The new year started out kind to the Nuggets, especially after beginning January with a franchise best 12-3 record. Although they went on to lose their final two games in January, coach George Karl still called it “maybe the best month I’ve ever had” as the Nuggets were talked about as legitimate contenders for a top four seed in the Western Conference.
That was three weeks ago. Even the worst case scenarios back then might not have predicted the precipitous slide the Nuggets would go on after losing those final two games in the month of January. Unfortunately the nightmares have come true as the Denver Nuggets limp into the All-Star break reeling and out of the playoff picture altogether. To say they have fallen on hard times would be a massive understatement.
The injuries have gotten so bad moral victories have the Nuggets feeling pretty good about themselves despite going 1-5 in their last six games. It seems ridiculous, but the optimism is not misguided. To say the Nuggets have a favorable schedule coming up would be putting it lightly. 10 of the next 12 are at home and the Nuggets will be playing on at least one day of rest for ALL of them. Let’s take a look.
Outside of a road date with San Antonio and the home game against a rested OKC, there are no scheduled losses in this stretch of 12 games occupying the next month. There are only three games against teams clearly superior to the Nuggets and two of them are at home while all of them will be played on one days’ rest.
This is clearly the softest portion of the schedule all season. More importantly, it provides a golden opportunity for the Nuggets to correct two of the biggest problems that have thrown Denver’s once-promising season off the rails:
- Winning at home — 5 of the 10 home games are against sub .500 teams, whom the Nuggets have feasted on all year. On top of that, Sacramento and Boston have to play against a rested Nuggets squad in Denver on the second night of a back to back. The Nuggets have been poor at home, getting blown out by the Jazz, Hornets and Warriors before they suffered their recent rash on injuries. Now they figure to be healthier than ever with ample rest between games and a soft slate of sub-par opponents to get their confidence up before Dallas and OKC come to town.
- Improving the defense — Outside of OKC and San Antonio, the Nuggets are collectively facing some pretty poor offensive teams. Houston and Portland are barely inside the top ten, but the remaining eight games are against teams ranked in the bottom ten in terms of offensive efficiency. There are plenty of games here the Nuggets should be able to win with their (admittedly poor) defense. In the last few games against the Thunder, Clippers, and Spurs, the Nuggets managed some decent defense but fell victim to overwhelmingly good offense they could not answer without their best players available.
The biggest danger in this stretch is falling into familiar excuses and losing the first three games. Gallo might not be available until the nine game homestand begins and it’s rumored that Nene won’t be fully healthy for the rest of the year. Even then, the worst case scenario I can come up with is the Nuggets lose to every good team they play and win two out of three at home against Portland, Memphis and Atlanta. That still leaves them at 7-5.
12-0 is probably out of the question, but assuming the Nuggets can manage a very realistic 9 wins in the next 12, they could very easily set themselves up to be safely in playoff contention for the rest of the year and perhaps even regain their early-season form as one of the better teams in the West.
Knowing George Karl, he’s aiming for 7 or 8 wins out of this crucial stretch. Even that would represent a massive improvement for a team that has lost 13 of its last 17 games. In my opinion, it is imperative to look beyond those low expectations and recognize this as an opportunity to set the tone for the remainder of the season. Anything less than 8 wins and I will be seriously worried about the Nuggets maintaining a good enough pace to realistically make the playoffs.
There’s lots of excuses and hardship surrounding the Denver Nuggets right now. Every game is plagued by a hopelessness and a belief that circumstances are so bad losses can’t be avoided. With the tide finally tuning in Denver’s favor, it’s time for the culture of excuses to come to an end. It’s moments like these the Nuggets need to come together and find themselves while opportunities for redemption still exist.