The Denver Nuggets entered the month of December with a 7-11 record after dropping an embarrassing contest against the Miami Heat. They followed that up with another embarrassing loss to the Houston Rockets and a spirited effort the next day against the Utah Jazz that ultimately came short once again. Two games into the fifteen game spread of the final month of the year and the Nuggets are finding themselves staring a tough reality in the face: lose too many more this month, and hopes of the playoffs will be gone.

The two losses Denver opened December with have put their overall record at 7-13, which is three and a half games back of the Portland Trail Blazers who currently occupy the 8th spot in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are stuck in a group of teams I’d call the “In danger of slipping out of relevancy” group, joined by the likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans. All have talent, all have aspirations of sneaking into the playoffs this season, and all are more than three games out as it currently stands. If none of these teams can turn things around quickly it’ll be the Memphis Grizzlies, Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers competing for the final three spots in the playoffs.

If the Nuggets intend on making it five teams competing for three spots in the playoffs, they’ll need to get their December turned around, and they’ll have to do it on the road. Denver still has five games on their current road trip, but all of their remaining opponents have sub .500 records. In fact, only five of the remaining thirteen games in December for the Nuggets are against opponents with winning records, and three of those match ups will be at home. In comparison to the teams directly above them in the standings, the Lakers and the Blazers, the upcoming stretch is quite favorable for Denver. The Blazers are on a five game road swing of their own, with the 9-10 Indiana Pacers being the only sub .500 opponent Portland will face. They also have dates with the San Antonio Spurs (twice), Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors in December. The Lakers meanwhile have a little easier schedule, but still face seven teams with winning records this month including the Cleveland Cavaliers and a Christmas day match up with the Los Angeles Clippers.

More importantly than just the fact that their closest opponents will face a more difficult December, is the fact that the Nuggets likely wont get an easier stretch of games this season. January opens with the Warriors and features the Spurs (twice), Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Jazz and a trip to London for a “home game.” February features nine teams with winning records, including a brutal at Atlanta Hawks, at New York Knicks, at Cavs, vs Warriors stretch. While there’s a decent stretch of winnable games near the beginning of March, the end of that month closes out with a nasty road trip that finishes just four games before the end of the regular season.

There’s certainly points here and there further down the road of the season that one can point to as a period where the Nuggets have a chance to string together a couple of wins, there’s no point in the remainder of the season where they will have such a large grouping of winnable games than they have right now. If they can’t come out of the next thirteen with an 8-5 record or better then they probably can’t expect to keep pace with playoff contention down the stretch when the schedule becomes much tougher. They also could fall quickly out of relevancy altogether if they were to have a disastrous month that ends with a 6-9 or 5-10 record. Such a skid would put them somewhere in the neighborhood of seven or eight games out of the playoffs at least, setting up the necessity for a 2005 George Karl’s first year in Denver or 2007-2008 Rockets type of run that has long odds indeed.

So it may seem like hyperbole to say that just eighteen games into the season the Nuggets are already facing their most critical stretch, but if the team falters over the next couple of weeks they will face an uphill battle the rest of the way. The good news is this stretch is extremely winnable, and if Denver shows the kind of effort that nearly brought them all the way back to victory against Utah on Saturday night then they should expect to win a bunch of games. However, if they put up the type of effort that we saw in the home games against Houston and Miami then it might be time to start digging our heels in for another long season that will once again end in disappointment.