The Denver Nuggets are now halfway through the 2012-13 season. It’s been a wild ride so far, full of disappointment, frustration, satisfaction and elation — basically, every sensation one typically experiences throughout the course of any given Nuggets season over the last decade. There have been revelations; there have been let downs, yet there is still so much we have to learn about this team. In light of reaching the midway mark of the season, we’ve decided to poll our writers on five of the more pressing issues currently facing the Denver Nuggets. As always with our 5-on-5 series, we ask that you too participate in the comments section by posting your analysis to each of the five questions we’ve posed below.
1. Who has been the Nuggets’ MVP through the first half of the season?
Charlie: Pepsi Center. This Nuggets team started the year with aspirations of competing for the Northwest Division and a top-four seed, but only seem interested in trying to meet those standards at home. That crutch needs to go away eventually, but even with a lousy road record the Nuggets have been good enough at home to keep hope alive.
Matt: Kenneth Faried. While every Nugget has been a bit inconsistent this year, the one that has had the least amount of those stretches is Kenneth Faried. He already has 19 double doubles, including 19/19, 21/15, 26/14, and 18/17 performances, with plenty more impressive double doubles that I didn’t list. While he has struggled defensively, the energy has been there in almost every game and kept the Nuggets in games when the rest of the team came out flat. Without Faried who knows where the Nuggets are right now.
Joel: Kenneth Faried. Denver is a team that thrives on energy, and nobody brings it harder, with more regularity. The fact that Faried has 19 double doubles illustrates his consistent production. On a team that misses so many jumpers, his offensive rebounding has been invaluable. He still needs to work on his defense, but he is improving in that area, and in a season when Lawson has disappeared far too often as the team’s engine, Kenneth has more often than not been there to drive the team.
Tom: Faried. He leads the team in win shares and is second in PER. He brings constant energy and hustle, and makes positive plays on both ends of the court. He’s also been the most consistent Nuggets player, with more great games and fewer terrible games than anyone else.
Kalen: Corey Brewer. Never in a million years did I think I’d be saying this at the start of the season, but I can’t think of anybody else who has been more consistent, played better defense and embodied everything George Karl tries to pass to his players on a daily basis at practice. On a team full of players who only flirt with reaching the pinnacle of their abilities, Corey Brewer is accessing every nook and cranny of his. I cannot even count how many games Brewer’s energy has saved his team from floundering.
2. Who has been the Nuggets’ biggest disappointment through the first half of the season?
Charlie: No one has been bad enough to warrant an unusual level of concern, but Ty Lawson sputtering out of the gate for as long as he did was a big disappoint for me. In his first two years in Denver, Ty wasn’t getting the trust or minutes he deserved and you saw unrelenting hustle and drive in whatever small opportunities he was able to get. Complacency and a sense of entitlement has crept into Ty’s game this season, which I never expected to see from him.
Matt: Ty Lawson. Beyond just the numbers drop so far this year the biggest reason Lawson tops this list is his terrible play in crunch time. It is becoming a reoccurring theme with Lawson that the Nuggets keep a game close until the end, and Lawson does all he can to make sure Denver can’t win the game. Turnovers, missed shots, bad shots, and now not even getting a shot up to end regulation in a tie game. It is a troubling problem for someone that was supposed to lead the Nuggets and continue to grow as a player following his extension.
Joel: Ty Lawson. After landing his big extension, this was supposed to be the season he took his game to the next level, but instead almost every aspect of his game has diminished. The slippage from last season goes straight across the stat sheet, with poorer shooting percentages in all categories, fewer rebounds, more turnovers and .072 win shares per 48 to last season’s .157. Even more disturbing is how his lack of aggression and confidence has held the team back as they tend to rise and fall due to his efforts.
Tom: Andre Iguodala. He’s the highest paid player, by far, but he’s barely keeping pace with Corey Brewer in terms of production and overall effect on the game. I expected a bit of an adjustment period, but it’s midseason and he still looks uncomfortable. The constant-switching defensive system has hindered his effectiveness as well.
Kalen: I don’t see how you could point to anybody other than Andre Iguodala. I’m almost intrigued at how disappointed I’ve been with him — and that’s a hard thing to do. Most of the time when someone disappoints, you become frustrated and intolerant. But with Iguodala, I’m just bewildered. The hype surrounding this guy coming to Denver was feverish. The sentiment was that finally, the Nuggets had a star! Instead, he’s been quite possibly the fifth best player on the team.
3. What is the Nuggets biggest weakness through the first half of the season and how can they fix it?
Charlie: What separates the Nuggets from the other top teams in the league are intangibles. Call it a lack of commitment, leadership, mental toughness or whatever. It’s obvious when you look at the other top teams that losing hurts more for them than it does for Denver. This team just needs more attitude and nastiness top to bottom. I do get the sense this is a group of Boy Scouts so enamored with not offending anyone that they share to a fault instead of just taking charge of the game.
Matt: Shooting. The Nuggets rank 29th in the league in three-point percentage; ahead of only the dreadful Timberwolves. What compounds this issue is the system that George Karl employs, one that is built on transition buckets, shots in the paint and threes. Unfortunately for the Nuggets there isn’t anyone on the roster that looks like they can fix the problem themselves. Jordan Hamilton can shoot but doesn’t get minutes and Gallo is turning out to be a very streaky shooter. The Nuggets need to make a move, or offense will start to come harder as teams pack the paint more and more.
Joel: Turnovers. With so many weaknesses it’s hard to isolate just one, but this is a problem that should be fixable. Denver’s style of basketball is fast and loose, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to play with greater discipline in taking care of the ball. Many turnovers occur as a result either of poor communication or one player playing hero ball rather than trusting his teammates. All of the players need to hold themselves to a higher standard of focus in controlling their ball handling and passing.
Tom: Free throws. The Nuggets have 120 more free-throw attempts than their opponents this season, but only 22 more makes. Poor free throw shooting has been a major factor in at least two losses (Jazz, Wizards) and could prove to be costly in the second half of the season. Ty Lawson is shooting better after a poor start; the rest of the team needs to make the same improvements.
Kalen: Consistency. The Nuggets have accrued all sorts of talent. They are a young team, but one capable of beating anybody, anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, they’ve also proven to be a team capable of losing to anybody, anytime, anywhere. Growing up I was always taught that playing down to the level of your opponent was a sign you were lacking mental toughness and composure. If that’s the case, then the Nuggets have the cerebral consistency of Jell-O. A more strict, more demanding George Karl would certainly help.
4. Should the Nuggets make a move at the trade deadline or stand pat and continue to build continuity?
Charlie: There aren’t too many compelling reasons to stand pat with this group and expect to win in the playoffs, but making a deal for the sake of dealing doesn’t make sense either. I would love to see the Nuggets get anything for Mozgov and perhaps pare down some of their depth for a future asset or more flexibility going forward. I still expect moves by the deadline, but not necessarily earth-shattering ones.
Matt: Make a move. The Nuggets need to add a shooter, plain and simple. While it isn’t exactly clear right now who would be available, the Nuggets have to listen to any and every offer they get that would include a shooter. J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy come to mind as players that may be available but who knows what else pops up as teams fall out of playoff races. But to continue to get better the Nuggets can’t stand back. There just isn’t any help from inside coming to fix the shooting problem.
Joel: Make a move. The chemistry of this team clicks at times, but more often they’re not on the same page (unless that page is “chaos”). Things have improved, but Denver is jelling too slowly to compete at the highest level anytime soon. Save perhaps for Faried, no player is indispensable to the Nuggets’ future. The roster is deep, but there is a talent redundancy accompanying unmet team needs. A roster shakeup carries risk, but the chance to improve balance and cohesion supersedes it.
Tom: If a great opportunity presents itself, the Nuggets need to jump on it. But don’t shake things up just to make a lateral move.
Kalen: Although I’d be tempted to ride the season out and see what this current roster could do in the playoffs, I’m also a realist and understand the opportunity to improve your team is always priority number one. During his tenure with the Nuggets, Masai Ujiri has never passed on the chance to parlay his assets into what he perceives are better players. With so many big-time names on the trading block this year, I have a hard time believing he sits this one out.
5. Fill in the blank: For the Nuggets to be successful in the playoffs this season they must ________.
Charlie: Commit to a common goal and start holding each other accountable for trying to reach it. That means playing games on the road and expecting to win. It means having the willpower to change your own circumstances rather than lamenting how tough they are. It means making fewer excuses and instead looking closer at what the Nuggets themselves can do to build a championship culture.
Matt: Defend like the end of the Golden State Warriors game. The best stretch that the Nuggets played all year came in the end of the third quarter and most of the fourth quarter against the Warriors on January 13. The team caused turnovers, limited good clean looks and rebounded the ball. It led to a convincing win and plenty of tweets saying this is what we expected the Nuggets to be this year. If the team can get there consistently the team we expected to be a threat in the West will show. If not, the inconsistent shooting will continue the inconsistent season.
Joel: Fire George Karl. Yes, I know this won’t happen. But the problems that drove Nuggets fans nuts in the Melo era – those we expected to disappear along with the so-called “Thuggets” – continue to plague this team: too much switching and laziness on defense, deflated first-quarter efforts, poor screen setting, just plain bad (if existent at all) plays out of timeouts, giving up big leads in fourth quarters, etc. Nearly the entire roster has turned over, but the song remains the same. That’s on Karl, and the tune won’t change until he’s gone.
Tom: Implement and execute better strategies on both ends of the court. This will probably require a coaching change.
Kalen: Look, George Karl has proven to be an extremely underwhelming playoff coach. Though the Nuggets have had a vast array of talent pass through Denver under his watch, he’s never been able to really make anything substantial out of it. But I want to see what he can do this year. He finally has a team he’s been asking for, so it’s time to put up or shut up. If the Nuggets play good defense and run plays (yes, it’s that easy), I have no doubt they could make another trip to the Western Conference Finals.