The enigmatic Nuggets – a search for coherence in a dissonant season

The NBA season is really just a string of smaller ones, held together by a unifying narrative we superimpose over all 82-games for the sake of coherence. It’s how we give meaning to the ultimate inconsequence of a mid-January game: What can we use in this one game to help fuel the overriding story of the season? It’s a practice that, despite being arguably irrelevant, helps both the fans and media talk about the regular season while playing the waiting game until the playoffs, when things start really mattering again. When a team plays harmoniously with what their narrative would dictate, even if that means getting blown out because they’re a tanking team, it becomes much easier to contextualize and, thus, far more comforting.

But sometimes there’s a team whose season is as tough to pin down as a water drop with a thumbtack. Every stab succeeds only in warping its shape.

Which brings us to the bipolarity of this Denver Nuggets season, a team that has rejected all attempts at coherent narration. After a rocky start, they ripped off 11 wins in 13 games, right before succumbing to a horrific eight game losing streak, which bloomed into a four-game winning streak that has now become a rough two game slide. Though switching as seamlessly as Denver has between winning and losing streaks is rare, having a good deal of both in a long season is not altogether unusual. The odd part is the way it’s happening, the countless different re-imaginings the Nuggets have already been through just 40 games in.

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Denver’s offensive efficiency looks like the results of a polygraph from one of Stratton Oakmont’s esteemed stockbrokers. The waxing and waning of efficiency from game to game appears random at best and systematically unstable at worst. Their woes have ranged from slow starts to an inability to close games, and while effort fluctuates it seems to have little effect on the result.

The defense appears to be regressing in the wrong direction and has been subject to numerous different systematic iterations. After the failure of the hedge-stlye of pick and roll defense, Denver evolved into a switch-heavy team. That too has been recently scrapped and now the defense has evolved into a sort-of anxious hybrid of both schemes. Player roles have been subject to extreme and immediate change, as Mozgov has had his style of pick and roll defense shift more than three times already. The only defensive mandate not in a constant state of flux is the banning of double teams.

All these symptoms look as if they should add up to a prognosis of a team in transition, but even that narrative conceit doesn’t really fit. The roster is still one built mostly in the image of a past regime – one who, ironically, seemed to be in a constant state of transition themselves – and the team still plays a Karlist style of basketball. How can a team be in transition if it’s going in the same direction, just at a different speed?

Even odder is the ease in which mostly everything on the roster seems easily replicable. Out goes Darrell Arthur, Andre Miller, and Jordan Hamilton, in comes Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller and nothing really changes. That speaks well to the value Denver has in its young players, but not so well for the team overall. How much stock can you put into the core roster when a revolving door of rotation minutes barely moves the needle, especially when that core roster is so damn expensive?

A genuinely exciting road win against Golden State evolved into a poor performance against Cleveland and a disappointing attempt at a bounce-back in Phoenix. Stretch-fours are killers and Anthony Randolph is an enormous net-negative but other than that the Nuggets are tethered to very few absolutes. Each game isn’t just akin to flipping a coin, it’s like spinning a wheel with hundreds of different potential stopping places.

This lack of an identity makes it hard to characterize this team, and even harder to project what will happen in any one game, but it doesn’t necessarily make the team a bad one. They have met the general expectations thrust on them before the season, a borderline playoff team in the loaded West, and have even shown the occasional bright spot for the future. Ty Lawson continues to outplay his contract and has morphed into a borderline All-star this year. Former bench-warmers Jordan Hamilton, Evan Fournier, and Quincy Miller have all turned in productive stints and the Nuggets may have found a true gem in Timofey Mozgov. 

But the season inevitably feels like a wasted one, even if that wasn’t altogether unexpected. Worse, it’s a season that appears irrelevant, one bordering dangerously on tedium. An overarching narrative may be overrated, but it’s a prerequisite for an interesting season, especially when it’s supposed to be taking the place of success. The past is looking more contentious by the day and hope for the future is tentative at best; its investment is not even in this team, but with an ambiguous draft pick tied to the Knicks.

As for the present? Well, in a time when coherence is king, Denver is stuck playing a rather dissonant tune.

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David Walker

Freshman at FSU. Love the Nuggets, the beach, and the game that involves a ball that occasionally goes into the hoop.
  • Charliemyboy

    I’ve kinda’ been pushed away. Sorry. After last year I looked so forward to this year until Josh pulled the plug. Hope it changes in a year or five.

  • heykyleinsf

    when they went all in on McGee and we lost him after 10 games… then Gallo isn’t back on time.. and may not be at all… IDk if being at .500 right now means anything. We’ll get something for Miller, we’ll get Gallo and McGee back… we’re in good position from the draft.. and we have some decent players that will be even better with better players around them. I’m ok with things.

  • Richard Pesicka

    Denver Nugget fans are growing tired of wait until next year. Maybe if we had a storied past like the Lakers have, then that works. But we don’t. And at the rate they are playing now, we will just be a team to entertain and come out and watch. And just like you see on TV, fans root for the winning teams. The teams that go far in the playoffs or further than that. That would not be the Nuggets. Nor does a pretend future promise anything. If you’re into fantasy, keep clicking your heels together and saying ,there’s no place like …..You get the picture.

  • Native Nugget

    For me this was predictable. At the beginning of the season we had several new players, an injured starter (Gallo), a young team, a new rookie coach, new management, and a new system. Of course the year was going to go up and down. As long as some of our promising young players were developing, I was o.k. with a middling record. Problem is McGee’s out and we’re only now seeing some development of our young talent.
    My big concern is coaching and management. If Shaw can’t find an identity/system and stick with it – we’re in for a long stint of mediocrity at best. If the the front office can’t put together ONE decent trade (before the deadline) – we’re in for a long stint of mediocrity at best. I want to see us building toward a mentally tough, consistent, defensive minded team that has the capacity to execute a strong half-court offensive (ideally retaining elements of a fast paced full- court game as well). That will take Shaw and the front office taking the lead.

  • Andrew

    They’ll be fine next year. 1) Pull off trade to get rid of Miller and a few other B players, for either a pick, or a potential A list PF or SG, 2) miss the playoffs and get a decent first round pick, 3) draft an A list SG or PF, 4) get Gallo and McGee back healthy and playing well, 5) have Shaw and team settle into a style/identity. Voila! Success!

  • The Truth

    Let’s be thankful its interesting. I was willing to ride through a lot worse than what we’ve seen. DA’s injury was ill timed, McGee’s absence is detrimental no matter how he was playing at the time. I still get the feeling Shaw is teaching (and learning), so I’m good.

    Jeff Hornaceck will likely get the rookie coach prize. Damn good job – with injuries too.