The Los Angeles Clippers were without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick when they faced the Denver Nuggets the day after Christmas. Despite the opponent being severely shorthanded, when the Nuggets emerged victorious from the brief road trip to California most felt it was a solid victory for a young team trying to learn how to be consistent in the thick of the NBA schedule. After dropping back to back games in different yet equally discouraging fashions, snatching a victory in LA set Denver up for a three game win streak to close out 2016 with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers coming to town. Alas, a down to the wire win against the Wolves was followed with the Nuggets sleepwalking their way to a 124-122 loss to one of the worst teams in the Association.
As much as it should anger the fans that Denver let a golden opportunity slip away from them, it should hardly come as a surprise. The fact of the matter is four players out of Coach Michael Malone’s nine player rotation are guys who are age twenty-two or younger. That type of inexperience lends itself to mental lapses which lead to losses like the one against Philadelphia. As coach said “when you win a few games you start to feel pretty good about yourself and you forget why you’ve been winning games...we’re not a team that can just show up.” Coach also mentioned the team lacked focus in shoot around and he thought that carried over to the game, evident in the poor effort Denver gave on close outs. He’s got a point, in the clip below after Jameer Nelson gets lost around a screen, T.J. McConnell kicks out to a wide open Hollis Thompson in the corner who buries an uncontested three because neither Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray nor Will Barton felt the need to attempt a closeout.
This type of lapse in effort and focus has been the norm for the Nuggets this season. After opening the season with a promising 3-3 record that felt a lot closer to 5-1, Denver proceeded to drop their next four games, including an embarrassing loss to the Detroit Pistons at home. However, when the team came home for five of seven games they gutted out a 4-3 record that again was so close to being much better. Unfortunately, Denver followed that stretch up with two of the most lifeless performances of the season, first against a hapless Miami Heat team at home and then against a tired Houston Rockets squad who also was on the road. While the game against Miami was close and a loss to the supremely talented Rockets seems understandable, it was the nature of the losses that made them inexcusable. Lifeless, effortless defense allowed the Rockets to score 128 points after getting to Denver at 5 AM the same day. As coach put it that night “that’s a lot of bad basketball.” Those two games were the precursor to a supremely disappointing 2-4 road trip against the bottom quarter of the Eastern Conference. And yet, in true Nuggets fashion, Denver would return home from that disappointing trip and win their next three games.
At the end of the day, this pattern is exactly what fans and media should be expecting of this team. The fact of the matter is this team is currently right in the hunt for the final seed of the playoffs because of two major reasons: A. It’s barely January and B. the drop off from the top seven teams in the Western Conference and the rest of the teams is pretty sharp. If the Nuggets end up securing a playoff spot this season it will be an accomplishment the franchise can truly hang their hat on, but the odds of them getting there being due to the relative collection of mediocre talent in the 8-13 slots of the West rather than Denver making a significant jump towards becoming a Finals contender are pretty good. The Nuggets very well could make the playoffs as a 40 win team, which is good but it’s still light years away from where they need to be to upset a team like the Golden State Warriors (who would unceremoniously sweep the Nuggets right out of the playoffs).
This shouldn’t discourage the growing collection of Nuggets fans (yes, they’re growing, you can see it at the Pepsi Center, slowly but surely). There is plenty to be excited about on the court right now. Nikola Jokic is legitimately taking the next step in his progression. The advanced metrics always said last season that he was a stud, but the minutes per game tempered expectations and left questions about whether his torrent pace was sustainable for 30+ minutes a contest. Now those questions are going to the wayside and are replaced with just how good can this kid really be? Jamal Murray has seen his production fall off but that’s due to the fact that Gary Harris has returned and continues to look better every day. Even Emmanuel Mudiay appears to be turning a corner, turning the ball over more than twice just one time in his past seven games, while also scoring in double figures in five of those same seven contests. This inconsistent young core is developing, and developing pretty nicely.
The hard sell for the organization is this period of their rebuild. There’s hope to be found all across this roster but there’s also inconsistency and turmoil. Jusuf Nurkic made sure everybody knew how frustrated he was with his lack of playing time, and Kenneth Faried, when asked, has been honest about his desire to start. This is the price that the Nuggets have to pay for having a roster filled with young assets, they won’t be able to find playing time for all of them and they won’t be able to keep them all focused for every game. That in-turn will cause them to lose games like the one they did on Saturday. Fans are hungry for a winner and they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s no magical formula for this team to regain relevancy. There’s only patience while they continue to take their lumps and continue to battle to be a .500 basketball team, which when it’s all said and done, is exactly where they should be and maybe, just maybe, will be enough for a surprise playoff birth.