As a Colorado native, the Denver Nuggets are near and dear to my heart. To say that they’ve put their fans through a serious emotional roller coaster is an understatement, but so far this season the team is pointing upward in direction.
Over the past couple of seasons, the Nuggets have struggled through the challenges young teams in rebuilding mode typically face. These challenges include inconsistency, lack of poise, lack of maturity, and a general inability to close games to name just a few. But, the biggest flaw the team has had is a general lack of interest in playing defense. Until this season, that is.
To my surprise, the baby-fresh Nuggs (as I like to call them because of the average age of the team) began to play defense seemingly overnight. Without any major roster additions, Denver’s defensive effort arrived on the scene in full force, and it’s allowed them to win many games this season that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Much like the Boston Celtics of last year, the Nuggets’ defense has brought in wins against some of the most competitive teams in the league lending credibility to the hope that they may someday make something truly special happen.
Unfortunately, I don’t think their special season will be this year.
The team is currently plugging along without three starters (who might also be their three best defenders) as the new year approaches. Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton are currently unavailable, but Millsap and Harris are close to being active again. While the injuries aren’t season-ending, the Nuggets remaining starting lineup have been forced to work with the second and third units to make things happen. This has showcased some flaws the team will need to fix if they hope to make a dent in the post-season any time soon.
While Denver’s record suggests they’re in a sufficient condition for an extended playoff stint, they’re on a two-game losing streak dropping their most recent game to the San Antonio Spurs.
You might argue that the Nuggets are 6-4 in their last 10 games beating teams like the Toronto Raptors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Oklahoma City Thunder–and that’s all 100% true. However, games like the recent loss to the Spurs have shown me that the Nuggets need to work on getting more geared up to pivot their strategy when facing lock-down defensive teams like the Spurs have traditionally been.
Championship level teams don’t get to where they’re at without overcoming adversity and using injury as an excuse is something you’ll never see a title-contending team do. To their credit, the Nuggets aren’t making excuses and they know their work is cut out for them while they’re shorthanded.
Winning games during the regular season is impressive, but once the post-season starts, things really heat up and the general competitiveness of games increases tenfold. More tension, more hype and considerably more defensive pressure are ever-present stresses that have to be managed efficiently while maintaining a high level of performance.
While I believe the Nuggets’ bench is consistently strong, it’s their starting lineup that has me a little concerned. Against the Spurs, the Nuggets’ star Nikola Jokic pulled in a whopping 4 points, with aspiring All-Star Jamal Murray scoring just 9. This is because the Spurs were ready for them (of course), and they were able to completely shut down Jokic who is the offensive focal point of the team. Juancho Hernangomez tried to make up for the slack with 27 points followed by ever-eager Malik Beasley with 22, but the lack of ball movement and breakdown of communication under defensive pressure capsized the offensive flow.
Now, I don’t think this one game spells the end of the world for the Nuggets, but I believe it’s a solid example of what we might be able to expect in late April and early May. The Spurs are fighting for their position, and right now they’re playing tougher than they might regularly. This makes me feel like the Spurs’ current game atmosphere is that of a playoff nature. And, if a little tough defense on Jokic is all it takes to take the Nuggets down they have some re-strategizing to do.
Over time, I think the team will learn to overcome strategic challenges like these, but for this season I expect them to make it through the first round but optimism grows faint past that. This will be a developing story as Millsap and Harris come back onto the scene, but until then, I remain somewhat skeptical.