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.