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The Nuggets need their “December 15th” moment

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To separate themselves from the pack and be successful this season, the Nuggets need a special moment where everything comes together.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

All hope was lost already.

25 games in, the Denver Nuggets were staring a 9-16 record in the face last year. Coming off a six game road trip, they went 2-4 during that stretch and had lost eight of their last 11 games. The starting lineup was repeatedly putting the team in a hole to begin the game, and while the bench occasionally brought them back into the contest and even came out victorious a couple times, it didn’t matter in the long term. The team was simply bad. Game after game, things just didn’t work the way they were supposed to work.

Then, December 15th happened.

The first home game back from a six-game road trip brought with it a couple of personnel and stylistic changes last year. Gary Harris returned and slotted in for Will Barton as the starting shooting guard, and Nikola Jokic became the starting center in place of Jusuf Nurkic and a true centerpiece through which the entire offense ran. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver played at a fast pace throughout, generating 132 points in a needed win against a division rival.

From December 15th and onward last year, Denver went 31-24 to nearly break into the playoff picture. The vibe around the team changed. Jokic broke out and put up some crazy numbers. The team was fun!

This year, the burden of expectations has changed the vibe of the team. At 13-10, the Nuggets and their fans should be pleased with the positive record, along with some great moments this year. They finally beat the Oklahoma City Thunder with some Paul Millsap heroics at the end. Jamal Murray has had games where he looks like a future All-Star. Jokic set a new career high in a dominating performance against the Brooklyn Nets.

Still, the team looks a bit off.

Last night, they lost to the Dallas Mavericks and frankly were never really close. Millsap and Jokic were out, and Wilson Chandler is clearly still fighting through an injured back. Still, the Mavericks are now 7-17. They aren’t a team Denver should be losing to, even on the road, even with injuries.

From my perspective, this team is still looking for its season-altering moment. There have been good ones so far: Will Barton’s game winner against the Chicago Bulls, Millsap taking over against the Thunder, various Jokic moments. Still, nothing stands out as impactful in the long term sense.

This team is currently 13-10, but their Pythagorean win-loss record is 11-12, a much better indicator of how they have played thus far. A 109.4 offensive rating (7th in the NBA) and a 109.5 defensive rating (22nd) would further suggest that the team has been average this year against subpar competition (24th ranked strength of schedule). There are a number of indicators, combined with the upcoming road trip and injuries to their two best players, that the Nuggets are primed for a losing streak. The next five games are on the road, and Denver just dropped the easiest one of the bunch.

My guess is that Denver steals one of the games on the rest of the five road games and returns to Pepsi Center with a 14-14 record.

It’s curious then that last year, Denver’s season-altering moment happened after a poor six-game road trip. It’s curious that this year, their first home game after the trip is on December 15th against a similar opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans. It’s curious that Nikola Jokic is set to return to the starting lineup following several games removed with an ankle injury.

In order to truly separate themselves from the pack, the Nuggets might consider both personnel and stylistic changes once again. Jokic coming back will be a major boost when it happens, but even with the Joker in the lineup, the Nuggets haven’t been as impressive as they were last year. Stylistic changes may also be afoot in the Mile High City, and the perfect time to make these may be after the current road trip.

As for what those changes might be? A much more difficult question.