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Denver Nuggets: Will 2016 bring the next step

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Are better days on the horizon for the boys in blue? One graph makes it look like things may be finally settling down.

Gary Harris has taken a huge step forward in his second year, and the team may not be far behind
Gary Harris has taken a huge step forward in his second year, and the team may not be far behind
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I felt the change was at the end of the Denver Nuggets overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors, and not in the data, but in a candid comment from Michael Malone, well-captured an interview post-game by the Denver Post's Chris Dempsey:

"We have to have better late-game execution," said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who was denied what would have been a signature win. "Late in that game, we had a couple of blown sets, didn't run the right plays. . . . We've had enough moral victories this year. We don't need any more."

Malone was simply responding to a "silver lining" question from a reporter looking for the upside of having pushed the champs to OT. Malone was having none of it, and it seems his players are marching to the same drum. They've worked hard to improve for 42 games this season, and the losses are salt in the wound. It's time some of that hard work started paying off, but those rewards won't come without a few more improvements from the team.

Denver Nuggets fans, it's getting better. Tuesday night started the second half of the season, and in many small ways, things actually look to be getting better. But can you tell? Maybe. Probably not. Why not? You could be too close to the problem.

Disciplines as diverse as psychology, climatology, astrophysics, weight loss, and competitive water-boiling agree: Incremental progress can be a bitch to recognize, especially for the closest observers. It's why we use data to try and observe patterns over a longer haul, to verify one thing: that all those micro-observations we've been making at the two-inch level add up to what our gut is telling us. Does our notion of things still hold water at a 10,000 foot view? It's often why it's hard to see change as the fan of a team who keeps close tabs on the club year-round. It's like a spouse being the last to recognize their partner's weight loss. They just saw every step of the way, and those tenth-of-a-pound increments are hard to "witness". Whereas the friend you run into a year later just sees a lot less you.

But the Nuggets... getting better? Are you certain? A tough notion to support when looking at wins and losses. A year ago yesterday, Brian Shaw had guided the team to a win-loss record two wins better than this year's squad.

Looking at the arc between then and now is interesting, and came with a little help. In the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Altitude Network put up an interesting stat, showing that each of the Nuggets last 10 home games had ended with a result within +/- 10 points. The broadcast team used the graphic to show how close Denver's recent home games had been.

Ten games (even home games) is not insignificant in the course of a season, and that pattern bears fruit when adding in road games. The Altitude stat reminded me of a cool infographic view that Basketball-Reference.com shows near the top of a team's page, by season. The graphic charts the wins and losses of a season, and their magnitude. The color of a line is either green (a win), or red (a loss). The graphic below is last seasons' chart for the Nuggets.

Graphic copied from basketball-reference.com

The small blue arrow I added near the center shows a loss to the San Antonio Spurs a year ago and the litany of deep losses that followed, finally ending Brian Shaw's tenure with the club. Though interim coach Melvin Hunt got the pattern back into the win column, many of the losses during that time frame were still fairly dramatic.

Though this year's chart is incomplete, the pattern Altitude called out has an even longer tail...

Graphic copied from basketball-reference.com

Some pretty dramatic results in the first quarter of the season. The second quarter-season looks like an earthquake finally settling, doesn't it? Tail of a seismic event.

Though the national media hasn't picked up on the trend, the Nuggets mistakes are fewer and further between with every passing game. Thank goodness, as two-and-a-half seasons of what-the-hell-was that has been rough on the dwindling attention span of the local fan base, narrowing the conversation to we sick few. But as cohesion approaches, a regular refrain has risen from coaches, players, and many close to the team. They say they believe this team is a few short steps from a winning brand of basketball with a young core and a young coach who is popular amongst the squad.

The next step seems to be eliminating the gaps in focus and simple mistakes. They've already narrowed that margin by a fair bit since the season began, but the devil is int he details, and half done is not enough to make things right. Can they finish that step in the second half of 2016? Is it realistic to expect another step so big in the second half of the year? What say you, Nuggets Nation... What can we expect by the end of this campaign?

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REMINDER: STIFFS NIGHT OUT WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 3RD
Join us at Jake's Sports & Spirits (3800 Walnut Street, Denver, CO 80205) as our Nuggets take on the Jazz in Utah at 7pm. 
Attendees can win Denver Stiffs T-shirts and Nuggets tickets and Jake's will be serving 50-cent wings for us all night long. 
We hope to see you there!

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