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Stranger Things: the Nuggets are stuck in the Upside Down

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Can they get out before the Demogorgon finds them?

Stranger Things is a pitch-perfect homage to great horror and youth-centered 80s movies, a pastiche of the influences of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, put together by the Duffer Brothers and picked up by Netflix. If you haven’t seen Season One, do so - Season Two drops today, and in honor of that we’re here to talk about a serious problem in Denver: the Nuggets look trapped in the Upside Down.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a spoiler-filled primer. If you don’t want to be completely spoiled, then just take this summary of the show: everything is bright and hopeful for a small town until a child goes missing and his friends set out to find him, crossing paths with a young girl with supernatural powers, a shadowy government agency (of course) and a horror from a mirror realm filled with nightmares.

Welcome to the horror-show that has been the 2017-18 Denver Nuggets in their first few games. It’s been a terrible alternate universe filled with scary signs and warnings. Last year’s offense was third in points; this year’s has been 28th so far. Last year they were second in assists, this year 21st. The 2016-17 Nuggets had a fun offense full of slashing wings and buttery-smooth off-ball action, centered around Nikola Jokic.

As we know, this year has been anything but that. So when did this happen? When did the Nuggets get stuck behind the wall between worlds, stretching wallpaper but unable to leave the darkness? Maybe it was when Jusuf Nurkic was traded to the team that would kick Denver out of the playoffs. The Nuggets still played good offensive basketball after that, however, despite losing out to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Most signs and portents point toward the draft, a night normally gleefully celebrated by Denver fans as the day they gain on the rest of the league. This team is built on the backbone of good drafts, but the abject misery of June 22nd will live in infamy for quite a while. Cluttering up the team with more power forwards instead of consolidating it or filling needs felt like the first steps into a dark, foreboding world, and even signing Paul Millsap is upside down for a team that counts Earl Boykins as a top-5 free agent signing of the last quarter-century.

And look where we are now. Nikola Jokic leads the team in defensive rating. Jokic, who had trouble defending obstinate tree stumps last year, has been Denver’s best defender on what might tentatively be called an improved squad on that end. Jamal Murray is a deadeye three point shooter in practice, making them with ease from half-court. In games this year? He’s 2-for-19.

This switch from offensive juggernaut to crawling mess has not been missed by national observers, either. From Zach Lowe’s article today:

Denver is crawling at the league's sixth-slowest pace after humming at the seventh-fastest a year ago. Possessions die after one or two actions, and Denver doesn't have the scoring or passing oomph along the perimeter to make do with isolations and impromptu pick-and-rolls. Gary Harris pulls up one dribble early. Emmanuel Mudiay can't shoot from anywhere, or defend anyone. Jamal Murray's 3-pointer remains theoretical. On one stagnant trip against Charlotte Wednesday, Mason Plumlee attempted a post move. It went badly.

These Denver Nuggets have only vaguely resembled last year’s. Someone kidnapped the things that are great about them and all of Nuggets fandom is out searching for them in the night with flashlights. Fans freaked out when Jokic didn’t score for six quarters, but maybe he was too busy flashing messages in Christmas lights, sending warnings and looking for a way out.

Denver’s front office can’t panic after a week, but they have to be looking for answers. More weapons might help, and a care pack including a nail-spiked bat and some gasoline traps might just be sitting in Phoenix waiting to be retrieved. But weaponry alone didn’t solve the Demogorgon problem in Stranger Things. They had to fight fire with fire, and let one supernatural creation destroy another.

To extract the Nuggets from this nightmare, Denver will have to free Jokic - again - and let his powers fight this fight. Ordinary methods won’t cut it; Denver hasn’t got enough normal flesh-and-blood weapons to succeed that way. Hopefully this nightmare resolves itself by Halloween. If not, we’ll all be Joyce Byers looking for her son.