3-on-3: Remaining season outlook

In Roundball Mining Company’s latest edition of our 3-on-3 series, we examine what lies ahead for the Denver Nuggets in the near future. There are 13 games remaining on the schedule: seven on the road and seven against teams currently at or below the .500 mark. Right now the Nuggets sit in seventh place in the Western Conference standings and would face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Playoffs. Is this the same position the team will find itself in roughly three weeks from now? If so, would it be able to handle a well-coached Spurs team in a seven-game series? These questions and more are detailed inside.

1. Between new Nuggets, JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler, who has impressed you the most and which one do you see staying with the team the longest?
Jeremy: While both players are relatively known quantities, I have been more impressed with JaVale McGee. To be honest, most of it is because few players in the NBA have McGee’s length and athleticism whereas there are far more players similar to Chandler. I had hoped that Chandler would have returned from China with a more well-rounded offensive game. But it appears he posted incredible numbers completely due to the fact he was far and away the most talented and polished guy on the court.
We have seen all of McGee’s flaws on display since he arrived. We have also seen incredible dunks, impressive blocks and even a couple of nice post moves. McGee’s ceiling is extremely high, although the likelihood he reaches that ceiling is equivalent to me selling my house for what I paid for it nine years ago. All things being equal, I would expect McGee to have a brighter future in Denver than Chandler, but thanks to his pending restricted free agency status this might not be the case. With so many teams under the cap for next season, it is certainly possible someone makes him an offer Denver has to refuse. I expect Denver to match any reasonable offer he might receive this summer lest the Nene trade turn into a 100 percent salary dump. McGee will have to struggle for a long time before the Nuggets give up on him so the chances of him being traded in the near future are slim.
Charlie: I have a mixed answer on this one. I expected Chandler to make a bigger short-term impact (and I think he will), whereas I always saw McGee as a gamble —  a way to dump salary while opening up restricted free agency leverage in the hopes that JaVale turns into a long-term value play. In that sense, Chandler has been the more disappointing one while the enigmatic McGee has become a starter and shown good potential. It’s way too early to fairly evaluate either guy, but right now I expect Chandler to pick up his play and stay in the long-term plans over McGee. On the other hand, McGee’s all-around game has impressed me enough to at least warm to the idea of keeping him around. We know JaVale can produce, but the ongoing maturity issues present a risk that could easily drive down his market value in free agency. As the Nuggets found out with J.R. Smith, that is a risk worth taking at the appropriate price, especially for a player as young and talented as McGee.
Kalen: JaVale McGee, and that’s even with him having played somewhat underwhelming over the last several games. Wilson Chandler has been a massive disappointment. Prior to coming to the Nuggets he appeared on the brink of becoming one of the better small forwards in the league. In his first three months with the Knicks, Chandler was averaging about 18 points, six rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game. Since that time his production has dipped drastically. Last year in the playoffs Chandler was even more disappointing and it appears that has carried over to this year. Nobody is asking for him to become the next LeBron James, but he must figure out a way to more clearly put his stamp on the game. Right now, it’s as if he’s drifting in and out of consciousness, occasionally showing up but absent for the majority of his floor time. If he doesn’t step up this year, it would be incredibly wise of management to ship him off this summer as his value is still relatively high and his contract, extensive.
As for McGee, here’s what I don’t get: Masai Ujiri practically begged, on his hands and knees, for Nene to come back this summer. He knew the type of contract he would fetch and appeared to have no problems with it. If he did, he wouldn’t have been so adamant that Nene returned. Not even a full season into his five-year deal, Ujiri then decides his contract is too much to handle. So what does he do? He turns around and trades for a guy who publicly stated he expects to sign a deal just as lucrative, if not more, than Nene’s. If the goal was to simply shed salary then why didn’t Ujiri trade for draft picks? Renting a talented, athletic, young — albeit frustrating — center doesn’t make sense, not when you could have traded Nene (and parts) away for a first-round draft pick. For this reason, I fully expect McGee to remain with the Nuggets even if it means taking on a contract just as bad as Nene’s, which will send Ujiri full circle, right back to where he started.
2. What has surprised you the most about the Nuggets since the All-Star break?
Jeremy: I am shocked by how bad they can be. Every team experiences ebbs and flows throughout the course of the season, but for Denver to look so completely disheveled… In six of their last 10 games Denver has looked like a team fighting for lottery balls instead of a team fighting for a playoff berth. Regardless of how fans view them, the Nuggets have always been a solid defensive team under George Karl. This year things have been completely different. It is easy to blame the roster turnover, and it is true the previous few weeks the wheels have completely fallen off; however, the excuse of roster turnover only goes so far with me. For proof I give you last season’s post-trade team which was completely overhauled but managed to sport a fantastic defensive efficiency rating. Great defense requires continuity, but competent-to-good defense can be produced with effort and passion. Watching the Nuggets every night it seems they have given up on themselves. Maybe if they can get completely healthy in the next week or two, they can return to their winning ways. The chances of them returning to the solid defense of yore seems impossible at this point and that is going to prevent them from becoming the force they were in January.
Charlie: Honestly, there haven’t been any big surprises surrounding the Nuggets since the All-Star break. They were a middling, injured team before the deadline and remain the same afterward. The biggest changes involve the long-term outlook, which is impossible to evaluate without knowing the Nuggets future plans. Their success has been largely dependent on Lawson and Afflalo, just as it has been for much of the season. The biggest surprise to me is the lack of dominant teams in a traditionally-stacked Western Conference. The Spurs have earned the right to be considered the West’s other legitimate title contender, but I still have serious reservations about declaring them or the Thunder favorites to win a championship. The playoff picture is muddled with so many quality teams and I think it might be a year where the luckiest, hottest team makes a run to the Finals. At this point, nothing would surprise me.
Kalen: The fact that the team continues to lose in near-embarrassing fashion. As I’ve always, ALWAYS, maintained: Losing is one thing, but losing when you shouldn’t, when you have no excuse to and when the talent on your roster clearly trumps your opponent — that’s a whole different story and one that has encapsulated the Nuggets for quite some time now. The bottom line with this team is that it doesn’t play the right way. It’s not playing the beautiful basketball we know it’s capable of. I hear excuse after excuse about “gelling,” new parts, time, familiarity, but none of those things give you an excuse to play ugly, uninspired basketball, especially with no defense! I guess I’m just tired of any and every malfunction giving the Nuggets every reason in the world to play bad basketball. Adversity is this team’s Kryptonite. Someone gets injured, the team turns into a .300 ballclub. Adding new parts? Better take off a few games for that. My question is: When will this team ever man-up, find some consistency on defense and take responsibility for themselves on the floor? This goes for George Karl as well. In fact, it’s his job to do this — to figure out how to make things work. If the team can somehow manage to get a firm grip heading down the stretch, the playoffs might actually be enjoyable this year instead the typical ass-whooping that usually ensues.
3. At the end of the regular season, what will the Nuggets record be and where will they be seeded if they manage to make the playoffs?
Jeremy: It is very difficult to project what this team will do from game to game. Over the course of two or three weeks, it gets a little easier. The Nuggets really should win their next five games, although the probability of doing so is low. Still, with this slight break in the schedule and the chance of Danilo Gallinari returning, it is certainly possible Denver could build some confidence and momentum. But as we discussed in question two, they are not going to morph back into the team that started the season 14-5. Ultimately I expect the Nuggets to win eight of their final 13 games giving them a final record of 37-29, which I believe is the record I predicted for them before the season started. I suspect that will put them right where they currently are, in seventh and facing a difficult first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs.
Charlie: The more I watch this team play, the more I realize they just don’t know each other very well. I’ve come to appreciate their effort while realizing injuries and circumstance have dealt them an unfortunate hand. The past few weeks have felt more like early-season adjustments rather than a serious playoff push, and after the Nene trade there was no way to avoid it. Looking at the 14 remaining games, I think seven or eight wins is reasonable. I would imagine 36 or 37 wins means anywhere from a seventh seed to ninth place and out of playoffs completely. Of the likely top-four matchups, I think the ones to avoid are Oklahoma City, Memphis and San Antonio, in that order. I would be happy with earning a seventh seed and taking my chances against the Spurs in San Antonio, where I think the Nuggets could put up a hell of a fight (health permitting).
Kalen: I have the Nuggets going 7-6 the rest of the way, moving one spot up to sixth and facing either of the L.A. teams in the playoffs. The Nuggets are still more talented than the Rockets, meanwhile Dallas has a more difficult schedule down the stretch. I see Gallinari coming back and giving the team a little boost prior to the end of the regular season and the team finally “gelling” around this same time. That said, if I’ve learned anything with this team it’s that nothing is impossible. The Nuggets could still very well not even make the playoffs, or conversely, string together a furious run and make a strong push for homecourt advantage. The talent is there, it just needs to be realized. If the Nuggets do make the playoffs, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the only teams I can almost guarantee would beat Denver in a seven-game series. Otherwise, if the Nuggets are healthy they can give almost anyone in the West a run for their money.
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  • chronosynchlastic Infundibula

    Great read. Like Kalen, nothing would surprise me at this point (anywhere from 4th to 9th). I guess the only thing that would surprise me is if the team plays well in the playoffs and takes a series to seven games. I think this team still lacks a post player and their team defense needs a lot of work too. I’m sure their 3 point shooting will improve next year, I don’t know why, I’m assuming the three point % can’t get much worse.

    I simply don’t know what to think anymore. Somebody please tell me what to think! I’ve given up on the season back in February. In February, when everyone was making excuses (injuries, tough schedule) for the poor play, I just knew deep in my soul that this team was doomed. I’ve seen the culture of excuses play out many times in the past and it never works out in the end. I can already imagine the plethora of excuses that will be relied on come playoff time. They will say, no home court, too many injuries, the referees rigged the game, or my personal favorite
    – “the team that swept us in the first round went on to the finals, so its okay.”

    • evan

      Those are legit excuses IMO.

      How can you expect to compete with your entire starting line up out?

      How can you compete if the game is fixed?

      And OH NO!! the nuggets lost to the best team in the league, all that means is… They’re not the best. Shocking.

      Oh and home court isn’t an advantage at all.. you’re right.

      • chronosynchlastic Infundibula

        Hahaha! I don’t care if they are “good” excuses, I want results!

    • Kalen

      Classic indeed. That was always one of my favorites too. The Nuggets really have built a fanbase that thrives on excuses in a way. The team is always good, but never great, and there’s always a reason why. There always will be too unless someone is held accountable.

  • evan

    Without NENE they have trouble matching up against post-up PFs. Memphis and Dalas would be the worst, aside from OKC, who … has KD, and is a match-up problem reguardless.

    Anyway, Nuggets are going to get 4th seed, and beat the clippers in 6.

    Mark my words. Galo is going to be huge, and they’re already starting to figure it out.

    • evan

      Or maybe on second though it’s without Kenyon Martin….

    • Dan

      What are you smoking, it must be good…

      • damon

        K mart was two time defensive player of the year. Regardless of age and health, he is sure as shit better than Manimal right now.

  • Tom

    How can anyone say that injuries are a weak excuse?? The Colts went from perennial division winners to worst team in the league when Peyton Manning got injured. You think they could have just toughened up and made the playoffs anyway? Almost every player on the Nuggets has missed time due to injuries this year, several of them extended periods of time. And when players come back from injury, they’re not going to be 100%. If there’s one thing GK should be criticized for, it’s sticking with an uptempo game-plan when most of the players are battling through injuries. A slower pace would help mitigate the wear and tear on the players and keep them more fresh from game to game. I understand the philosophy behind a faster pace: the Nuggets are young and play at high altitude, and thus it seems like it should be to their advantage to play at a faster pace. However, a consistently faster pace should wear the Nuggets players down over the course of a season, and it’s pretty much proven not to be effective in the playoffs, so I think GK should switch to a Popovich-style, slow-paced, half-court game. That’s my main critique, but otherwise the Nuggets are basically playing to expectations given their circumstances.

    • chronosynchlastic Infundibula

      When Drew Bledsoe got injured for New England did Bill use that as an excuse? No, he won the superbowl with back-up Tom Brady. Same with Kurt Warner and the Rams, Trent Green was the starting QB before he got injured. Even Trent Dilfer and the Ravens won after losing their starting QB Tony Banks. Injuries will bring out a teams true character. Plus the Nuggets started to fall off before the first Gallo injury. Yet our fan base is quick to give the Nuggets a pass so long as there is some sort of readily available excuse (which there always will be if you look hard enough).

      Maybe my thinking is old school, but to me, a championship is the goal, and therefore anything short of that is no good, regardless of the circumstances. Excuses are no fun.

      • Tom

        So there’s a Tom Brady hiding on this team then? There are a 100 Lance Painters for every Tom Brady out there. If Tom Brady is your expectation of what’s waiting on the bench, prepare to be disappointed repeatedly, regardless who the coach is.

        Of course a championship is the goal! That’s why trying to force GK out of town mainly due to things out of his control (e.g. injuries) is counter-productive. He’s one of the greatest coaches of all time! The fact that he never had Jordan or Shaq on his teams to carry him all the way shouldn’t be held against him. Does anyone in the universe honestly believe the Nuggets have championship talent on the team regardless of injuries? They have exceeded all of my expectations ever since GK took over, and he’s exceeded expectations repeatedly throughout his career. Calling for a coaching change will not bring the Nuggets closer to a championship unless you think they can get someone like Phil Jackson to come in.

    • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

      Payton Manning is a poor analogy. Who is the multiple time MVP on the roster that the team cannot do without? This team has 15 NBA caliber players on it. Chrono blah blah blah and I are on the same page. As soon as something goes wrong (injuries), whatever happens is excused.

      And I hate the “we lost to the eventual Champs” argument too. That does not mean you would have defeated any other playoff teams. Losing to the best only means you lost.

  • Kyle Obergfell

    Thank you Jeremy, Charlie and Kalen…

    great points and objective assessments.

    we will have to see how Chandler responds.
    I think it’s too early to judge.
    Trying to stay hopeful..

    Still wonder when Gallo is back?

  • http://yahoo mile high

    Tks Jeremy, Charlie and Kalen…
    Good predictions.
    I agree totally with Charlie that this team is nothing more than a middling team in the NBA and I think that Kalen needs to come into terms that we are just not a real talented team.
    Karl somehow got everybody to overachieve when this season begins but the great start has now come back to haunt us as we begin to find out that the reality is really not so pretty.
    That being said, I think this team still has a run in them and may yet surprise a lot of people.

  • brian

    where have my nuggets gone and who is this chameleon team!?

  • stevesf47

    Great read guys…

    totally agree that nothing would surprise me really. I do firmly believe we will make the playoffs. I just don’t think Utah, Houston, Suns all have enough left to make a push past us unless we totally collapse.

    I agree with the fact that GK has usually fielded decent Defensive teams. Most ppl don’t realize this because of the pace we play. This year is a bit off though. My only guess is that since they had no practice time, GK made things simple that are just killing this team. I’m just wondering that if GK sticks around which is most likely the case, what they will be like next year after our young guys have a full offseason to get better. Faried should make huge strides on defense.

    Also, i’m really disliking Chandler right now. He bothered me all last year and so far in 7 games this year. He is just totally out of sink. I actually don’t think he’s a great defender at all from what i’ve seen. He got destroyed by KD last playoffs all series long. I know AA did also but at least chandler is 3 inches taller and should be a little better. If he doesn’t make a difference these last 10 games, i’m all for trading his butt on the offseason.

    i have 1 question for everyone…i hope Kalen or someone from RBMC can give me their thoughts as well. Do you think this organization will amnesty birdman or al harrington on the offseason? Going into the year, i thought it’d be Al. But now i think it may be birdman. I still think it should be Al though since he’s going to be regressing at some point and makes 3 more mill per for another 3 years than birdman who has only 2 years left. I’d rather clear that money off cap and have some more cash for a better FA out there on offseason. If Chandler does stick around, we don’t need 2 stretch 4’s. Chandler was a better 3 pt shooter than Al last year. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

    • Ryan

      I view Chandler as a 2 or 3 ideally, he doesn’t really have the type of game to thrive as an undersized 4. In terms of who they should amnesty, I think it depends on whether or not GK returns next year. If he does, then obviously Andersen should be amnestied, as it’s stupid to pay someone just to sit on the bench. Karl loves Harrington and hates Andersen, so there really isn’t much of a debate there. If Karl gets the boot, however, it’s a more interesting question. In my opinion, I would still amnesty Andersen, as Harrington is younger and more versatile. With Koufos signed for 3 years, plus Mozgov and maybe McGee still on the team, there really isn’t any room for Andersen, although I think he could still be a productive bench player on another team.

      • stevesf47

        Hey Ryan, thanks for replying to the amnesty question. I just think Al makes more sense since he is paid almost double and contract extends out another year. Birdman should be tradeable soon since he is a big and towards end of contract, especially after next year. I honestly think we could get a younger FA for 7 mill to replace Al. Jamison, Ilysova, Tolliver are all UFA and Anderson is a RFA. i know anderson will probably get like 10 mill per but the other 3 are stretch 4s that would similar contracts or cheaper than AL and younger outside of jamison who you could probably get cheap. It just gives us more flexibility. Birdman is nice to have as a 4th or 5th big. at 4 mill per it’s not terrible.

        • Ryan

          I would definitely take Ilyasova over either Harrington or Andersen. The only question is if he’s playing this well solely for a new contract or if he has matured into a productive player night in-night out. I’m guessing that he’s going to command a pretty high price in FA, which the Nuggets don’t have the money for without trades/amnesty.

    • Kalen

      The amnesty clause should be your last resort when it comes to the dispersing of players. The Nuggets are much better off fielding offers for Birdman and even trading him for a second-round pick if that’s all they’ll get. Something is always better than nothing.

      Right now I see no reason why Chandler should be kept around rather than Al. The problem is figuring out where to go monetarily. Both guys still have lots of money left on their deals. Chandler is younger, but Al is better. Which one do you go with? The good news for the Nuggets is that both guys are extremely tradeable. Remember, Al’s last two years on his contract are only 50 percent guaranteed.

      So to answer your question, again, I see the Nuggets only using the amnesty provision if they absolutely must. Otherwise, they’ll try to deal people first. Chandler, Bird and Mozgov is a $10 million package some struggling team might be willing to take the bait on. If they would offer up a first-rounder, that’s you’re amnesty right there, plus you get a pick too. Not bad if the goal is to shed salary.

      • stevesf47

        awesome Kalen thanks for responding. I actually had no idea the last 2 years of mid level deal were 50%. I knew the last year was but not both. That does make a difference.

        I’m not ready to give up on chandler. He has pissed me off some but it’s only been 7 games back. Maybe GK needs to cut his PT down to about 18 min per game until he starts sharing the ball and performing like he should. But i wouldn’t be against trading him at all if we get something decent in return.

  • GK4Prez

    This team will have to make a few moves just to get down to a 15 man roster after/during the draft and/or free agency. I believe the Nuggets currently have 3 picks in this draft, so some sort of change over is on the horizon.

    • Ryan

      If GK is still around, those picks might be traded for future picks or cash. GK already has more rookies than he likes with the 3 they have this year.

  • Ryan

    The Nuggets didn’t want to lose Nene for nothing, so they signed him with the intention of trading him. (which they started trying to do almost immediately)

    I suspect the same will happen with Chandler.

  • Tom

    The whole “don’t make excuses” mentality irritates me. Of course injuries matter! As an extreme example, if all of the players died in a plane crash, no one should expect the Nuggets to be able to overcome that. The other extreme is a perfectly healthy team for the entire season. Between those two extremes there is a range of injuredness that a team can go through. The closer you get to the plane crash extreme, the worse performance you should expect from the team. Isn’t that completely obvious? On the other hand, the whole reason for having roster sizes greater than 8-9 players is so that teams can overcome a certain amount of injury. But when you start playing your 13-15th best players significant minutes (as the Nuggets have done), your team is probably going to lose some tough games. The Nuggets are somewhat fortunate in that their worst players aren’t too terrible, but when you have to replace Lawson’s minutes with Julyan Stone, and Gallo’s minutes with Jordan Hamilton, and Nene’s minutes with Chris Anderson, there’s going to be significant drop-off. If there were a truly great player on this team that could carry everyone else like Lebron James, then losing Gallo, Nene, Lawson, Afflalo, etc wouldn’t be as big a deal.

    • Charlie

      Injuries are part of the game. Good teams have them and overcome.

      Did you know when the Nuggets were 14-5 they were constantly injured? Nene missed a great deal of those games. Afflalo had a hamstring. There were an insane amount of back-to-back games crammed into one month and there was no practice time.

  • Ryan

    The thing I like about Harrington though, if it comes down to him or Andersen getting traded/amnestied, is that on many nights, Al is one of the few Nuggets who seems to be playing hard and genuinely doesn’t want to lose. With Miller and Nene completely tuned out and apathetic, Al’s genuine enthusiasm/hustle has been a welcome sight for me this year. Now that Nene is gone, the intensity has been a little better, but there’s still a lot of change that needs to happen for the Nuggets to be an elite team that cares about winning every night