Just as our Denver Nuggets gave up 84 points ... at halftime ... to a back-to-back playing Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, November 12th, the conversation here and elsewhere was one of when, and not if, Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw might get fired.
Nearly two weeks later, we're having a very different discussion in Nuggets Nation as the team has won four straight games and five of their last six. And had the Nuggets not laid a collective rotten egg at New York in a 109-93 loss to the Knicks on the 16th, we'd be looking at a six-game winning streak right now.
And just like that, the Nuggets - a team thought by many to be in the playoff mix in the brutally tough Western Conference - have returned (almost) to relevancy in the NBA. True relevancy won't come until the Nuggets rack up a few more Ws, but they're certainly on their way.
What has been the difference between the 1-6 Nuggets of a few weeks ago and the 6-7 Nuggets of today?
I believe it all comes down to Coach Shaw limiting his rotations. At the beginning of the season, Shaw was quite candid about his intent to deploy a 10-man rotation, which is about a player or two more than most conventional teams trot out for substantive minutes in your average NBA game. "People in the know" told me that Shaw's 10-man rotation, or whatever the hell it was early on this season, backfired quickly as Shaw's core players were unable to establish any sort of rhythm night in and night out ... causing the choppy play we experienced through the season's first seven games. That choppy played resulted in all the statistical negatives you see from a team that's out of sync: poor shooting, low number of assists and lots of unnecessary fouls.
But for four games in a row, beginning with the Nuggets' inspiring victory at Cleveland against the Cavaliers last Monday, Shaw has abandoned his 10-man rotation and instead settled on a more conventional rotation. Rather than 10 players getting 10-plus minutes as we'd seen through the Nuggets' first seven games, in that Cleveland game (a 106-97 Denver victory) only seven Nuggets players saw at least 10 minutes of playing time, with reserve point guard Nate Robinson getting just 10:26 minutes. In the Nuggets follow up game at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Shaw went back to giving 10 players 10-plus minutes apiece and the team rewarded Shaw's decision by practically giving that game away. Luckily for Shaw and the Nuggets, the Thunder are worse than awful without their stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and lost the contest anyway.
Moving on to last Friday's New Orleans Pelicans game, Shaw kept his primary rotation to nine players receiving 10-plus minutes and - alas! - the Nuggets won again, even though by most objective measures the Pelicans have more starting talent than Denver does.
And then on Sunday, in an overtime dogfight against the crummy Los Angeles Lakers, Shaw again deployed 10-plus minutes to 10 different players and the Nuggets barely won in the extra period. Thankfully for Denver, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant hogged the ball a lot - even for Kobe - and essentially sunk the Lakers single-handily. But one has to wonder: had Shaw stuck with a more traditional eight or nine-man rotation, would the Nuggets have even needed overtime to defeat one of the NBA's worst teams?
Admittedly, four games is a super small sample set and limiting the Nuggets rotation to nine or less players getting more than 10 minutes of playing time is no guarantee for on-court success. But unless Shaw wants to go after Nuggets opponents with two separate five-man waves (a la a hockey team), he has to allow a core group of players to gel together on the floor ... even if it means likable rookies like Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris seeing a lot of DNP-CDs.
In the days and weeks to come, Nuggets fans should pay attention to how many players receive 10 or more minutes in any given game and whether or not that equates to more wins. Because while the temptation is there to maximize the Nuggets roster of 15-deep, perhaps some traditional rotation patterns are in order if the Nuggets are to indeed return to NBA relevancy.