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Who do the Denver Nuggets want to be when they grow up?

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As Denver (hopefully) turns a corner, there are still some curious points to ponder on where the team heads from here

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets
My. Ball.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If you know me at all, you know that I married up, far outside my projected abilities. People who know us as a couple must assume I am wealthy or have damning evidence about a dear family member she cares deeply for. Sadly, neither is true. Somehow, I nabbed the brass ring on this one, anyway. I’m the relationship equivalent of the NBA player who sits at the far end of a championship bench for a season and eventually receives a ring for 13 total minutes of scrub time. That said, this New Year’s Eve will make 15 years that this crazy girl has not noticed what crappy deal she got in the bargain. Please don’t tell her and mess it all up.

Like any partnership, it’s certainly not always perfect. When we were younger, we struggled in moments of intense pressure, and didn’t always behave the way one would hope to in a tough moment. Eventually, we had to take a step back and decide who we wanted to be when we grew up. From there, we made our best choices, learned from our mistakes, swallowed a metric crap-ton of pride, and worked our asses off to succeed. Sprinkle in some good fortune, and we’re still around for a “crystal anniversary”, whatever the hell that is. Oh, and I decided to still not grow up. Please don’t tell her and mess it all up.

Your Denver Nuggets are navigating this season in a space similar to our early years, experiencing a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in wins, let alone losses. There have been moments of sheer excitement and joy (see: Jokic, Nikola) and moments of pain and despair (see: defense, consistent). Said tumult is often a hallmark of the growing pains of a young partnership, marriage, or team. Sadly, for much of the last year-plus, the only thing that’s been consistent about this young Denver squad is its inconsistency.

In the seven games since head coach Michael Malone has shaken up the starting lineup, the Nuggets are 5-2, and a general rotation seems to be taking shape. But even as their on-court record shifts to the positive, there are a number of questions looming about what exactly this team is trying to be when it grows up. For instance…

Defense First

From the moment Malone arrived on the scene, the coach has stated that these Nuggets would be playing from a defense-first mindset. While Malone has stayed consistent in that message, the team has not necessarily rounded the notion into shape, and currently “enjoys” the seventh-worst defensive rating in the league.

But is the lack of defensive presence due to a team full of players who are simply ignoring the instruction of their passionate coach? Or is it more likely that there are a number of players on the roster who are giving what they have, but are still below-average defenders?

A cursory glance would say it’s the latter, with a few above-average-to-good defenders in Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jusuf Nurkic, and Nikola Jokic. Even that rating is kind to some of the sporadic efforts seen on the defensive end by parts of this group. Beyond that, much of the remainder of the team grades out as average or below.

Can a team truly be “Defense-first” if the components parts don’t average out to above-average defenders? If not, does Malone’s plan change, or does the personnel? Even a well-executed system can’t hide a multitude of flaws.

Bench Depth

Depth is one of the key strengths of this Nuggets squad, as often called out by the front office and coaching staff this season. The play-ability of every player on the Denver roster. In many successful Nuggets season past, a deep roster often meant the ability to usher in a second wave that could be starters on many other teams. With this Nuggets’ primarily youthful roster, depth can often mean “whoever is hot tonight”.

Now that the Nuggets are starting to settle in on a starting five, the second unit has struggled a bit, with one or two players needing to be “hot” to maintain pace with the other team. Granted, seven games is a small sample, and there have been a few spectacular bench performances turned in, notably by Will Barton and Kenneth Faried, but some cohesion in the second wave is going to be a key factor in moving forward as a team.

Are the Nuggets as deep as they believe, or simply shallow and wide? If the latter, does that also require personnel changes as a solution?

Play the game the right way

A commonly voiced theme amongst players and coaches alike through the last year has been a call to “play the game the right way”. The phrase is typically used in terms of continuous improvement and being attentive to the game situationally. Topics include: Good defense leading to fast offense, passing to find the open man, and taking care of the ball.

It’s sensible that those topics are hammered home so often by way of a mantra, especially with a squad so impressionable. Similarly, each of the three above have been a struggle for the team this season, especially in losses. Here’s how.

Good defense leading to fast offense. We already covered the team’s general defensive rating, so the rest of the sentence is tough to come by until that defensive number improves. The blossoming cohesion of the starting five has shown moments of improved defensive play, with many of the Nuggets best defenders on the currently-starting squad. Not surprisingly, those have also correlated to the recent win streak. In games in which the defensive rating of the starting five was in the flat-to-positive category, the Nuggets also had each starter score in double digits. Solid defense leading to positive, shared offense. The starting five each had double-digit scoring totals in four of those five wins… In the two losses, only three of the five could manage double digits.

Passing to find the open man. Not surprisingly, this category is a mixed bag, with guys who can light it up in the assists category like Jameer Nelson, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Nikola Jokic amongst the mix. Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Danilo Gallinari all average above two dimes per game as well. At moments, Denver’s passing game can be a thing of beauty that makes for fun and simple basketball. Those moments are often mitigated by late-game nerves leading to iso-ball and poor decisions. Poor decisions often leading troubles in…

Taking care of the ball. Denver has been doing a better job in the turnover department of late, but still has miles to go before real improvement is realized. Even with those improvements, the Nuggets still rank as the seventh-worst T/O offender in the league. How much has the team improved over this win streak? In the first 24 games of the season, Denver was coughing the ball up 16.14 times a game. Since the shift, the last seven games have seen a 13.41 turnover-per-game clip. Turnover-per-100 possessions percentages follow suit closely.

Incongruities between what you say you want to be, and what you do… A tough part of growing up for any person, couple, partnership, or team. In many ways, the team seems to have turned a corner of late. But as a couple of recent wins have evidenced, the line is very fine between good behavior and bad for Denver, Nuggets Nation. How does Denver become a more defensive squad? A more-regularly deep bench? To play the game “the right way” with all that that entails? Is the only solution to those questions to change players or change plans? Or can the current roster be something they haven’t consistently been yet?