Normally this would be where I lay out numbers analysis at the halfway point, look at the strengths and weaknesses of the team and performance relative to expectations for the season. Not that I mind doing that or don’t think it’s a virtuous exercise or anything, I just don’t see the point in getting too in depth about any of it. With Melo’s fate holding the team and the NBA in suspense the entire season, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about a team living on borrowed time, where any day could be its last.
Much like the public Melo trade saga, the Nuggets season has been a wild rollercoaster ride full of twists and turns. Throughout it all the Nuggets have played hard. John Hollinger ranks them a solid seventh in his numbers-based power rankings, with a difficult strength of schedule bested only by San Antonio’s. He’s also got them at 90% odds to make the playoffs and even a 31.6% shot at winning their division. Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, a similar stats based ranking, has the Nuggets 3rd in the Western Conference bested only by the Spurs and the Lakers.
The friendliness of stats to this Nuggets team comes largely from their volatile and explosive offensive habits. The Nuggets again are an above average shooting team with a mean tendency to get to the line at will where they convert a high percentage. Although 18th in defensive efficiency, they’re hardly any worse than division rivals Utah and OKC with a much more dangerous offensive attack to make up the difference. The saddest thing about stats analysis this year is imagining how good this team might be with a little less drama and more focus defensively. Even with a paltry pathetic 5-13 road record, the numbers still make the Nuggets look like contenders.
There isn’t a more bi-polar team in the NBA. They’ve been on the precipice of free fall the entire season where they’ve been able to fight back on the strength of half the games being played at home. What the numbers hide is what common sense tells you – the Nuggets are struggling having to rely on a player they’ve built the roster around who now prefers to play elsewhere. Melo is still a premiere scorer and all-star level player in this league. While his heart lies elsewhere and the Nuggets stand fast in refusal to lose him for nothing, the waiting game continues. Until then, it’s hard to think of treading water in the playoff picture as anything other than meaningless. When Denver again has a team committed to building a championship culture together, we can start talking about what they are made of and what challenges lie ahead.
Best Win – December 29th at Minnesota
The Nuggets entered this game without the services of Melo, Nene, Al Harrington or Kenyon Martin. Furthermore, it was yet another point where the Nuggets were struggling in a stretch of games without Melo and looked ready to roll over. In a road game which JR Smith, Melvin Ely, and Shelden Williams started they mount a team-oriented second half comeback to beat Minnesota. Ty Lawson, JR Smith, Arron Afflalo and Renaldo Balkman helped win a close game through pure hustle and team play. In a season in which the Nuggets are 5-13 on the road not only was this their best win so far, it might be one of the only real looks at what this team might be without Melo.
Worst Loss – a trade with New Jersey
There’s no doubt both Denver and New Jersey were motivated to deal with each other. From the very beginning it seemed the trade was too complicated for its own good. The Nuggets needed to shed payroll and gather assets while sending enough talent to Jersey to make it worth Melo’s while. The public nature of negotiations took a harsh toll on fans for both teams. What I’m left with is confusion more than anything. I can’t know if the Nets pushed too hard without assurances from Denver or Melo that he was coming. As much as the struggling Nets needed Carmelo Anthony the Nuggets needed their interest and enthusiasm in negotiating a trade. Although part of me thinks the endless complications in such a trade made it a long shot to happen, I cannot help thinking Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke have made their first misstep in waiting too long to make a deal that had to be made.
First Half MVP – George Karl
After winning a year-long battle with cancer a season ago, George Karl returned to a complete mess of a team to win his 1000th career game on the road, where his team has been unfocused and terrible. While Karl may have had his critics (myself included) during the glory days and drama free time with the Nuggets, he’s silenced them by leading a distracted and disinterested team to a better record than they deserve. Perhaps Karl hasn’t instilled a Popovich or Phil Jackson like culture of success, but overall he’s been a winner more often than not. He’s also a huge reason the Nuggets remain respectable amid all the turmoil.
Additional Midseason Nuggets