The Denver Nuggets are approaching the quarter pole in the new season. There is only one team in the west with fewer losses now that Phoenix has lost two in a row. Denver just finished an incredibly easy five game stretch with a 4-1 record. It is difficult to say that only losing one out of five games is a disappointment, but the manner in which the Nuggets folded at home against a bad Timberwolf team was difficult to swallow.
So what conclusions can we draw if any at this point in the season?
The Nuggets have had a very easy schedule
When the schedule was first released I remember thinking how difficult the Nuggets first few games appeared because of all the back to back sets and knowing they would be without J.R. Smith for seven games. The fact is, Denver has had a very easy schedule so far. The only elite team they have faced is the Lakers and it was at home. Plus they have looked bad on the road against quality opponents like the Hawks and Heat.
The win against the Lakers was the signature win of the season, but the second best win, game two in Portland, does not look quite so impressive anymore. The Blazers lost seven home games all last season, but have already dropped four this year in only 11 chances.
Looking at the schedule Denver has played compared to the other top teams in the west, it is clear Denver has had an easy road so far. Even looking through December Denver only has two daunting road games, at San Antonio on Saturday and then at Portland on Christmas and we have documented the Blazers’ struggles already. Going further, Denver only has one more clearly worrisome road game, at Utah, until January 25. The 13-5 start is nice, but if the Nuggets are not safely atop the division on January 25, they will struggle to have home court advantage in the playoffs. One key to earning a high seed is to avoid bad losses and the Nuggets already have two of those.
Even though the schedule gets more difficult, if the Nuggets truly are the second best team in the west, they should still win a good number of games over the final three months.
Carmelo is living up to expectations on offense
Any way you slice it Carmelo Anthony is having a great offensive season. He is the leading scorer in the league by 1.5 points over LeBron James thanks to his 30.7 average. The good news is his increased scoring is not simply due to playing more minutes or taking more shots. Melo’s success this season is proving that his horrible field goal percentage last season was due to the nagging injuries he dealt with for much of season.
Melo is converting on a career high 49.5% of his attempts, he is also making a career high 86.8% of his free throws on a career high 10.1 attempts per game. Carmelo has seen a slight drop in his three point percentage which is currently at 34.0%, but it sure seems like he is hitting a much higher percentage than that. I expect every catch and shoot three he takes to go in.
Not only is Melo healthy, but he is working for better shots. According to HoopData.com there are two big changes in Melo’s shooting from last season. He is attempting nearly two more shots a game at the rim and he is finishing a high percentage of them with his percentage on those shots back up to the mid 60’s after seeing it drop to an uncharacteristically low 57% last year. The fact that Carmelo is getting to the line three more times per game than last season also shows his determination to get to the rim more frequently than last season.
However, scoring is only one part of the game. Melo seems to be passing more frequently and setting his teammates up with better shots than in the past. Melo’s 2.2 assists a game at the rim are behind only Chauncey’s average of 2.9 on the team. Oddly enough, Carmelo’s assist rate of 11.1 is the lowest he has had in four seasons. I think we will see that number climb as the season goes along though. Not only is his assist ration down, but so is his turnover rate. Right now Melo is posting a career best 8.8 turnover rate and that has helped him be more efficient.
If I have any concerns about Melo it is his rebounding and defense. After making a concerted effort to be a better rebounder in 2007-08 and posting a career high 7.4 caroms a game Melo has seen his rebounding average drop to 6.0. Some of that can be attributed to the relatively slower pace the Nuggets now play at, but his rebound rate has dropped to 9.6 after being over 11 the previous two seasons.
Defensively Carmelo seemed determined to raise his level of play and early in the season he was getting low and looking like a player who wanted to get dirty on that end of the floor. That enthusiasm was short lived and Melo has slipped back into his more lackadaisical attitude when the other team has the ball. It was very frustrating to see Melo give up easy baskets to players like Ryan Gomes and Damien Wilkins late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota two games ago.
Nevertheless, he is still better than he was a couple of years ago, but he has still not taken that next step as a defender that would put him in the MVP conversation. Then again, if Marcus Camby can win the Defensive Player of the Year award I guess anything is possible (no I will probably never let that go).
Even with the slightly disappointing effort on defense, Melo is still in position to have his finest performance to date.
The most deserving players are playing
Entering the season I was very concerned that players that George Karl liked in training camp would see more time on the floor than better players on the roster. More specifically that Anthony Carter’s presence would ensure that Ty Lawson would be glued to a padded folding chair on the bench. After getting six starts while J.R. Smith was suspended Carter has not been a threat to Lawson’s playing time. I think we all expected a lot from Lawson, but he has blown those expectations out of the water. All I can say is thank God that Lawson and his 17.60 PER is playing instead of Carter who sports a PER of 7.23.
I was also concerned about Joey Graham stealing time from Arron Afflalo which also proved to be unfounded. Afflalo also has also exceeded expectations on both ends of the floor. He is much more effective on offense and has shown a newfound ability to get to the rim. Afflalo is shooting a surprising 49.2% from the floor and is proving his 40.2% from behind the arc last season was not a fluke.
J.R. Smith no longer has the worst shot selection on the team
Chauncey’s play in the preseason was worrisome to me. He was turning the ball over and missing shots. Coming on the heels of his poor showing against the Lakers in the conference finals, it appeared age may have been catching up with Chauncey. Billups had a couple of nice shooting games to start the season and his turnovers have remained at the same level as they have been throughout his career. However, Chauncey has been very streaky from behind the arc and at this point he is attempting a career high 44.5% of his shots from downtown.
I have lamented Chauncey’s desire to launch threes at inopportune times in the past, but he reached a new level of poor decision making during the embarrassing loss to Minnesota. In the second half when Denver was struggling to figure out that they had a better chance of scoring by getting as close to the rim as possible Billups fired up five threes and two more long two point jumpers. What is worse, is he only made one of those seven long jumpers and it was obvious to everyone but him that it was not his night.
We all poke fun at J.R.’s shot selection and it can be horrible. Earlier in the season I made a joke that he was out of the game due to a sprained shot selection. J.R. may take some incredibly tough shots, but he is making a much higher percentage overall than Chauncey right now and for a player who is supposed to be the coach on the floor, Billups tends to add to the problem instead of demanding a new solution when the Nuggets get jumper happy.
I realize that Chauncey will find his shot and his three point percentage will climb back up towards 40%. I just would like to see him worry more about getting good shots than being Mr. Big Shot.
Nene is playing out of his gourd
If you read this blog on a regular basis you will know I think John Hollinger is the member of the national media who is most attuned to the Nuggets. I had to respectfully disagree with him before the season when he cited Nene as a player who was likely to see a dip in performance this season. As solid as Nene was last year, I expected to see him improve his game seeing as how he did not have to worry about thinks like the effects of chemo over the summer.
So far Nene has been even better this year than last. In my opining Nene has been the most consistent Nugget this season at both ends of the floor. Not only is he proving that his field goal percentage last season was no fluke, but he has improved his passing posting an insanely high assist rate (for a center) of 17.7. On top of his offensive play, his defense has been very good. He is starting to block shots, he made two blocks that should have swung the momentum of the loss to the Wolves, and he has taken three charges over the previous two games.
His rebounding is much improved and his rebound rate is now in line with what you need from your starting center. Plus he has seemed to get his tendency to foul under control. After fouling out the first two games of the season, he has rarely had to be pulled because of fouls. He is cutting back on the silly reaches that get many big men in trouble.
The bad news is that Nene is only getting 8.9 shots a game. The Nuggets must do a better job of making sure he gets the ball in the post. There are very few bigs who possess both the strength to keep him from getting great position and the quickness to defend him when he drives. Nene has an advantage over almost any player that covers him.
Has anyone been watching a Nuggets game this season and thought to themselves, “Gosh dang it, they really missed Linas Kleiza tonight!”? Me neither.
I continue to believe Denver has as good a chance as anyone in the west to face off with the Lakers in the conference finals. It is clear they have talent at every position and can beat anyone anytime. So far this season their defense is not up to par to reach their goals. They have had some good efforts, but the inconsistency is very frustrating. Denver is in the middle of the pack in most of the important defensive statistics and the reason is they are lacking cohesion. I was hoping that having a second training camp of focusing on defense would help them build on their improvements from last season, but that has certainly not been the case.
From a personnel standpoint, the lack of depth in the frontcourt is very concerning. As long as Nene, Kenyon and Birdman stay healthy the Nuggets should be OK, but if one, or God forbid two, go down for a prolonged period of time Denver will be in a world of hurt. In fact they have yet to win a game this season when all three do not play (OK, so that sounds worse than it really is as they lost in Atlanta without Kenyon and in Los Angeles against the Clippers without Birdman, but still, they will struggle to win without all three available).
The bottom line is if the Nuggets want to truly be contenders, they need another big, and not a Johan Petro big, a truly capable one. The bad news is Denver has very little to offer to acquire a player of that ilk. Denver has already forfeited their own first round pick and (wisely) traded away Charlotte’s for the rights to Ty Lawson. As far as expiring contracts, they only have a pittance. I will not put it past Mark Warkentien to find a way to add a player like that, but if he can pull it off, it will take a Festivus miracle.