If you’re solely searching for entertainment, there are few teams in the NBA more exciting to watch than the Denver Nuggets. Denver’s 104.7 points per game trails only Oklahoma City and Houston, and George Karl’s club is 4th in the league in field goal percentage, as well as 2nd in total rebounding. The Nuggets’ up-and-down style of play resembles the “7 seconds or less” Phoenix Suns, only with more sheer athleticism. Denver, riding a 9-game winning streak, is 33-18 and the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
But are the Nuggets a legitimate postseason threat? Conventional wisdom says no. Denver is one of 9 teams to surrender more than 100 points per game (100.6, tied for 23rd in the NBA), though they’re in the top half of the league in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.2%, 12th) and tied for 16th in opponent’s 3-point percentage (35.8%). Predictably, their up-tempo style of play leads to a 26th-ranked 15.3 turnovers a night, but less than the 15.5 they force; spearheaded by talented point guards Ty Lawson and savvy veteran Andre Miller, the Nuggets are 2nd in the league in assists, at 23.9 per game.
And, in this case, conventional wisdom may be right. Despite the acquisition of defensive stopper Andre Iguodala this summer, Denver’s too porous defensively, beginning with the 5’11” Lawson; against Cleveland on Saturday night, the Cavs had a lot of success pinning Lawson on the block against SF Alonzo Gee off screen and rolls, to the tune of 16 points in the first quarter. Denver’s also slow at the 3, where they rely on Danilo Gallinari’s scoring, a team-leading 17.1 points per game, on one end, but sacrifice in lateral quickness on the other. And the run-and-gun style is not going to work against an elite, disciplined defense like San Antonio, just like it never did in Phoenix, nor will the cheap buckets off made baskets the Nuggets thrived on against the Cavaliers.
So where does this leave Denver? With limited cap flexibility — they’re hovering around luxury tax territory this year and next already — there’s not much space for this team to grow. Iguodala, a 13.5-points-per-game scorer who shoots the ball poorly from outside (30% from 3), has expressed interest in staying with the Nuggets long-term, and he would be hard-pressed to turn down a $15.9 million player option for 2013-14. (Unless, of course, Iguodala thinks he could score a more lucrative long-term contract this offseason as opposed to amid next summer’s stronger free agent class.) Gallinari and McGee are on the books for at least $10 million per through 2015-16, and Ty Lawson’s 4-year, $48 million extension, signed in October, kicks in next season.
But that core is far from mediocre, given the team’s 33-18 record and the fact that Wilson Chandler, a career 13.6-points-per-game scorer in his 5th NBA season, has missed 37 games due to hip surgery. Kosta Koufus, a 23-year-old 7-footer with plenty of career left, has developed as the Nuggets’ starting center. At 7.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in 23.2 minutes per game, he’s hardly an offensive force, but he’s also not a pushover, even dominating Tyler Zeller on the boards Saturday, though that’s hardly a feat worth celebrating. McGee’s overpaid, sure, and for some time to come, but brings freakish athleticism, shot-blocking ability and a presence around the rim; he averages a more-than-capable 10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 18 minutes and change, and his team-high 21.77 PER ranks 18th in the entire league, tops among Western Conference bigs not named Blake Griffin.
And then there’s Denver’s 2 energy guys: Kenneth Faried and Corey Brewer. In only his 2nd season, some see an All Star future for Faried, who averages 12.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per night, in addition to a 19.7 PER, and plays with reckless ambition and strength. Brewer, playing in a contract year, has finally found a role, or at least seemed to, in his young journeyman career, tallying 11.4 points per off the bench while always a threat with the corner 3. Brewer would be a wise, and likely inexpensive, investment this offseason. (And this goes without mentioning Miller, the crafty 36-year-old facilitator, who’s a key leadership and assists cog in this machine, but also tied up for close to $5 million per through 2014-15, a lot to pay a backup point guard.)
The Nuggets’ championship prospects are slim, this year and in the immediate future, given roster constraints that favor a fast-paced attack that’s historically difficult to win with in May and June. But that does not mean they are not really exciting to watch.
Denver’s been eliminated in the first round of the postseason in 9 of the last 18 years and has yet to win a playoff series in the post-Carmelo Anthony era. That could very well change if the Nuggets secure first-round home-court advantage; Denver’s an incredible 22-3 at home, but only 11-15 on the road; only 5 of those wins have come against likely playoff teams (Houston: twice, Memphis, Golden State and Indiana). The point: this team’s ceiling, at least for the time being, is not near championship-banner height.
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