Over the last several weeks the Nuggets have endured one of its toughest stretches of the season, if not the last several years. After starting off the season on a record-setting pace, even winning six straight road games for the first time in franchise history, the Nuggets fell victim to a myriad of injuries and in the process saw its winning ways vanish in no time. After finally securing a much-needed win against Indiana the Nuggets will now look to get back on track but before Denver takes on the Suns at home on Tuesday, Roundball Mining Company decided to analyze the Nuggets recent struggles in our latest 3-on-3.
1. To what effect has Timofey Mozgov’s absence from the starting lineup contributed to the Nuggets recent woes?
Charlie: To me, the Mozgov injury was a poor excuse for the Nuggets to drop so many games in the such disheartening fashion. While he provided a steady paint presence and solid pick-and-roll defense, Mozgov is still a role player learning to play his position. I thought Kosta Koufos performed admirably in Mozgov’s absence despite lacking continuity with his teammates or the same trust Karl had built up with Mozgov. The costliest side effects of Timo’s injury were the increased workload on Al Harrington and the starting lineup falling into complete disarray. Both of those issues I would put more on Karl’s insistence on going small whenever the Nuggets showed signs of struggling. Mozgov at least provided that steady 20 minutes of a more conventional lineup every night, but that’s pretty far down on the laundry list of issues surrounding the Nuggets’ recent slide. Compared with the challenge of filling Gallo’s much larger role, losing Timo for a few games isn’t a strong argument for the Nuggets suddenly being unable to play any defense.
Jeremy: I do not think it is a significant factor, in fact, it may even be a good thing. It is easy to look at this question as Mozgov vs. Koufos. I believe the difference between the two is negligible. Mozgov is the better post defender and passer while Koufos is the better rebounder and has a little more sizzle around the rim. Still there are nights where both are non-factors. In my mind the benefit behind Mozgov’s absence is the fact that we have a better understanding of what Koufos can provide and Kenneth Faried has earned some additional minutes that probably would not have been available to him if Mozgov was healthy.
Kalen: Hardly at all. Let’s keep in mind, Mozgov usually receives about 18 minutes per game and plays only sparingly in the fourth quarter. Right now, he’s a developing young center who’s still largely inexperienced when it comes to winning basketball games in the NBA. Would he have helped? Sure. But statistically speaking, Koufos is better than Mozgov so you could even make a case the Nuggets might have been better off without him. Obviously it would have helped to have Mozgov throughout the losing streak, but to say the Nuggets lost games because he was out of the lineup, to me, just seems inaccurate. The Nuggets lost way more games than they should have for a variety of reasons, but not having their novice, raw, young center certainly wasn’t a major factor.
2. Once Wilson Chandler returns and the Nuggets regain their health, can fans expect the team to shoot up the standings again?
Charlie: There is a strong argument to be made assuming the Nuggets somehow recapture their dominance at home. With the West being as competitive as it is, the Nuggets really can’t afford to tread water and wait around for Gallo and Chandler to vault them back into contention for a top four seed. They have to get back to consistently playing at a high level right now. Unfortunately I just don’t see that happening considering the schedule only becomes more demanding and injuries keep piling up. If the Nuggets bounce back and salvage February to finish within shouting distance of .500 they stand a great chance to get right back in the mix. Keep making excuses and being satisfied with merely halting their slide and the Nuggets could be on the playoff bubble till the end of the year.
Jeremy: We have expended a great deal of energy projecting when Chandler might return as well as what his agent’s comments concerning the likelihood that he will resign with Denver mean. I expect the Nuggets to rebound from their swoon before Chandler is eligible to return. We have already seen a much better effort in Indianapolis and I think the darkest days of this season are behind them. However, until Danilo Gallinari returns, and if Nene misses a few games, the Nuggets will probably just be good enough to tread water. It will take a return to full strength for Denver to return to their winning ways. The bad news is there is no guarantee they will ever return to full health. The good news is after the All-Star break they enter the easiest portion of their schedule from a physical standpoint. More days off will be a blessing.
Kalen: I definitely think so. Making it through the month of February above .500 would have been difficult without Gallinari, but getting Chandler back should make this goal much more attainable. Though Chandler will have some adjusting to do the bottom line is that he’s still a solid small forward who can do many of the things Gallo did, and some even better. His defense should play a vital role in resurrecting the Nuggets’ passion on that side of the ball and even though he’s not a pure scorer, his offense is nothing to scoff at either. I think the Nuggets collective health is the biggest issue. If Nene, Mozgov, Ty, Afflalo and the rest of the team can stay healthy, there’s no telling how fast the Nuggets could shoot up the standings in the Western Conference.
3. How would you rate the job George Karl has done so far this season and how much is he to blame for the Nuggets recent struggles?
Charlie: I’d give Karl’s coaching a “C” at best. The problem is that the slightest hint of adversity has thrown him into panic. When the season began Karl had the Nuggets on the fast track to one of the most promising starts in franchise history, even admitting they were exceeding his own expectations. Although the team has great depth, they’ve dealt with injuries worse than any other contender in the league. After 28 games there’s been almost no progress establishing continuity with a rotation fans can feel confident will succeed in the playoffs. While it’s tough to live with the pressure of high standards set by a blistering hot start, it can’t be so easy to make excuses and expect regression to the mean.
Jeremy: I always have a difficult time answering this question. We are not privy to what goes on behind closed doors and what happens at practice. I have great concerns about some of the lineups Karl utilizes — small ball, the two-point guard lineup, etc. — and am baffled at how poorly this team defends. Ultimately those issues fall on the coach. On the other hand, I do not envy Karl trying to juggle lineups every night. It is a task made even more difficult by injuries and the fact that Karl does not know who his best player is going to be night in and night out. Will it be Lawson? Gallo? Harrington? Nene? Will Fernandez be hot or a drain on the offense? Karl has no idea, plus most of these players are not quite good enough for him to know whether they can carry a hot start into the fourth quarter of a tight game. Defensively, I think it is easier to pin more of the blame on Karl, but again, not to be an apologist, but these players are not displaying a very high basketball IQ on defense nor do they do a very good job of communicating. I know Karl can coach defense. He has done it in the past. I am not sure how well this team can learn defense and that is something he cannot solve on his own. Overall, I can see where he should be absolved from some of the blame for the team’s struggles. Even so, I do think he has made some serious errors with his lineups and he tends to stick a little too much to “his guys” even when things are going poorly. There is still time to get things figured out, but the impending arrival of Chandler might make things even more difficult for Karl going forward.
Kalen: Like Jeremy, the older I get the more I realize just how oblivious we, as fans, are to the occurrences inside the Nuggets locker room. Really, who am I to judge how good of a coaching job George Karl has done when I likely don’t even know 90 percent of the story. What I do know, however, is that after starting off incredibly strong and impressive the Nuggets reverted back to their old “street ball” mentality fairly easily, except this time around there was no Allen Iverson or Carmelo Anthony to ignite instant offense when the team needed it most. I firmly believe that you can only judge a coach based on the talent he’s surrounded with and even more so, just how well he does in the face of adversity. Karl has one hell of a roster around him, and one that he practically begged management to build for him. It’s easy to win with so much talent (even without a “superstar”) but if you’re telling me that all it’s gonna take is an injury here or there for the Nuggets to be totally derailed, then I just can’t buy into the fact that Karl’s really pushing whatever buttons he needs in order for this team to succeed. The series of losses the Nuggets suffered lately were inexplicable and unacceptable. The team didn’t even look like it was trying half the time and more importantly, the defense was nonexistent. Those are things Karl has complete control over and until he proves that he’s actively aiming to improve the team in this aspect (or in other words, until the team actually starts playing defense) then I can’t sit here and tell you he’s doing a masterful job of making lemonade out of a fairly nice crop of lemons.