Remaining schedule breakdown: The Nuggets will define themselves on the road

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.

 

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • http://twitter.com/xantoniooo808x D3Ntilthe3ND

    This is all great insight and all, but it’s simple….

    Rotations get better, better chance of winning..

    Rotation stay the same, we’re screwed…

  • steve

    good read…

    I would have to believe that Karl has to get out of the first round to keep his job. We haven’t progressed in years. I don’t know how this organization can keep everything intact if we lose in 6 to the Grizzlies.

    Regardless, Nugs are very competitive and can beat anyone in the league on any given night. Whether they can do it in a 7 games series is a different story. I think they can do it…will they? we’ll find out in a couple months.

    GO NUGS!!!

    • Charliemyboy

      Somewhat positive with a caviot; who is willing to come here who is better?

  • GermanNugget

    good article..
    to go to the 2nd round they need to have home court advantage, otherwise a team like the grizzlies will go to destroy them!

  • http://yahoo.com prospector

    HELLO?? ANYONE HOME???

    Karl is a monkey boy that has 2 buttons to press: button 1 = Small BALL, button 2 = two point guards….
    Miller & Brewer = NO 3 point Defense.. You add TY, MILLER, and BREWER = WIDE OPEN LONG BALL, SURE FAILURE….

    You can’t win on the road without playing perimeter defense… AGAIN, you can’t win on the road without playing perimeter defense.. Teams hit their shots at home… THAT is why TEAMs play for homecourt advantage in the playoffs…..
    Karl is not going to change… Our only hope and I hate to say this is for Miller and Brewer to get severe hang nail injuries and have to miss the next 2 months.. THAT is our only hope… So get used to teams like Washington punking us on the road… It happened when MELLO was here, it’s happening now… Hell it would happen if we had LEBRON JAMES.. The problem is GEORGE ” the know it all” KARL… KARL the “my system is the best” coach… TAKE THE REDPILL and WAKE UP!!
    Let’s get on MASAI’s and JOSHY BOY’s backsides right now!!!!

    • thawk

      You are the USA version of Gainluca. Does it really matter whether the Nuggets win or lose? They will still be in the league and will still entertain us with basketball next season even if they don’t make the playoffs.

      I just don’t see the big deal that they win it all. All that does is increase ticket prices.

      • ADub

        You’re obviously not a fan if you don’t care if your team wins. What’s the point of watching if you don’t care?

      • GK4Prez

        Show me a guy that is okay with losing, and I will show you a loser.

        • thawk

          I am a huge Nugg’s fan, why else would I be on this site? Alternatively, I also have a life, and don’t get bent out of shape when a basketball team I am not a part of does not win a game.

          Just bring it back down to earth and be glad we have the Nuggets to watch, they are a super fun team that can provide heartbreak and unyielding joy night after night.

    • Charliemyboy

      So you think your mom could coach better? Gk is better than 87.6% of all the coaches. Who do you want for our small town?

  • ParkHillNative

    The eternal Catch-22 of the Denver Nuggets: They can’t advance in the playoffs unless they have home court advantage because they’re so bad on the road… but they can’t secure home court advantage during the regular season, because they’re so bad on the road.

    Sometimes I fear that this team builds up our hopes just because they enjoy one of the strongest home court advantages in the league. What if the road record is the real indicator of how good they are?

  • googergieger

    At this point I’m just waiting to see if Karl is going to be here or not next year(regardless of the seed or post season results). Don’t know if I can handle another year of the magic eight ball. Might be best to take a break if we fail in the first round again and he’s back. To me that will mean this team’s owners at least aren’t interested in winning. Could always take up competitive knitting during the NBA season, worst case scenario.

  • theo

    Really excellent breakdown, Joel. Exactly. That’s why I said the Washington loss was the most disappointing of the year to me. How could they not be ready to play that game given the obvious circumstances you laid out so well? Some of that’s on Karl and some on the immaturity of the players.

    I had us with 53-55 wins and a 4th seed before the season started, and I think we’ll get there. Here’s a positive trend you didn’t mention–post Melo trade, essentially this roster has finished both of the last two years very strong. They seem to play best against the best teams and when their backs are against the wall a bit. Our backs, as you point out, are now officially against it. If they don’t understand that and play like it they deserve a one and done.

    Thought before the season that if they didn’t get into the second round, Masai needed to consider significant changes both with the coaching and the roster. If they get there I would have more patience, though without question we have to upgrade the roster to become more than a legit second tier team.

  • mike

    Most teams play significantly better at home. It’s true that the Nuggets and Jazz have aberrant home advantages compared to road records. It would be nice if they could win home court vs. Memphis and is imperative that they avoid the clippers/OKC in round 1. If they play Memphis in round 1 the real questions are: Can anyone guard Randolph halfway decent? Do they get beaten up by offensive boards from Memphis? Does memphis’ defense shut them down since they have guys who can play the Nugs two best Offensive players well (Lawson vs. Conley/Tony Allen, Gallo vs. Tayshaun)

    One of the main issues for this team is that THEY DO NOT HAVE AN OFFENSIVE superstar. Those types of guys force FTs and get opponents to suck in on them so that they can get easier shots for teammates (this is more apparent on the road). I can’t seem to find stats but I would bet they get 20% fewer FTs on the road and maybe 10-20% less assists on the road. That’s partially refs calls, but also partially aggression.

    • Ryan

      Nuggets can beat the Clippers…

  • al68

    The way to play GK can be good for the regular season but during the PO the game is slower and become less fast breaks, is played more in static which is the type of game you do not know made.
    Our defense is the followers of N Carolina requires constant defensive changes, and above all players defend and help, this never happens when Miller on the court, and fails a lot when this Mcgee.
    For this first bad attack static and poor defense not think we get very far in the PO. If GK changes can we get some.

  • James

    Anyone know the latest on Gallinari injury?

  • codizzle

    This a great article.
    The Nuggs need to get focused and steal that 4th seed from Memphis.
    Too bad Houston is coming on strong now, too.
    The two recent losses to The Wizards really pisses me off.

  • Dawid

    Memphis has 20 games against the west left not 17….