The Denver Nuggets are sitting pretty in December with a tenuous hold on the #8 spot in the playoff seeding after a nice collection of wins, two of which came without Mudiay taking the court. In an up-and-down learning season that's been riddled with injuries, figuring out who the Nuggets are and what they need to do to take more steps in a winning direction has not been easy. As they approach Christmas, here are a few of the questions that need answering - and the Denver Stiffs roundtable is here to help!
Q: The Nuggets are 5-1 in their last 6 games after going 0-8 over the previous stretch. Trend toward improvement or anomaly in a bumpy season?
Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares): Slight trend toward improvement. They played some really good teams throughout the course of the 8-game losing streak and they’ve played some mediocre/bad teams over their last 6 games, so it’s hard to say definitively one way or the other. However, I do think that the team’s defense has looked much better and the team runs the berak better with Jameer playing bigger minutes.
Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica): I definitely think it shows a trend toward improvement. In all five games the Nuggets have won during this stretch they've scored over 100 points, which is good because they’ve yet to win a game where they don’t score at least that many. The offense seems to be a lot better, with more ball movement and shots finally starting to fall. The wins are also a result of a more favorable schedule, but it's hard not to notice the improvement all around as well. It just seems like something is starting to click.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): I think they’re playing more the way they need to play to be successful (passing better, giving 4 quarters of effort, pressing the ball on rebounds and getting into the paint) so the wins are a function of improving the team flow. They still can’t defend the three point line for anything, but they are compensating in other ways. The trend is toward figuring out what the next iteration of successful Nuggets basketball looks like, so let’s hope that continues regardless of record.
Q: If Will Barton and Gary Harris both continue to prove they deserve starter minutes, which shooting guard do you give them to?
Mares: Harris. Barton has been incredible this year but I think he is best suited coming off of the bench. Harris has been really good lately as well so I think Harris starts, Barton plays more minutes, and both finish close games on the court.
Osby: Harris, mainly because I don't want to see what the bench would look like without Barton’s scoring. Harris is also one of the best perimeter defenders on the team, so I'd want to see him on the other team's best guard most of the time, especially at the start of the game. Barton's energy off the bench has been one of the biggest reasons we've been winning games during this recent stretch, so I don’t want that to be messed with.
Gross: Harris should continue to start. Barton is a great mix-and-match but the bench sorely needs his energy and aggressiveness, while Harris is still letting the game come to him. Gary’s perimeter defense on starting two-guards is also a key to keeping the nuggets in games early and is less needed against bench shooters. Just make sure they both get 25+ minutes a night and it will all work out.
Q: As Emmanuel Mudiay comes back from his ankle injury, should he be worked in off the bench with Jameer Nelson starting, or should Mudiay still run point with the starters for however long he can?
Mares: I want whatever is best for Mudiay’s development since I think him developing into a top 10 point guard is far more important than anything else the team has going on right now. That being said, I kinda think bringing him off of the bench might be the best thing for him. He can still get 25-30 minutes per game and can close games on occasion but he might benefit from starting out on the bench for the first 5 minutes of each game and playing alongside guys like Jokic, Barton, Foye, and Mike Miller.
Osby: I think that mainly depends on how many games he misses. If he misses quite a few, I would definitely be behind him coming off the bench to work himself back into the starting lineup again. His conditioning may need some time to get back to what it was, so he may not be able to play as many minutes as he was playing before the injury. I don't think he would take it too personally, either, since Michael Malone had Joffrey Lauvergne and Kenneth Faried come off the bench after they returned from injuries. Ultimately, I’m just looking forward to when he can close out games, because that’s way more of a test than starting them.
Gross: I still believe Mudiay is best-served by playing with the best players that the Nuggets have. I would rather have him passing to Gallinari than Papanikolaou - one is more instructive than the other. If he runs into further confidence issues playing against all the great point guards in the West then maybe I’d revisit in order to give him an easier learning environment, but he’s here to be a starter. Let him start. Other than that, I agree with Kayla: his ability to finish games getting those trust minutes is what I’m watching for the rest of the year. Ultimately it’s going to be Mudiay’s team. He’s the one who can push the pace coming up the floor, who can determine how much clock we run and when we attack in the closing minutes. His development of a killer instinct and limiting late-game turnovers is crucial.