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Denver Stiffs Round Table: Reactions to the young season

We try to answer some of the big questions floating around the minds of all Nuggets fans after the first two weeks of the NBA season.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

What is the team's record (3-4) compared to what you thought their record would be at this point in the season after a long five-game road trip?

Zach Mikash (ZachMikash): I suppose I’d have to say their record is right where I thought it would be. I had them going 2-3 on the road trip (though I totally missed on who the Nuggets would and would not beat) and that’s just what happened. What’s interesting though is I thought I was being fairly optimistic with that projection, I thought 1-4 was perhaps an even more plausible outcome, and 0-5 was certainly in the realm of possibility. Yet, in hindsight, the Nuggets should have gone 3-2, if not 4-1 on this trip, I’m not sure if we should be encouraged by how competitive they were on the trip, or discouraged by how poor their end game execution was.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): After 6 of their first 7 on the road, 3-4 is pretty respectable and about what I thought they’d have. 4-3 would have been really good in my mind, before the season started. It’s hard to ratchet expectations back when you see how close the games are and how this choice or that move or this turnover or that botched play could have changed everything. It’s harder to lose close games than blowouts. At least in blowouts you know there was little the team could have done on that night. The Nuggets are where I thought they’d be looking at the schedule, but not where I feel like they should be watching the games.

Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica): If I was being completely realistic, I probably would have predicted a 3-4 record at this point in the season. I would have guessed that we would have won the only home game so far and won 2 of the 6 road games we’ve played. As Zach said, I never would have guessed that we would have beaten the Boston Celtics rather than the Detroit Pistons or lost to the Portland Trail Blazers at home rather than the New Orleans Pelicans on the road. Still, our record hurts right now only because it so easily could be 2 or 3 games better.  Oh well.  If we win against the Golden State Warriors, I’ll get over it.

Who has been the most pleasantly surprising player this young season and who has been the most disappointing?

Mikash: Jusuf Nurkic has been the most pleasant surprise for me. It’s not all that surprising though. Juka put in the work at the gym, if you followed him on social media or were lucky enough to visit the Nuggets practice courts in the offseason it was apparent Nurkic was working his butt off. Then he dominated pre-season. Indeed, there was every indication that he would get off to a fast start, but I guess I was still in show me mode until we started playing games that counted and Juka answered the call. Most disappointing has to be Nikola Jokic, though I’m not sure how much blame lies with the big Serb himself. For a multitude of reasons, chiefly Jokic’s lack of lateral quickness on D and Nurkic’s ball dominant play on O, Jokic hasn’t been able to reproduce the production per minute he had last year (save for the one game against the Portland Trail Blazers). Sophomore more slumps are often over hyped, but with a new offense, and nearly two years of non-stop basketball, Jokic is prime to disappoint early this season.

Gross: Since Zach went with Nurkic, I’ll take Wilson Chandler as my most pleasant surprise of the beginning of the season. I vividly remember how long it took Danilo Gallinari to get back in the flow after all those missed months with a leg injury, and Chandler has blown away that timeline. He looks fluid out there, his shot is falling, he is defending 1 through 5… what’s not to like? Chandler has been killing it, so here’s hoping the hamstring is a quick healing issue. Most disappointing to me would be Mudiay.  He’s found his scoring touch the last two games but he’s still making the most bone-headed of turnovers and has regressed on that front to the beginning of last year, before his ankle injury gave him time to reflect. Playing with different lineups hasn’t helped his comfort factor, but he’s averaging 5 turnovers a game. That’s untenable. Mudiay has got to protect the ball and create assists on offense, and he’s got to do it soon. He’s one of the reasons Denver’s record is not what it should be.

Osby: I’ll go with a third option for pleasant surprise and say Kenneth Faried. Although his numbers are down from his career averages (not surprising considering he’s coming off the bench) he has made arguably just as much, if not more, of an impact on the team. His defense is very much improved and he has not lost an ounce of the energy that he has built his career on. The reason why this is such a surprise is because I was concerned that he would start the season with a bummed-out attitude due to losing his starting spot to a second-year player.  However, it seems as though he has fully accepted his new role, and the Nuggets are better for it. The most disappointing player this season to me is definitely Jokic, only because he showed such brilliant flashes last season (and still is this season) but has not had the opportunity to really thrive and become the all-star that we all know he can be. Hopefully with more minutes and experience in the new rotation, this will change.

Emmanuel Mudiay struggled to start the season, but has come alive in the last two games (32 points and 23 points vs. the Boston Celtics and the Memphis Grizzlies). Do you think these two games are a sign that he is rounding the corner, or do you think we will continue to see many more games of him struggling before these last two performances become a regular occurrence?

Mikash: As much as I want to be encouraged by it, I just can’t, not yet at least. The 24 points in the first quarter of the Celtics game is obviously an anomaly, not the norm. The Memphis game was encouraging in that it took him just 13 shots to get those 23 points. Scoring efficiency has been the second biggest issue with Mudiay in his young career and the reason why I can’t say I'm fully encouraged is because the biggest issue so far in his career, turnovers, was as rampant as ever in both those games. He had 7 each game, a ridiculous number for your starting point guard and something that he must improve upon, when he does that consistently over at least 10 games, then I’ll start believing he has truly turned the corner.

Gross: I’m not sure I’d point to the Grizzlies game as a highlight either, even though he scored well. Mudiay started off the first half of last year with more assists (and turnovers) and worse scoring aptitude. He called his own number more in the second half and had fewer assists for it, but it made some sense. This year he’s calling his own number plenty, has dropped his assists through the floor and ratcheted his turnovers even higher than the first half of last year. Mudiay is driving to score and botching the opportunities he has to create for others. I expect he will struggle the first half of this year to get the balance right and to get comfortable with the new lineups. I hope to see him score consistently by year-end and use that increased scoring prowess to create for others when defenses see him as a threat - but I expect it to be a bumpy road getting there.

Osby: I think he may have rounded a corner as far as being able to score effectively without taking a bunch of unnecessary shots (just look at his field-goal percentage the last two games compared to the first five). He seems to have gained his confidence in that area. These games have shown us that he can be efficient from the field, but the biggest test is whether he can do that on a consistent basis. I think he can, but it will take some time. Still, as Zach and Gordon have pointed out, it seems as though he’s still going through some serious growing pains, mostly resulting in turnovers. Once he cuts those down and gets back into the passing groove while still being able to score efficiently, he'll be looking much better.

Memphis really relied on Marc Gasol throughout the game on Tuesday night and went to him down the stretch to help win the game. Is this something the Nuggets should be dong with Jusuf Nurkic, or should we wait until get gets more experience?

Mikash: Nurkic is currently at 23.2% usage, whether intentional or not, the Nuggets are already running a lot of their possessions through him. Despite some high scoring and rebounding output, he’s been pretty turnover prone and hasn’t converted his post touches into points as frequently as I would like. Eventually Denver will get to the point where Nurkic is a big focal point of their offense and they design plays for him with regular frequency, but I’d wager that time is at least two years away. For now the Nuggets should still be trusting in their vets the most and especially down the stretch. Danilo Gallinari is still the best player on the team, and in crunch time the best player on the team should be the one getting the majority of the action on offense.

Gross: Taking care of the ball is mission #1 right now, and Nurkic is already not great at that. He’s responsible for the second-most turnovers on the team, behind only Mudiay.  I’m not sure Denver can feed Nurkic and run the offense through him until they are sure the ball will come back out once they feed him and are sure that he knows how to distribute it.  Nikola Jokic is missing some of his passing polish in the early going as well, so it’s not just a Nurkic thing. Denver has not figured out how best to maximize their big men.  In the future I would love to see them punishing teams down the stretch with their front court, but I wouldn’t expect Nurkic to handle Gasol-like duties in the immediate future.

Osby: When I was watching the Grizzlies game, I saw a flash of the future for the Nuggets, if they play their cards right. I definitely think Nurkic can be that player that gets the ball in late-game situations like Marc Gasol does. He has the skill and the size to really take advantage of most of his defenders. While we have a few players that could end up being a go-to guy later in their careers, I think having a big man to feed the ball into down low is a great option to have. I think the next time Nurk is having a great game and it’s close down the stretch, we should see what happens when making him the first option. Who knows if it will be good or bad, but the only way for him to get to the level of Gasol is through that experience.