The Denver Nuggets have been a bit concerning since the All-Star break with a 4-3 record accompanied by losing to the league-worst Golden State Warriors, at home. During this stretch, they have given up 115 points per game while scoring 113.4 points per game. They were embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers in LA, which has been their worst loss of the season, then defeated the Toronto Raptors at home in a big rebound type game. They have been up and down sandwiching a big win between a bad loss to a team, that at the time, was a single game behind them in the standings, and one of the worst teams in the NBA that was missing three starters.
Nikola Jokic was quoted saying that, “we’ve shown that we can beat the best teams record-wise, and that we can lose to the worst teams record-wise”. This is concerning because after we break down the losses for the Nuggets this season, we see that the numbers are strange for a distribution for losses for a top team in the NBA.
The Nuggets are currently 42-20 coming off a dangerously close road win over the lowly Hornets, in which Jamal Murray hit a clutch buzzer-beater on their last possession to take a two-point lead followed by Terry Rozier missing a pretty good look over Jerami Grant in the final seconds of the game. Of those 20 losses, seven have come against win-percentage teams that can be deemed “bad” teams, having won fewer than 48% of their games. Three of the losses have been against the middle of the pack, close to .500 teams. Three losses have come against good teams with a 60-65% win rate, and the other seven losses have come against the NBAs other elite teams with a higher than 65% win rate.
There are certainly trap games in the NBA where a good team ends up on the second night of back-to-back, road trip, against a bad team, and they come out flat and drop a few games a year that they probably shouldn’t have. That being said, the Nuggets haven’t lost on the second half of a back to back this season, 8 of their 20 losses have been at home, and five of those eight losses were against the NBAs worst teams record-wise. Losing games happen, and even the best teams in history lose a handful of games a season, so you cannot expect teams to win every game.
That being said, the Nuggets have definitely lost too many games that they shouldn’t have, and inconsistency has been the problem. Occasionally Defenses come out flat, or shots don’t fall. The Nuggets have been one of the most injured teams in the NBA this season as only 13 players have played in over 20 games. Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris are the only two players to play in all 62 games this season, and the enigma that is what the hell Michael Malone is doing with Michael Porter Jr.
The Nuggets traded away three players in Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Jared Vanderbilt for assets and depth players so that their rotations could be smaller and more precise. I fully supported that decision, especially with the idea being that with those two Small Forwards out of Denver, Michael Porter Jr would be uncaged on the NBA to finish the season as a core member of the bench unit. That has been anything but the case so far as he has only played in only six of the last ten games. In that span he is only averaging 13.5 minutes per game.
The Nuggets have proven they are one of the best teams in the NBA with a 67% win rate and having beat most of the other NBA elite including the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers, and Rockets this season. They have the talent, depth, chemistry, and leadership to go far into the playoffs. One issue that is starting to rear its ugly head, is their ability to just not show up for certain games. Like I mentioned previously, their consistency isn’t there, and quite frankly, their time is running out.
The team plays 20 games between today and April 14th, 11 of which are on the road. They have three sets of back-to-back games, a four-game road trip, and 11 games against playoff hopeful teams. As a fan, it doesn’t seem like the home stretch is when they should start feeling pressure to shore up their consistency. Fortunately, they have a month to work on it, and hopefully hit the playoffs healthy, fine-tuned, and ready to make a championship push, but as it stands today it’s difficult to trust a team that has proven they can lose to the worst teams in the league consistently.
If I was making the decisions, I would keep the starting group as Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Gary Harris. That group plays hard, can absolutely win games by themselves and has star power combined with veteran leadership and versatility. The Second Group, as we have seen, has been a hodge-podge of players all season and needs to be narrowed to Monte Morris, Mason Plumlee, Michael Porter Jr, Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig.
Malone has been running with a four man bench, and nine man rotation, which has been leaving Michael Porter Jr on the outside looking in. If the Nuggets are going to be an NBA championship team, they need a bench player that has the night in and night out ability to score 20 points a game. They have a bunch of players that can score, but five of them are all in the starting lineup. Jerami Grant showed he can help shoulder the scoring load when he was a starter, and has even had a few big games as a bench guy, but Porter has that “score at will” ability that just needs to be harnessed.
Ending the regular season strong will be important for moral as the team sprints toward the post season, proving to themselves they can beat good teams, bad teams, elite teams and middling teams on a nightly basis will go a long way to motivating the team. The Nuggets have a month and half to get the rotations solidified, get Porter Jr reintegrated into the lineup, bump the habit of losing to bad teams, figure out how lock back in defensively, and start hitting a hot shooting streak at the right time. I believe they can do it, but complacency and inconsistency will need to transform into competitive fire, motivation, and strong leadership starting tomorrow versus the Cavaliers on the road.