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The Sixth Man: Three origins to Denver’s five-game losing streak and three ways to escape it

With yet another injury to a key piece, the Nuggets find themselves in another precarious spot early in the season

The sources to the collapse

Health

This is the most obvious and impactful origin to Denver’s losing streak. Any team in any league without their stars will lose a significant amount of production and success. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, there are not as deep as they have been in past seasons, and even their depth pieces are getting injured. PJ Dozier seems to have a fairly notable knee injury that could keep him out for a considerable amount of time. Bones Hyland, maybe their most explosive bench piece, is also injured and could miss multiple games.

There is no coincidence to losing five straight and four of those games without Jokic. He is truly the most valuable player to his team because without him, they are a completely different group and have lost their identity. Denver is a playoff team with just Jokic in the lineup but with Murray and MPJ they are championship contenders. Those two will be out for multiple months and MPJ possibly the entire season. A season of hope is beginning to dwindle before our eyes, yet it gives this team another opportunity to prove their resiliency.

It feels like the constant injury battles are starting to creep into the mind of the whole team. The Nuggets were competing well last night until PJ fell awkwardly on his knee and since that moment, they appeared dejected. The rest of the season might be a test of mental toughness. Focusing and lamenting on the uncontrollable factors like injuries will get you blown out like it did last night, so Denver will need to come together and embrace their underdog mentality once again.

Defense

What was once one of the best defenses in the NBA has turned into one of the worst during this five-game skid. Prior to last night, Denver had the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA during the last 4 games at 119.2. They are also allowing 115.5 points per game during that span which again is second-worst in the league. They have now allowed five straight opponents to eclipse the 100 mark after a historic pace of keeping opponents below that mark. Nikola Jokic had a lot to do with Denver’s defensive success and without him, it is clear they miss his presence inside. During their last five games, they are allowing 49.5 paint points per game which is second-worst in the NBA during that span.

Without Jokic, the Nuggets resort to a small ball lineup by playing two power forwards at the big spot and it is hurting their ability to guard the paint. They are getting exploited in the pick and roll, rotations are not as crisp, and there are no shot blockers to bail them out. Jokic should return soon which will give the defense a boost, but they have to develop a better plan to keep opponents out of the paint.

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Run stopper

Nikola Jokic is a run stopper. Jamal Murray is a run stopper and so is MPJ. That being said, the Nuggets do not have any consistent run stoppers right now. When the opponent goes on an extended run, Denver has not found a consistent source to help escape the deficit. Will Barton is the closest thing they have to a run stopper right now, but teams are beginning to key on him and blitz him when they know it’s his turn to score.

What you would like at a time like this is a collection of run stoppers. For example, Gordon hits a shot followed by Rivers, Morris, and so on. What’s happening right now, is sporadic production. Gordon will hit a shot followed by two Denver misses, then Barton hits a shot followed by another two misses. They just haven’t been able to string together stable momentum and it is costing them especially on the road.

Ways to beat the streak

Nikola Jokic

A losing streak’s largest kryptonite is Nikola Jokic. I don’t care if the Nuggets have 6 people available for a game, as long as they have Jokic, they could beat anybody. Once he gets back on the floor, the identity of the team is intact and the leader is there to place players in positions to succeed. When Jokic returns, the Nuggets get their run-stopper, their defensive anchor, and their team pulse back. So much of Denver’s offense is predicated on Jokic running the show. So when he is not in there, you have to rely on other players who are not used to that responsibility carrying the weight of Jokic’s nightly burdens. It is difficult to put role players in those spots and expect them to succeed, but it does give them practice time for those opportunities when they arise again.

I look at Nikola Jokic the same way I look at Peyton Manning. Peyton would destroy defenses with his mind, before the play and it is exactly what Jokic does as well. Manning would see a corner about to blitz off the edge, he would call a different protection, and save the play. Jokic analyzes the defense in the same way. When they played Miami at home, I saw Jokic look at the defense, determine who would be the open guy, and execute it. He pointed right at Aaron Gordon to sit at the low post before the play began, Denver ran a series of actions, and it ended with a Jokic lob pass to a wide-open Aaron Gordon. The man is a basketball savant and as long as he is putting on the Denver Nugget threads, the expectation is victory.

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Threes and free throws

The quickest and most ideal way to chop into a lead is by hitting a bunch of threes and if Denver could do that consistently, they can overcome their weaknesses. No matter what happens on the defensive end, as long as you hit a three at the other end, you will be saved. The Nuggets are not a good three-point shooting team thus far but some teams do not display their best production early in the season. Talent-wise, Denver should be a better three-point team, so if they can string together two or three efficient games from deep, it might foster the necessary confidence needed for the rest of the season.

If you can’t play any defense or hit any shots there is always one place to look for a solution. That is the free-throw line. It allows you the opportunity for easy points but it also slows the game down, enabling people to catch their breath and regain focus. Throughout the season, the Nuggets are actually the worst team in the NBA when it comes to getting to the foul line. They shoot 16.5 free throws a game and shoot 74% from the line which ranks 23rd in the NBA. The Nuggets are not a fast-paced offensive team, so getting to the free-throw line more would play to their strengths and help indemnify their weaknesses.

Fundamentals

I don’t think the Nuggets are losing games due to a lack of effort, but it does appear to be a lack of concentration at times. I don’t often see players loafing it on offense or defense, I actually do see a good amount of hustle, but it is the mental mistakes that ail this team right now. With their bevy of injuries, the Nuggets need solid, fundamental basketball at a higher production than their counterparts. That means decreasing the turnovers, the forced shots, the opponent second-chance points, and the blow-by’s on defense. Prior to last night’s game against Portland, during those previous 4 games, the Nuggets were 27th in the NBA in opponents' points off turnovers at 19.5.

That is 20 points per game the Nuggets are handing to the opponent free of charge. That is 20 points per game that could be added to Denver’s offense but it is instead subtracted. Ball security must be at a premium for Denver to succeed without their stars. When you turn the ball over and let teams get out in transition, it offers the opponent massive momentum swings. Any turnover gets the crowd on their feet and if that turnover results in a dunk or a three, the crowd will erupt. It is easier said than done to avoid turning the basketball over but by focusing on the fundamentals, it highlights the simpler forms of the game in the midst of a very complex problem Denver finds itself in.

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