Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Adjusting Expectations

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

The Denver Nuggets are at a pivot point a little under halfway through the 2021-22 season. With a record of 17-16, they find themselves in fifth place in the Western Conference and struggling to play with any consistency on a night-to-night basis. One major reason that they’re struggling with consistency has been health. Until the recent COVID outbreak in the locker room, the team’s main struggles were just with overall health, and those problems could be shifting the goalposts for the team’s expectations this year.

As of today, December 31st 2021, the Nuggets have a total of 11 players on their injury report. Of those 11, three are in the league’s health and safety protocols, two are out for the season, one has yet to return from an injury he sustained last season, one is out for at least another four weeks, and the other four are all dealing with day-to-day injuries that will cause them to continue to miss time. That doesn’t include Michael Malone, who is also in the health and safety protocols, or the many other Nuggets who have already dealt with injuries this season.

When teams go on championship runs in any sport, there are usually two common themes that happen with pretty much any team. They are playing their best at the right time, and they’re healthy at the right time. Last season, Denver looked like one of the top title contenders following the Aaron Gordon trade. However, their health ran out, and their season eventually petered out just due to the war of attrition. This season, that war of attrition is already ravaging this roster, and it’s time for us to adjust what our expectations are for the remainder of this season of Nuggets basketball.

Focus on the Small Improvements

Rather than striving for Jokic to win back-to-back MVP awards, focus on the dramatic improvements he has made on the defensive end of the floor. There were moments earlier in his career when he was such a defensive liability that he was taken off of the floor at the end of games. Now? He’s the defensive anchor for this team around the rim. The Golden State Warriors have a transition opportunity with a chance to tie or win the game on the line. They get the ball inside to Jonathan Kuminga, and Jokic stuffs him at the rim. This level of play on that end of the floor, combined with his already impressive offensive exploits, is a positive outcome from a season that’s struggling to find them.

There are times where Will Barton gets a little overzealous and a little far out over his skis. However, with all of the injuries this team has had, he’s had no choice. He’s either had to step up or step aside, and he’s answering the call by stepping up on the offensive end of the floor. Down multiple guys on Tuesday night against the Warriors in a tie game with less than a minute to go after blowing a huge lead, Barton just takes over to try and put the game away. He drives towards the rim by the baseline and puts up a shot. He misses, but he stays with it getting two offensive rebounds before getting the shot to full on the third try. Even though Barton isn’t going to be “The Guy” when they’re fully healthy, he’s shown that he can be that if needed during spurts in every game.

Check Out the Other Guys

If I had told you back a year ago that Davon Reed, who hadn’t played in the NBA since 2019 would be playing a key role for this Nuggets’ team, you’d have called me crazy and been calling for my job. Well, I may be out of my mind, but Reed is legitimately playing a key role for this Nuggets’ roster and doing a good job of it. Reed is shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3-point range while playing hard on defense. For a guy that’s living on 10-day deals, there is literally nothing else that you can ask for. “Hey Davon, go guard the human flamethrower that is Stephen Curry.” Reed takes on Curry, forces the steal and immediately starts pushing the ball up the floor before finding a cutting Zeke Nnaji for a huge dunk.

Speaking of Mr. Nnaji, Zeke has been an absolute sharpshooter this season from outside. He’s shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range, and he’s cooled off a fair bit in the month of December after clearing 60 percent through the end of November. However, his 45.2 percent is still the best mark on the team among players with 10 or more attempts. Nnaji isn’t the most athletic forward, but he knows how to find space. On this play, he just sort of drifts towards the corner and waits for the offense to flow to him. With the defense focused on the ball-handlers, that leaves Nnaji open for the corner triple. With other older bigs moving on from the team seemingly every year, Nnaji gives Denver a transition opportunity in their back pocket.

Enjoy the Ride

Every year, every team starts off with the exact same record and the hope that they can somehow find a way to win a NBA title. For 29 teams, they always come up short. With the litany of injuries Denver has, it’s a reasonable expectation that they’re going to be one of those 29 this season. However, that doesn’t mean that this season is one to just be tossed aside and for you to ignore until next year. Instead, it’s time for you to enjoy the big moments that are happening. If you have read any of my writings on Facundo Campazzo from the last season, you’re aware that I’ve never been a huge fan of his playstyle. He’s started to grow on me a bit as of late, even if he still does some things that make me question what on Earth could have made him make that decision. However, plays like the one above are what I find enjoyable about his game. He plays fast and loose all the time, and, if you don’t think watching Campazzo put Andrew Wiggins in the blender and confused down on the block is entertaining, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

Aaron Gordon remains one of the most exciting and fun players in the NBA. When he’s rolling and playing aggressive and with momentum, there just isn’t much the defense can do other than hope that they draw a charge foul. Although, there are a lot of people making business decisions because they don’t feel like getting in the way of that 6’8” & 235-pound train that’s coming at them. Seeing Gordon get out in transition for a windmill dunk midway what should have been a blowout win over the Washington Wizards is fun. The guy does it at least once a night if he can help it, and he’d do it more if given the opportunity. The Nuggets are a team that came into the season as title contenders. You can still root for that, but don’t forget to enjoy the little things throughout the year as you go. This year, more than some others, is where the destination loses some of its importance compared to the journey.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.

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