The Denver Nuggets are 15-15 a little under midway through the season. After going 26-8 against sub-.500 teams a year ago, Denver is 10-5 against sub-.500 teams this year. What do you think has caused them to struggle so much more than they did last season?
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): Aside from Denver’s struggles with health, I think their main issues against sub-.500 teams has stemmed from a lack of conviction to take advantage of matchups throughout the game. The best recent example, which actually resulted in a win, was against the New Orleans Pelicans. Nikola Jokic was settling for jumpers a lot through the first 3.5 quarters of the game. In the final minutes and overtime, he was aggressive in attacking the rim and getting to the basket. The team dominated those minutes and escaped with a tough road win. Rather than hitting their opponent’s weaknesses every game, all game long, they’re letting opponents off easy and allowing them to play to their strengths rather than taking those away.
Asher Levy (@ashmanzini): Well, the easy answer is injuries. With two of the Nuggets three max contract players being out, it’s not surprising that they would struggle. However, there’s also the fact that a lot of the players seem to be in a malaise recently. Barton has really been struggling, the bench hasn’t been good all season, and sometimes Jokic looks like he doesn’t want to be out there either. The Nuggets try for quarters, but they haven’t been playing complete four quarter games at all. The defense has also been falling apart completely. They used to be a lockdown defense early in the season, and now they’re one of the worst. At least Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green have been good.
Peter Leensvaart (@petepizza27): I completely agree with Gage’s opinion above, I think the unwillingness to attack defenses weaknesses is a huge issue for the Nuggets. Outside of that, I think Denver is struggling so much because the opposing teams know what the Nuggets are capable of and will do everything they can do to stop the Nuggets from getting in their groove. Players want to show out against the reigning league MVP. The Nuggets aren’t ever given any easy baskets, they have to work hard for every single one. This can result in the offense looking stagnant when shots aren’t falling or when Jokic is out of the game. It also doesn’t help when the Nuggets role-players aren’t playing to the level we expect.
What would be the best Christmas gift the Nuggets could get this year, besides a magic wand that healed all of the team’s season-ending injuries?
Bridgford: If this team could figure out how to play a complete game on a nightly basis, I think they’d be one of the best teams in the entire league even with all of their injuries. Denver’s second unit can light it up one night before looking inept the following night. Their starters can run it up on elite teams one night before getting boat-raced by a team that’s 10 games under .500 the next. For whatever reason, there is no chemistry between the two units right now, and that is making all of their games a nail-biter when they could be in the upper half of the conference.
Levy: The best Christmas gift that the Nuggets could ask for is a couple of actually decent role players off the bench. I’d like to see them get a good backup center, and a backup wing who could shoot and defend. Danuel House was someone who was waived and I would’ve liked to see the Nuggets get, but he was picked up by the Knicks on a 10-day contract just a couple of hours ago, so he’s out. But just a wing and a big that can play good minutes is all I’d want if I were the Nuggets man.
Leensvaart: The best Christmas gift the Nuggets could ask for is a competent rim-protecting backup Center. The Nuggets have been getting destroyed every time Jokic isn’t on the floor, literally anyone that could block a few shots, catch a few lobs, and occasionally hit an open pick and pop would do wonders for this team. But in all honesty, the Nuggets could use pretty much anyone as a Christmas gift.
After starting the season on an absolute tear, Will Barton has cooled off over the last month or so. What do you think has been the biggest cause of this regression?
Bridgford: I think one of the main reasons has been his lack of aggression in terms of getting the ball to the hole. In his first 12 games of the season, he had attempted 43 percent of his shots from 3-point range. He’s seen that percentage rise by about six percent. This means that just about every other shot is coming from outside, and a lot of them are heavily contested. Barton thrives when he’s playing aggressive and moving downhill. When he’s getting inside by the rim and taking shots from the mid-range, he’s able to contort himself to get shots off. This also gives him easier looks from 3-point range when defenders are afraid of him driving. They know that he’ll settle for 3-point shots if given the opportunity, and they can close out on him to bother the shot.
Levy: I think that he hasn’t been as aggressive as he was to start the season. He hasn’t been used as a pick and roll ball handler lately, and he’s been settling for jumpers more regularly lately. He seems to not have the same burst at times that he did at the start of the season either. He might be playing through an injury or something, but if he’s playing he has to be better and get to the rim more. If he’s going to settle and not be aggressive, he won’t be able to set the tone as he typically does.
Leensvaart: Will hasn’t been utilizing pick and rolls or isoBarton really. While I’ve never been a huge Will Barton or isoBarton fan he always has scored the majority of his points in those ways. I don’t think it should be as prevalent in the offensive system as it has been in previous years but just over one iso possession a game is not enough for Thrill. Will needs to be creating for himself just as much as others are creating for him. In my opinion, he needs to be getting more pick and rolls and screen actions.
Bridgford: Right now, I’d rank them as the fourth-best team in the West with Jamal Murray in the lineup. For the purposes of this question, we’re giving the Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson back. With Murray in the fold, I’d put Denver as the fourth-best team behind Golden State, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz. They’re close with the Jazz, but, without P.J. Dozier and Michael Porter Jr., I don’t know if they quite have the horses to be the better team. Murray’s return will make a huge difference to the team. The bench will get the boost from Monte Morris being back on the second unit, and the starters get a boost on the offensive end will make life easier on every other starter. His return can’t come soon enough.
Levy: Right now, I’d say they are the third best team in the West with Jamal Murray active and healthy. Assuming everyone else is also healthy in the West, meaning Warriors have Klay Thompson; I’d say they’re worse than the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. They as a team might also be worse than the Utah Jazz, but seeing how Jokic and Jamal obliterate the Jazz with regularity, I’d take the Nuggets in a playoff series. Murray’s impact would be huge, and as Gage mentioned the bench would get Monte Morris back. Both of those would propel the Nuggets to the third best team in my opinion.
Leensvaart: I’d say that with a healthy Jamal we would be the 3rd seed in the West. If we also had a healthy MPJ I would be more willing to put them above Golden State/Phoenix but alas. The Warriors and Suns both run such an amazing offensive and defensive scheme with elite role players surrounded by some of the game’s best players, even with Jamal Murray I don’t think we could compete with what those teams are doing right now. But with a healthy Murray, we would be better than Utah. I can say that with confidence.
What is your favorite holiday-season memory?
Bridgford: For me, it would have to be my first Christmas after I had moved to Indiana. Across the street was a big parking lot. It had snowed a ton all day on Christmas Eve, and I went outside with my mom, dad and my dog to run around in it. As I was five, the snow may have only been about six inches, but it felt like it was up to my waist. We weren’t out there for very long, nor did we do anything specific other than enjoy the time together. To this day, it remains one of the most pure and enjoyable times from my life both holiday or otherwise.
Levy: You know, I’d have to say I really enjoyed my first winter here. I lived in Florida up until I was about 6 years old, and I was not used to the cold. However, I grew to love it. It snowed and it was something that I just liked. I liked hanging out with my mom, dad, and brothers. I had snowball fights with my neighbors — just normal wintery things. It’s kind of the reason I really like winter nowadays. I can still remember the hot chocolate that I’d get after sledding out in a open space near me and the Christmas music my mom would play. Just immaculate vibes.
Leensvaart: I remember around 10-13 years ago there was a massive snowstorm near the Holidays and at the time I was only like 6. I remember going and playing waffle ball and kickball with my Mom in the snow. There were what felt like mountains of snow to me, I got worried that some of our neighbors wouldn’t be able to get to their cars and their Christmas’s in turn so my Mom and I shoveled paths from everyone’s apartment doors to their cars. We spent a few hours doing that and over the next few days, many of our neighbors brought us cookies and gifts. I’ll never forget that.