About a month ago, I predicted that this would be the year that the Denver Nuggets made it back to the playoffs. That despite their stacked division and the absence of a star, this would be the year that Michael Malone started to make good on the promise of his talented young roster.
About a quarter of the way through the season, you would probably look at the Nuggets’ 8-13 record and guffaw. “Playoffs?! Don’t talk about playoffs, Jesse! Not when it comes to the Nuggets!”
I’ll admit, things haven’t started out as well as I’d hoped they would. Maybe I oversold the Nuggets’ chances or I’m just a supremely bad judge of the sort of components that comprise a winning basketball team (the latter could always be true). However, though the 2016-17 voyage has been rocky thus far for the hometown team, I believe that the flaws that are currently holding them down can be erased sooner rather than later. Let’s go over those and I’ll tell you why.
1. Injuries, injuries, injuries
I always hate to blame a team’s rise or fall on the health of its roster. “Next man up” and all that jazz has been imprinted on my brain as the cliche of choice when players start dropping like flies. In basketball, however, I believe that every team either has one or two key guys that they simply could not do without, OR they are counting on the availability of certain veterans to keep the ship afloat while the youngsters find their way. With Emmanuel Mudiay still trying to carve out his role in the association, Jamal Murray undergoing an early season shooting slump and the twin towers of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic trying to figure out how to play together (they never did and ultimately Malone had to scrap that pairing), the Nuggets absolutely needed the experienced hands on deck to carry them. It would have helped if those players had been available to do so. Gary Harris missed the start of the season, played a few games and was immediately reshelved until the end of December. Will Barton sprained his ankle early on and only recently made his return, though he’s still trying to find his mojo. Darrell Arthur had his knee scoped before the season and is only now showing signs of being an every game presence in the lineup. Throw in the usual ailments that hinder Gallo and Wilson Chandler (though thankfully not yet the ones that cripple them) and what you have is a deep roster that has never actually been able to capitalize on its depth.
I believe that Mudiay will eventually figure it out. Jokic and Nurkic have improved considerably now that they are rotating at center (though Jokic is sporting a wrist injury of his own at the moment) and Murray shook off his forgettable start and claimed Western Conference Rookie of the Month, just one reason to hope that he’ll be the guy to fit Denver’s superstar-sized hole. But the vets can’t be MIA all the time, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. This is the Nuggets and the health of the roster is seemingly always a recurring issue, but it should be a problem to have this many options to fill a 10-man rotation. It’s a problem that Michael Malone would love to have. Get healthy and the wins will come more naturally.
2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
You know what makes it hard to win in sports? When you don’t have the ball that much. You know what makes it easier for the other team to beat you? When they are able to take the ball away from you all the time. Being Captain Obvious doesn’t make me wrong, nor does it change the fact that the Nuggets are currently the fourth most turnover prone team in the NBA. Maybe this is the result of a young team being picked on (partially) or not having veterans around to make smarter decisions (a little bit), but I think the biggest reason for all the butterfingers and bad passes is you have a combo of guys trying to do too much and too little. They’ll force a pass into traffic on one possession, only to make one pass too many on the next in lieu of an open shot. If the roster can get healthier and the kids grow up a little (reasonable assumptions), I believe everyone’s role on the team will become more clear and they will start to trust one another more in certain situations. “You are the facilitator, I’m the scorer. Got it.” Conversely, the turnovers can be mitigated to a point where they became a lone flaw and not an Achilles heel.
3. Bad starts, bad finishes
The Nuggets have the third worst first quarter margin in the NBA. They have the sixth worst fourth quarter margin. Translation? They start slow and end poorly. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve watched them blow at the very end, which means if they were even average in the fourth they would have several more wins under their belt. It’s also hard to win when you’re constantly digging yourself out of a hole, so Malone needs to take measures to get his team to play with more fire and discipline at the start of the game. Again, this is something that I believe can be rectified to where it’s not killing the Nuggets.
A casual observer will see that the Nuggets are below .500 and immediately write them off as the same ‘ol Nugs. I feel that this is a team that’s biggest enemy is itself, and as soon as they understand that (and get some reinforcements), they will become the breakout team that I know they can be.
As for the Avalanche? Woof, I’m not getting into that. Ask Kevin.