Right now the Denver Nuggets are suffering failures on both the micro and macro levels. During the dismal 20-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks to close a horrible road trip I asked aloud whether anyone had some clue what the Nuggets were actually trying to accomplish. After a night to sleep on the idea, I realized I still don’t have a clue.

I know what coach Michael Malone says he wants, and I know what sort of offense Chris Finch ran in Houston, but when I watch Denver actually play I don’t see a commitment to any specific plan on either side of the court. Style of play varies wildly depending on which five players are grouped together, and few of those styles are successful. The ones that look like they might be successful are not tried as often as the failures. Confusion breeds tentative play, tentativeness devolves into indifference, and here we are watching a team that the other terrible teams in the league lick their chops at come game-time.

Three years ago I wrote my first and only fanpost on Denver Stiffs, well before I was ever a staff writer, about whether Nuggets basketball was like Steelers football: a particular style that represents a city and the only expected way to achieve success.  

Denver hasn't won any NBA titles playing the way they do (unlike the Steelers and their fistful of rings) but Nuggets fans expect their basketball to be entertaining, high-flying, energetic and competitive. Through several different eras, the one thing that has remained in all their best teams is the above-the-rim, energetic style. Denver runs teams out of the gym when they come here, and in doing so consistently have one of the best home-court records in the entire league. Considering the several abominable teams that have seen the court for the Nuggets, that's very impressive.

Entire generations of fans since the 70s have grown up expecting the Nuggets to play a certain way, at a distinct pace and with a unique identity. Will the fanbase be patient with a change to a more grind-em-out style that may throw away a certain amount of home-court advantage in return for the promise of more road and playoff success?

That question was about the Shaw era of Nuggets basketball.  Shaw was not able to find a coherent vision for doing things His Way despite yelling loudly about how much smarter and better His Way was going to be, and got fired in short order after he lost the team.  Michael Malone is in his second year, as Shaw was, still has no definable style, just as Shaw did not, and is having his team put out multiple embarrassing performances in a week – as Shaw did.

Fans are not the only people who want to know what a team’s identity is. Current and future players would like that information too. Malone has stated he wants to win by playing hard and showing tough-nosed defense. Instead they are losing by being soft and apathetic. Without an improved vision of the future and a better plan for getting there, Denver will be wandering in the desert without a viable product to sell fans or free agents on.

Malone has a style of play that he prefers (hint: it's defensive) but does not have a team either willing or capable of executing that style effectively.  He was brought in to change the culture of the team and to provide instruction for a more successful playoff style, and right now both aspects are regressing before our eyes.  Say what you will about George Karl and Doug Moe but their teams had coherence of vision, something that Malone's teams lack and that Shaw's teams spat on.

It's not that Karl's teams ran a lot of plays.  Both Chauncey Billups and Andre Iguodala were apalled at the lack of plays and possession-to-possession instruction that Karl provided.  Players understood what was expected of them, however, and how every possession should be approached.  Karl had principles and his under-manned teams were consistently playoff-bound simply because those principles were followed in the regular season. Malone’s inability to turn his desire for competent, structured play into actual results is one of the most damning notions of the early season.

Fans are certainly not turning out to watch this. Even before Shaw, Nuggets fans weren't always packing it to the rafters but they had a reasonable expectation of getting an entertaining home game and more than likely a win. "Come out and see the Nuggets beat someone in a fast-paced, high-flying environment" is a far more enticing offer than "spend time in our basketball tomb with dozens of other people watching us shuffle around and lose by 20."

The Nuggets brand has been severely damaged over the last 3+ years, but the question remains the same: what kind of team are the Nuggets trying to be? Denver had a chance to course-correct back toward a Karl-influenced squad after Shaw but turned down Melvin Hunt in favor of Malone, only to see the Nuggets struggling to run high school sets while the rest of the league's offensive explosion continues around them. The young players seem to play well together in tiny spurts, while the vets are more comfortable around each other (and Malone is more comfortable trusting them). But comfort is not creating positive outcomes. The comfortable veterans are not playing faster, harder or better together.

It’s not about whether the Nuggets should be focused more on one side of the ball or the other. Being the Grizzlies is not a bad thing even in the modern NBA. It’s about hitting the mark that’s aimed for, and Denver can’t even find the target. For much of the year the better unit has been the bench unit. Wilson Chandler is the team’s leading scorer, Nikola Jokic is the team’s best player by analytics, and Jamal Murray is its most exciting momentum-swinger. All are bench players. Some teams do this intentionally, like the Spurs using Ginobili off the bench even when he was their third-best player because it created the best flow for their offense over 48 minutes.

This is not what the Nuggets are doing, as evinced by so many disastrous starts and hollow quarters at random points during games. I’m not sure anyone really knows what the Nuggets are doing other than losing in horrible fashion while playing uninspired basketball. They are getting out-played, out-coached and out-hustled. I said during the Shaw era that this team was too talented to lose that many times in that fashion, but that has continued into the Malone era.

Some of that is youth, but some of it is simply the inability to adhere to a uniting philosophy. These Nuggets don’t know who they are, and if there is a vision for who they will become they don’t seem to have bought into it. The Nuggets are not a melting pot of veteran savvy and young talent; they are a soupy mess of disparate parts that are no closer to becoming a coherent whole than they were in the preseason.

Figure out who you want to be, Nuggets – and then instead of wishing or praying to transform into that team start taking concrete steps in that direction. I don’t care whether those steps are lineup changes, player changes or coaching changes, but this is not working for anyone. Right now your concrete shoes are dragging the season’s hopes down into the muck.