The Nuggets are off to a 5-6 start, have only defeated one opponent on the road (the 1-13 Utah Jazz) and are still far from being completely healthy.
Sure, the Nuggets started 4-6 last season and eventually racked up a franchise-record 57 wins. We're not close to hitting the panic button.
But with a new-look roster, no specific rotation set and a different style of play, is this team capable of doing what the 2012-13 Nuggets did? Considering the Western Conference is improved, including divisional opponents in the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Nuggets will be fighting for their playoff lives in April.
Even though head coach Brian Shaw has tweaked the Denver offense and is looking to slow down the pace at times, the Nuggets are still scoring 103.7 points. The problem is they are giving up 103.9, which is 27th in the league.
Losing key defenders like Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer hurt. However, it's the big men that are really struggling.
Here's a look at the best performances from the opposing post players against the Nuggets.
|Opposing Post-Player Performances|
|Statistics are from NBA.com|
If you throw in Nicolas Batum's 21 points and 12 rebounds with Russell Westbrook's 30 points and 12 rebounds, the Nuggets have given up 13 double-doubles with the point-rebound combination. Plus, even though Serge Ibaka didn't do much damage, Kevin Durant crushed the Nuggets inside and finished with 38 points.
Improving the defense was a top priority coming into the year, but there's no sign of it.
In fact, according to John Hollinger's statistics at ESPN, the Nuggets were 11th in defensive efficiency last season at 102. This year they are 21st at 102.7 and giving up a 25th-ranked 45.3 points in the paint.
Denver continues to struggle defending the pick-and-roll, at the elbow and at the low block.
JaVale McGee's injury doesn't help, but nonetheless, he lacks fundamentals, footwork and decision-making. Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson don't have the height and can't defend in space.
But what about Timofey Mozgov? He isn't the greatest defender and has some developing to do, but he protects the rim at 7'1", takes up a lot of space with his big body and never takes a play off.
While Hickson has played well offensively and on the glass as of late, the defense isn't there. It's the same problem the Trail Blazers ran into with him last season.
It's time for Mozgov to start. He isn't going to have numbers every night like he did against the Los Angeles Lakers (23 PTS, 9 REB and 4 BLK), but his presence and ability to contest each shot makes him a legitimate obstacle for the opponent each night.
Unless Shaw and his coaching staff can improve Faried's and Hickson's defense, this is the one internal solution. Otherwise, general manager Tim Connelly may have to look for a big man somewhere else.
There were two numbers the Nuggets wanted to change from last year to this season—34.3 percent from three-point range and 70.1 percent from the free-throw line.
They are up to 37.8 percent from behind the arc but have descended to 69.7 from the line.
For all the Denver players who are attempting at least one free throw per game, here's how they are doing this year compared to last season.
This is a very troubling trend.
After Ty Lawson, we have to slide all the way over to Anthony Randolph to see someone who has a higher percentage this year, and he isn't even in the primary rotation anymore.
McGee and Darrell Arthur are both perfect from the line this year, but both are only taking 0.4 shots.
McGee's attempts will likely go up, but according to Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com, he's still out indefinitely with his leg injury, and he's never shot better than 66 percent in a season. Arthur's attempts should remain steady since he mostly takes mid-range jumpers.
Faried and Hickson have never made greater than 70 percent of their free-throw attempts in a year, but both are having season-lows. Randy Foye is a huge head-scratcher since he's never shot worse than 81.5 percent.
On the bright side, Danilo Gallinari should help when he returns since he shot 82.2 percent from the line last year and led Denver with 4.9 free-throw attempts. Wilson Chandler's percentage should come up since he got a late start because of his previous hamstring injury and has only taken 11 attempts.
Still, the Nuggets are leaving a ton of points off the scoreboard considering they are attempting a ninth-best 25.8 free throws. It ultimately cost them against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where they were 25-of-43.
It's tough enough when you are trying to get used to a new scheme and develop chemistry with each other, but Denver is simply shooting itself in the foot. The free-throw percentage must increase if the Nuggets want to have a chance at the postseason.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how the Nuggets' season has gone thus far is their inability to win the close games.
The Nuggets are a minus-6 in the fourth quarter, but that includes Denver outscoring Utah 30-13 in their matchup.
The problem is what Denver has done against likely playoff teams.
The Nuggets had a six-point lead against the San Antonio Spurs heading into the fourth quarter but was then outscored 30-16 and only converted four field goals. Against the Thunder, they had a nine-point lead and buried a three-pointer in the beginning of the fourth to go up 12. But OKC stormed back with a 32-18 run, and Denver lost 115-113.
Even in the victory against the Atlanta Hawks, the two franchises were going back-and-forth, but Lawson and Andre Miller made plays on their own down the stretch—including a Lawson banked-in three-pointer.
Essentially, the half-court offense is still a major work in progress, especially with the second unit that begins the fourth quarter. The Nuggets look stagnant—they take a lot of contested jumpers, which leads to poor defense.
It's similar to how they looked against the Golden State Warriors in last year's playoffs.
To be fair, the Nuggets did correct that in their last game against the Bulls when they jumped out to a 13-0 run to start the fourth. Nate Robinson and Jordan Hamilton started bombing three-pointers over the defense, and the ball movement was fantastic.
However, Denver is looking for some consistent offense in the post. The Nuggets can win games when their shooters are on, but if they want playoff success, they need to find more balance and get some easy looks.
How Concerned Should the Nuggets Be?
The good news for the Nuggets is that they have enough talent to at least compete with any team in the league. They play well in transition at home, they have great depth and Lawson is making an early case to be an All-Star.
Plus, it's still very early in the year, and Shaw hasn't had a full roster to work with. He's still trying some new wrinkles while keeping his team close to an even record.
A 5-6 start isn't something for Denver fans to worry about, but the amount of work the franchise has left to do is. Shaw continues to put different lineup combinations on the floor, but there are a lot of issues to deal with, including some still hanging from last season.
The half-court offense relies too much on three-pointers and Lawson's penetration. The inside, transition and pick-and-roll defenses are all questionable at best.
Moving forward, the offense will be fine. When Gallinari and McGee return, the players will have more time getting comfortable with each other. When a permanent rotation is established, Denver will have a tough attack to stop.
Defensively, there's a big concern.
Unless Shaw can coach his team up in the next couple months, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Nuggets make a move before the trade deadline. Chandler has helped some at small forward, but there isn't someone like an Iguodala on the perimeter and sliding Mozgov into the starting five is only a minor improvement.
As inconsistent as the Nuggets have looked, I wouldn't expect that to change soon.
They're still going to play better at home and have some nights where they look unstoppable when their transition game is on fire. But there will also be nights when they stub their toe against a weaker opponent and give up several big runs.
The 2013-14 Nuggets are heading in the direction of just clearing the .500 mark. Making the playoffs could come down to the final game of the regular season.
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