I tend to get a little too game recap heavy during the season. Now with the Nuggets not playing until Sunday and the All-Star break coming up in three weeks we will have some open days to look at some deeper issues.
We are more than halfway through the 20080-09 season. Denver has already surpassed all preseason expectations, but how far can this team really go? In almost any style of power ranking you can find whether it be stat based or intuitive the Nuggets are always hanging around in the vicinity of the top five. It seems to be a real possibility for this team to be a participant in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 1984-85 season.
At this point in the season the general consensus is this version of the Denver Nuggets is much better than last season’s squad and some have said that they are the best Nuggets team we have had the pleasure of cheering on in 20 years. In fact I am pretty sure I have said that myself, but is that really true? Are we watching a special Denver Nuggets squad or are we heading towards another first round flame out?
There are two primary reasons why most of us consider the Nuggets to be a much improved team. One is their supposed increased dedication to defense and the other is the return of Chauncey Billups playing the role of conquering hero. Let’s take a look at these two presumptions.
The Nuggets began the season with a vigor and attention to detail on defense that had been lacking in previous seasons. For the first month or so of the season they were statistically one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. They regularly held their opposition to a shooting percentage of below 40% and there were several games you could point to where the Nuggets won with their defense. It really seemed like something had clicked with the team and they were going to go from a mediocre defensive team to a very good, if not great, one.
However, it has been a while since you could say that the Nuggets won a game with their defense. It has been 19 games (December 15, 2008 at Dallas) since they held a team to below 40% shooting after accomplishing that feat nine times in their first 24 games. Over those 19 games their defensive efficiency is a putrid 112.2. That would place them as one of the bottom five defensive teams in the NBA. Denver has allowed their opponents to shoot 47.2% over those 19 games. Once again, that would put them near the bottom of the league.
Things look even more bleak when you compare this team to last seasons’ squad which was a team that could not slow down, let alone stop, a quality offensive team when it mattered most. This season Denver is holding their opponents to a lower shooting percentage (44.4% to 45.7%), but their defensive efficiency is actually worse (107.0 to 106.3). When you consider the downward trend the Nuggets are on it seems laughable to consider them a stout defensive group. That supposition seems to be as accurate as a Linas Kleiza pass into the post.
The second presupposition that has led us to believe the Nuggets are improved from last season’s version is the presence of Chauncey. We all know his resume. He is Mr. Big Shot, the former NBA Finals MVP. His presence in the locker room demands respect and his play on the court is regularly phenomenal. Denver raced out of the gate once he arrived winning 16 of Billups’ first 20 games back in the Mile High City and the NBA took notice. Could those 20 games have misled us?
Chauncey has definitely made a mark on the Nuggets, but it has not been the mark we expected. Billups was supposed to raise the Nuggets defense to another level and early on he did. The funny thing is Chauncey’s impact has actually made this team more of an offensive force than a defensive one. The Nuggets offensive efficiency has been steadily climbing throughout the season. During those 19 games where their defense has fallen apart their offensive efficiency has been a stellar 112.5. As bad as their defense has been is how good they have been on offense.
I think we all hoped adding a “true point guard” in place of a ball dominating shooting guard was going to help improve the Nuggets offense, but I do not think anyone expected this much improvement. Even so, there have been a few issues that are cause for concern, the most significant one being recent stretch of games where the Nuggets have become strictly a jump shooting team in the second half resulting in the evaporation of some pretty big leads. Even so Denver’s offense has been very good, but I do not believe it is good enough to carry them past the first round as long as their defense resembles a sieve.
There are a couple of other reasons why some of us have prematurely put the Nuggets in the upper echelon of teams one of which is their apparent ability to pull out close games. The problem with using close wins as a barometer is there is not one person who studies this stuff in a logical fashion who believes that teams can consistently pull out wins in close games. Over time nearly every team will lose as many close games as they win. The Nuggets may continue to pull out more than their fair share of close games, but to expect it may be somewhat naïve.
Another reason why I think the Nuggets may be a tad overrated after the first half of the season is due to preseason prognostications that had Utah as an elite team, Portland as a contender and Denver chasing ping pong balls. Utah has not been as dominant as most expected even though they have the very same record after 43 games this season as they did last season, 25-18, making them seem to be somewhat of a disappointment. The Trail Blazers have been very good, but are not the dominant team some projected them to be. The fact that Denver leads the Northwest Division when no one saw it coming before the season started makes them seem like a bigger success than they actually are.
Right now the Nuggets have a 28-15 record. At this point last season they were only two games worse at 26-17. Denver’s projected win total based on their current scoring margin is 50.4-31.6. Rounded off that equates to 50-32 which is also known as their record in 2007-08. I am afraid the closer you look at it this season’s team is looking more and more like last season’s right down to the slow season long fade on defense.
This post may come across as pessimistic and disappointing. We all want to believe that we are witnessing a special season. Please know I am not saying to give up on the season or that Denver is destined for their sixth straight first round exit. The Nuggets have proven they can play quality defense. The fact that they have improved significantly on offense, even with Carmelo missing a handful of games and fighting through a poor shooting season by his standards, is encouraging. If they can just recapture the defensive focus and style that they began the season with, they will be deserving of the lofty rankings they are receiving from fans and media alike. However, to do so they must get back to pressuring the ball, challenging shots and actually working to stop the pick and roll. No more switching or allowing the dribbler to do what he pleases after coming off the screen.
Denver has the talent and personnel to be a Western Conference Finalist, but they are dangerously close to the blueprint they laid out in previous seasons that resulted in five straight first round exits. How far they go will depend on recapturing their defensive esprit de corps and Chauncey’s ability to demand the offense avoid depending on jumpers when the going gets tough. I have no idea if they can get back to playing the style of ball that lead to many people believing that they are a top six or seven team, but I do think we are in for another entertaining and hard fought second half.