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Nick’s Nuggets: 5 things I learned from a 1-3 road trip

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The East is good, Malone’s rotations are not

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Is anyone else more than ready to turn the page on 2019? The Nuggets and I certainly are. After losing 5 out of their last 6, including 3 of 4 on a brutal East Coast road trip, the Nuggets have slipped to 5th in the west, now 6 games behind Satan’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers. As with all things sucky, though, lessons are there for the learning. Here are my five takeaways from the latest hiccup.

The Eastern Conference might be better than the Western Conference

By record, 4 of the top 5 teams in the NBA currently reside in the east. The Nuggets played two of them on this 4-game road trip. The Bucks are obviously Giannis-ing through the league, but there are some surprises, too. The Kyrie-less Celtics are back to playing winning basketball even without Mr. Glass Hayward. The Heat, Sixers, and Raptors have all played as well as any of the top teams in the West, and even the Pacers and Nets have respectable records.

By contrast, only one team has less than 7 losses in the Western Conference, and the bottom two teams currently in playoff spots are below .500. While the Blazers, T-Wolves, and Spurs all have the potential of getting their seasons turned around, the Eastern Conference is playing tougher right now – the first time that’s been true in a long time.

So there’s no shame in losing three road games to three playoff teams in the Eastern Conference including two with a better record while enduring 4 games in 6 nights for the first time all season. But …


The Nuggets are a player away

Something is missing. Scoring springs to mind, considering the Nuggets are significantly worse on the that side of the court than they have been in some time. I don’t know what player they need, but it sure feels like they need someone—if only to shake things up.

Malik Beasley continues to seem out of place, and now the rumors are circling that he could be on the move. What about a deal for Davis Bertans? The 6’10 forward is averaging 16 PPG due in large part to his gaudy 46.5% three-point shooting. How about a tall, pure shooter getting 20 minutes with the second unit instead of Plumlee or Grant, whose offensive limitations and shot selection are really being felt. Maybe there’s a true-shooting swing man or 3-and-D veteran who could help smooth things out? A guard who can actually make a floater?

Speaking of which, perhaps the Nuggets just need one of their own players to step up? Maybe there is a player already on the roster who’s playing solid defense and has traditionally been a great shooter and elite finisher? Maybe this player, who some call “Gary Harris,” could get back to being the player he was two long years ago when he was truly one of the better two-way guards in the league. Maybe?

Maybe might not be good enough. The Nuggets can’t continue to rest on their young laurels, hoping all of their talent blossoms simultaneously. There are more than enough prospects on this team to make a consolidation trade for a player who could help the Nuggets compete this year. It’s time.


Jokic doesn’t need to shoot more

Great news, fellow NuggLifers! Jokic shot a lot more on this road trip! He’s back! Hooray!

The big guy shined after a shocking loss against the hapless Knicks (but that’s what happens when the Joker only takes 7 shots in 25 minutes). Nikola bounced back, though, with 21 shots in both games against the Celtics and Nets, scoring 30 points and 24 points respectively in the two big road wins!

*checks notes*

Wait … the Nuggets got creamed by the Celtics? And they couldn’t score against the Nets down the stretch, again?

*checks head for brain injury*

And they beat the Knicks by like 100 points?

*returns to reality*

OK, so maybe Jokic’s demeanor and BMI isn’t the whole reason the offense is broken. Maybe he’s actually just been struggling a bit with his outside shooting, and maybe there are 11 other guys on this team who need to make the wide-open shots they consistently get. And maybe Coach Malone and Jamal Murray were right when they said that the Nuggets’ all-star is playing just fine.

Weird.


Malone needs to figure out his rotation

Seeing MPJ in the first quarter of last night’s game in Philadelphia was a surprise. So was not seeing him again until the fourth quarter, when the game was tight. Also surprising was the Torrey Craig sighting somewhere around the time that Juancho played his one whole minute after averaging 16 over the last 5 games.

Look, I liked the idea of a bullpen-style bench that could be tweaked based on match-up when Malone first analogized it. But it’s not working. The bench has improved a bit but remains a shadow of its former self, and the players are obviously struggling to find any kind of offensive rhythm. I can buy the argument that one player may need to be switched in or out based on match-up, but, like many baseball managers, Malone may be overthinking his rotations here.

This is really just to say that …


MPJ needs more minutes (or how I learned to stop worrying and LET THE KID PLAY)

Yes, he makes mistakes. Yes, he is learning on the job. Yes, he’s not strong enough to withstand contact. But the simple fact is that when MPJ is on the court, he is long, active, disruptive, and effective. Do you think Philly’s defenders would rather guard Jerami Grant or MPJ? How about Juancho or MPJ? Really? The kid has so many more tools to play with than any other body on Denver’s bench, and we know he’s going to continue to improve. So why not give him consistent playing time?

I have gone back and forth on the MPJ problem since preseason. A few Nick’s Nuggets ago I argued that MPJ was being handled correctly, in fact. And maybe, in a vacuum, he is. But the bench isn’t cruising the way it did last year. Monte isn’t diming, and Plumlee isn’t finishing. Grant isn’t knocking down threes or finishing at the rim (or doing much of anything useful, honestly), and Beasley looks like he’s the one who just walked onto the team. All of this has led to the bench being a liability in almost every game this season.

MPJ is The Answer. If he’s terrible and other teams go on 22-6 runs when he’s in, it won’t be any worse than what we’re getting now, and at least he will be getting closer to being the star this team desperately needs on offense.

So, that’s it—I’m officially all in on MPJ. He is the spark the Nuggets need in 2020.

Or maybe he’s the spark I need.

Either way, it’s time.