The fun has to end at some point, and as of today, the Denver Nuggets only have ten more games to play before the end of the 2015-16 season for them.
There are five home games - Dallas (3/28), Sacramento (4/2), Oklahoma City (4/5), San Antonio (4/8), Utah (4/10) - and five road games - Lakers (3/25), Clippers (3/27), Memphis (3/30), New Orleans (3/31), Portland (4/13).
It's been an entertaining season, at least more fun that the debacle that the previous season was. Yes, the Nuggets are likely to miss the playoffs once again, but the culture around the organization feels more positive and their trajectory is trending in the right direction. Michael Malone is a head coach the organization can build with, there are young players with room to grow, and the front office is making solid decisions with the opportunities given to them.
It'll be sad to see the season end for the Nuggets, but as they say in one of my favorite songs from high school, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end ... yeah."
Where the Nuggets are
The Nuggets have less than a 0.1 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to the ESPN BPI playoff odds, meaning that their odds at the No. 1 pick are greater than their odds of a postseason berth. Basketball-Reference predicts the Nuggets to finish with the 10th-best record in the Western Conference, which gives them about a 67 percent chance of finishing 9th-11th in the league standings.
The usual suspects are likely to be shelved for the remainder of the season, and it remains to be seen if Kenneth Faried will recover from his low sack soreness. Personally, I'd like to see him play, but if his back is giving him problems, let him rest.
Emmanuel Mudiay has already made more field goals this month than any other month of the season, and his usage rate is back up to his November rate. He's nearly averaging 17-5-5 in March, all while shooting 40/42/72, which isn't anything to scoff at. His backcourt partner Gary Harris is also averaging a season-high in points per game in March, with 15.9 per, and his offensive role should continue on through the final ten games.
There was a lot of hype earlier in the season for Will Barton as the NBA 6th Man of the Year, back when he was blowing up in December games with 20.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. His play has really tailed off as the season has worn on, and March has been a real drag for him. If he can break out of his slump, he could make a run at impressing the voters and get back in that discussion. The minutes are there, he just needs to make more out of the opportunities given to him.
Barton is my pick for "NBA player most likely to score 40 points or more in a random April game" that is a NBA tradition. I'm circling that game against the Spurs, hoping that Gregg Popovich rests his starters (especially Kawhi), Barton ignites the crowd with a big dunk early and feeds off the energy for the rest of the game.
What is left for the Nuggets
The Nuggets are left to hope for the Grizzlies to just come crashing down to earth at some point. Dave Joerger is doing something else with that team, and they look like they'll be a playoff team despite not having Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and a dozen other injured players to be named later. Sadly, with Chandler Parsons being shelved for the remainder of the season, it looks like the Mavericks will slide out of the playoffs and the Grizzlies will be able to stay in, which is a bummer.
The Nuggets are going to be scoreboard watching for the Rockets and Trail Blazers, hoping to get something from the Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson trades, and the race for the final four seeds in the playoffs is going to be entertaining.
My prediction? I could see the Jazz, Grizzlies and Trail Blazers finishing with a 43-39 record and the Rockets and Mavericks finishing with a 40-42 record. This would create tiebreaker mayhem, which I am in favor of. The team that gets to play the Clippers should be the most grateful, because the other matchups look pretty one-sided.
|Memphis Grizzlies||Portland Trail Blazers||Dallas Mavericks||Utah Jazz||Houston Rockets|
|3/25 @ Spurs||3/24 @ Clippers||3/25 @ Warriors||3/24 @ Thunder||3/25 Raptors|
|3/28 Spurs||3/26 76ers||3/27 @ Kings||3/26 @ Timberwolves||3/27 @ Pacers|
|3/30 Nuggets||3/28 Kings||3/28 @ Nuggets||3/28 Lakers||3/29 @ Cavaliers|
|4/1 @ Raptors||3/31 Celtics||3/30 Knicks||3/30 Warriors||3/31 Bulls|
|4/3 @ Magic||4/2 Heat||4/1 @ Pistons||4/1 Timberwolves||4/3 Thunder|
|4/5 Bulls||4/3 @ Warriors||4/3 @ Timberwolves||4/3 @ Suns||4/6 @ Mavericks|
|4/8 @ Mavericks||4/5 @ Kings||4/6 Rockets||4/5 Spurs||4/7 4/7 Suns|
|4/9 Warriors||4/6 Thunder||4/8 Grizzlies||4/8 Clippers||4/10 Lakers|
|4/12 @ Clippers||4/9 Timberwolves||4/10 @ Clippers||4/10 @ Nuggets||4/11 @ Timberwolves|
|4/13 @ Warriors||4/13 Nuggets||4/11 @ Jazz||4/11 Mavericks||4/13 Kings|
|4/13 Spurs||4/13 @ Lakers|
Their best-case scenario for the draft is the Knicks getting cold-enveloped and "winning" the No. 1 pick, the Grizzlies finishing ninth and sending the No. 14 pick, with the Rockets and Trail Blazers finishing in the playoffs but with a worse record than their Eastern Conference playoff peers and sending the No. 15 and 16 pick over. It's far more conceivable that the Nuggets end up with the No. 8 pick (thanks Carmelo!), the No. 15 pick (thanks Ty Lawson!) and the No. 17 pick (thanks Arron Afflalo!).
What comes next for the Nuggets
The Nuggets offseason should feature impact players returning to the roster. The Nuggets will likely have three of the top 20 picks in the 2016 draft, and these are players that will hopefully make an impact for the next 3 to 7 years of the franchise.
But in my opinion, the biggest acquisition that the Nuggets will make in the offseason is the return of Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari to full health.
I think shutting down Gallinari for the remainder of the 2015 season is the right call, giving him the opportunity to enter the offseason healthy and able to focus on conditioning rather than rehabilitation. He can work on strengthening his core, improving his perimeter jumper, and take a break from getting fouled time after time on drives to the basket.
I think that having Wilson Chandler healthy and able to contribute to the team will make a huge difference. Chandler is an experienced veteran, and will be one of the older players on the team. A year away from playing in games that matter has to be irritating, and hopefully that draw to be back and able to contribute helps Chandler have an efficient, productive season with the Nuggets. I'm looking forward to not seeing "Wilson Chandler, hip (out)" on injury reports day after day and seeing "Wilson Chandler, huge dunk" on postgame reports instead.
The salary cap could end up around $90 million next season, and the Nuggets would have about $61 million committed to their roster if the options for Darrell Arthur, Joffrey Lauvergne and JaKarr Sampson are exercised, according to Basketball Insiders. After the lottery, the team will have a better idea of the salary commitments to their new players, and those salaries can be found on Larry Coon's excellent CBA website.
If they end up with picks 8, 15, and 17, I don't see them keeping Lauvergne if Arthur exercises his option. One of those two players most likely won't be on the roster in 2016-17. Lauvergne makes two times more than Sampson, and Sampson has been a solid defender at small forward that looks to be a safety net in case of injuries on the wing.
That leaves about $25 million to spend in free agency for ... one roster spot. The Nuggets would have to spend about $16 million to reach the salary floor, which I think is much more likely to happen. The Nuggets don't seem like they're about to drop $20 million on a free agent to help get them over the hump, unless a small forward that plays for a Northwest Division team decides to come to Denver.
My hope is that the Nuggets sign a backup center, a veteran guy that can provide depth behind Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. The Nuggets can afford to overpay a little, and they don't have to worry about it hurting their books with so many low-paid players on the roster.
If Lauvergne does sign somewhere else, I'd be in favor of taking a run at a center with an equally impressive beard - Miles Plumlee. We're already calling Lauvergne "Kilometres Plumlee," might as well ditch the metric system for America.
Stick with Denver Stiffs for more offseason coverage, and let's hope the team continues making progress back towards playoff contention next season.