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.
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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