It's the day after Veteran's Day, and the Nuggets are sitting tied for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. While it's too soon to even think playoffs, the team has won four of their first eight games, which is remarkable.
That kind of a start brings up questions about the team - questions such as these.
Q: What has been the most encouraging thing this season for you?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): It's not the most important thing, but I've been encouraged by the play of Will Barton, The People's Champ. He's reached double digits scoring every game, and he's been out there competing every game. When the Nuggets were making their run in the second half against the Warriors, there was Barton, flying down the court and busting his butt on defense. Barton only has four turnovers this season - four! - and he's taken 24 free throws. Barton doesn't shoot the ball well enough from distance to be a starter for the Nuggets long-term, but as an energy guy that is willing to give it everything he's got night-in and night-out, that's awesome.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Seeing the Nuggets complete without half the team on the court. Not all of the games have been pretty, but it would have been easy for a young team to get overwhelmed or for vets to try to do too much. Some of that has definitely happened - knowing there is nobody left on the bench to do your job if you fail has to add pressure to any performance. But the young guards have kept their heads up and Jokic is continuing to give his all when he gets on the court. They are performing without a safety net and so far, no one has fallen. That's a great way to pass a trial by fire.
Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica): The most encouraging thing so far this season for me has been the fact that the Manimal is back. It's good to know that Kenneth Faried not only survived the Brian Shaw era, but he came out on the other side better than he's ever been. He's averaging a double-double and his energy is high every single night. It's so encouraging to see him fighting after rebounds, improving on defense and working well with Mudiay on the offensive end. Overall, his whole season has been extremely encouraging to me because his effort is a sign that this team cares once again.
Q: Who has been the team's MVP?
Lewis: I'm going to go with Emmanuel Mudiay. Back in the 90s, the NBA was a big man's league, with Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaq. Now it's a point guard league, with Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Mudiay is the franchise point guard for Denver, and when he's played well, the Nuggets have won. Mudiay is averaging 15.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game in wins, and 10.5 points, 3.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game in losses. Mudiay's only 19! He's barely old enough to get into rated R movies!
Gross: Kenneth Faried. He's averaging 14 /10 in 28 minutes, and is still fighting through his own back issues to contribute at a high level. He's been committed on defense (effectiveness will continue to rise as he gets used to it) and on a team that seems to lose a big man every game he's still contributing to the Nuggets winning the battle of the boards. Darrell Arthur is adding very little and Jokic is still not entrusted with many minutes. Faried buying in to what coach Malone is selling can only help for this month and the months to follow.
Osby: What's so interesting about this team is that they've had multiple MVPs in the few games that they've won so far this season. Kenneth Faried, Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari and even J.J. Hickson have all been an MVP of a game in the first two weeks, but at least two players share that honor for every win. However, I would also make the argument that Mudiay has been the overall MVP so far. He seems to have really aided in improving the play of Hickson and Faried compared to last season, and he's helping the progress of many other players as well. He finds the bigs near the basket and sets them up perfectly and that's really been huge for our offense. It's also great to see him taking over games like he did against Portland, and if he keeps this up, he will for sure be the MVP for the Nuggets at the end of the season.
Q: Has Emmanuel Mudiay been better or worse than you expected?
Lewis: Better. In an amazing outcome, Mudiay is shooting better on 3-point attempts (37 percent) than he is on 2-point attempts (31 percent). He's making passes that make me shake my head and chuckle, and he's shown moxie late in games. I think playing him 30-32 minutes a game is great for him - enough time to succeed, but pulling him off the court to correct mistakes. He's turned the ball over 34 times, which is a lot of turnovers. I believe part of that is due to the team's spacing not helping him out, but part of that is just due to inexperience. The number of games between high school and today is still fewer than 20, and I think he's looking pretty good for a kid that fresh from the minor leagues for the minor leagues.
Gross: We'll say better, even though he's been about what I expected. It took him a few games to find the sweet spot in Summer League, and he's having the same struggles to open the regular season. When he's aggressive but careless the turnovers go through the roof. When he's tentative he can take care of the ball but can't make plays. In his last game against Portland he mixed aggression with decisiveness and was the deciding factor in the contest. He's also getting less afraid to call his own number - he wanted those final foul shots and that block on Dame Lillard was tremendous. A point guard has to make all the decisions; he can't just float to the three-point line and wait. Knowing when to shoot, when to pass, when to drive, when to push the pace and when to pull it back... there's a lot that goes into being an NBA point guard. Mudiay's been given the keys to the car and is just learning to drive. For my money, he's doing just fine.
Osby: I'd say he's better. As Daniel mentioned, he's definitely shooting from the three-point range better than anyone expected. Although he's not getting to the rim and finishing nearly as much as I thought he would, he's still making his mark on the offense in other ways. He's helping all of our bigs by finding them under the basket, he's proving himself to be a capable rebounder, and he's also shown that he's going to be a really good defender. The game against Portland alone confirmed that, as he was able to contain both C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard at various points. So, while things like his turnovers and finishing at the rim can definitely improve, he's done other things well that I could never have hoped for this early in the season.