franchise.
The big move should include McGee.
Remember the tough love Karl often used when he started Kosta Koufos ahead of McGee on their way to a historic regular season at Pepsi Center?
Karl was called stubborn and, worse yet, old school, for preferring the plodding Koufos to the jumping-jack McGee. But Karl was right on. Now Shaw is right on.
Not to ruin the suspense, but Nuggets fans will learn quickly that Shaw's system is more old school than Karl's system.
It was just one game? No, Shaw is witnessing what Karl endured for the past one-plus seasons: McGee's highlight reel and awesome dunks are outdone only by his blooper reel and missed assignments.
Fans adore him for the former; coaches get fired for the latter.
Shaw was my first choice to coach the Nuggets. On the day Karl was fired, I wrote that Shaw, an afterthought at the time, was the only man for the job.
In time, I expect you are really going to dig him.
The Nuggets also made a smart decision in hiring Tim Connelly as the man to replace Masai Ujiri. I knew Connelly gets it when one of his first phone calls as general manager went to McGee, a player he's known since their days with the Wizards.
"I told JaVale the night I took the job: You have to be better for us to be better," Connelly told me. "We have to see internal growth for us to really make noise."
Let's hope McGee allows the message to sink in. All that's at stake is the future of the franchise.
"I've told him he's going to get sick of me pushing him," Connelly said.
Don't blame McGee. He's wise for taking what the Nuggets were willing to give.
Blame the management that jumped the gun and invested $44 million in a center who, in his sixth NBA season, can't be trusted to close out a game against the Kings.
Instead, here was the frontcourt for most of the fourth quarter as the Kings beat the Nuggets: Darrell Arthur (6-9) at power forward and J.J. Hickson (6-9) at center. When the going gets tough and the game gets tight, Shaw will go with his best five on defense. That lineup spoke volumes.
There's a big difference between a really good player and a really good athlete. The NBA is packed full of really good athletes. Title teams have really good players.
Kroenke Sports Enterprises paid big bucks for a shiny, new scoreboard that hangs from the ceiling of Pepsi Center. It's missing only one thing: the McGee Meter.
To better educate the paying public on the things that truly build a championship contender, it would track his missed assignments along with his dunks and blocked shots.
Here's a hunch the Nuggets could have one installed for less than $44 million.