Starting with tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nuggets have 25 games left in their regular season schedule. Here we’ll take a look at how the final stretch breaks down, what we might expect to see if Denver continues on its current trajectory, and the critical importance of improving their performance in road games.
The overall schedule picture looks pretty good for the Nuggets, who should be able to capitalize on their home dominance with 15 more home games but just 10 more on the road. Of the games at the Pepsi Center, seven will be played against teams currently over .500, and eight against teams with losing records. The breakdown is even more favorable for the away games, with four against winning teams and six against the under .500 crew.
In terms of the actual scheduling, too, things look fairly favorable. There are no more 4-in-5s remaining, and just four back-to-backs. Of the B2Bs, only one is against an over-.500 team. In two, Atlanta/Sacramento and Portland/Milwaukee, the first game is at home and the second on the road. In one, Chicago/Oklahoma City, both are on the road. The other has them on the road against Utah, returning home to face Dallas the next day. The Thunder game will obviously be tough, but the others are should-wins.
The Nuggets currently have the league’s third best home record at 23-3 (.885), but their road record of 12-19 (.387) ranks just thirteenth. If they continue winning at these respective percentages, it projects to finishing the season with 52 wins and 30 losses, after going 13-2 at home and 4-6 on the road down the final stretch.
Unfortunately, this may not be good enough for Denver to secure the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. ESPN’s Playoff Odds, based on John Hollinger’s Power Rankings, currently project the Memphis Grizzlies finishing the season at 52-30, with Denver in the fifth seed at 51-31. Obviously this is not set in stone. They still need to play the games, and there’s plenty of opportunity for surprising developments to go down.
But Hollinger’s model increases in accuracy as the season progresses and increased sample sizes give the data more predicative power. So it’s instructive in demonstrating, based on the stats up to this point, the probability that if the Nuggets status quo continues, the Grizzlies will end up with a better record. Which means that in order for Denver to pass Memphis and claim the fourth seed, they will have to start winning games at a higher percentage.
The Nuggets are currently three games back behind the Grizzlies, but actually have four more losses. And even more daunting is the prospect that ESPN’s projectiions may be underestimating the Grizzlies.
if Memphis closes out their final 27 games at their current winning percentage of .673, they will win 18 of them and finish with 55 wins. Rolling with the hypothesis that the Grizzlies indeed reach 55, that means Denver has two paths to the fourth seed: They must either win 55 games and the tiebreaker with Memphis, or win 56 games.
Of course, the best way to secure the tiebreaker would be to beat Memphis at the Pepsi Center on Mar. 15 in what may well be the most important game of the season. In their season series thus far, Denver has two wins and Memphis one, so a win in that game would clinch the tiebreaker. If the series ends up 2-2, the next tiebreaker will be conference record.
Fortunately, the Nuggets are well positioned on this front, too. Their current conference record is 22-11 (.667), and the Grizzlies’ is 19-13 (.594). 19 of Denver’s last 25 games are against Western Conference opponents. Of these, eight are against over-.500 and eleven are against under-.500 teams.
In Memphis’ case, 17 of their last 27 games are against conference rivals, with seven against winning and ten against losing teams. So schedule wise, both teams are in a pretty similar situation. But if the Nuggets continue their current winning percentage against conference opponents, then to pass Denver for the tiebreaker Memphis will have to drastically improve their performance against the rest of the Western Conference teams they face.
But whether the Nuggets get the tiebreaker or not, the more pressing issue is that, based on their current home and road records, they are currently on pace to win just 52 games, well short of the 55 or 56 that may be needed to grab the fourth seed. But it is implausible that they’ll improve on their home performance, which is essentially in elite territory already.
So room for improvement will only be found on the road.
It is on the road where the Nuggets have suffered their biggest failures, and when it comes to the schedule, it is only on the road where they really have the wiggle room to claim a greater share of success.
Denver can no longer afford road losses like Washington and Boston, where wins were in reach but slipped away. They must properly dispense with inferior teams like the Wizards, coming out prepared and starting games more strongly.
And a noble battle for four quarters and 2½ out of three overtimes against formidable opponents like the Celtics is simply not good enough. They have to fight to the hilt, staying focused, energetic and unselfish (yes, Andre Miller, I’m looking at you) all the way to the final buzzer.
Nuggets fans have every reason to feel confident that Denver will continue its winning ways at home. They have been dominant there all season long and, barring injuries, there’s no reason that should change.
But if they cannot find a way to reverse their inefficacious ways on the road, they will find themselves having to go up against the Grizzlies or Clippers in the first round, without the benefit of home court advantage, and facing dim prospects of advancing.
The Nuggets are a laboratory project of sorts. A team without stars trying to go against the grain and prove it can hang with the best of them. And in that sense they have had some measure of success, surpassing the low expectations of doubters and naysayers by making a solid case on the court for being a legit second tier team.
But if they fail to reach the second round for the third consecutive postseason of their post-Melo incarnation, it will not bode well for the future success of their bold experiment. And pressure from fans and the media will start mounting on Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke to chart a clearer course for real success, as opposed to settling for “mediocrity is good enough because we’re [insert excuse here].”
So as they play out the remainder of their schedule, how the Nuggets face the challenge of winning more road games than they’ve been able to so far this season will largely define who this team really is. Is it just a mirage, pretenders putting on an act that impresses in the regular season but has little chance of succeeding beyond that? Or is there real potential in their madness to create something special, an unconventional team that truly is working its way toward becoming a legitimate contender?
If we do get answers to these questions, they will most likely be found on the road.