Nuggets Playing Through Learning Curves
It’s often said that in the NBA, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. Teams either want to be among those competing for a title, or in position to compete for one of the top picks in the draft.
Of course, teams that earn high draft picks year after year want to eventually work their way up to be able to make a deep playoff run. Oklahoma City followed that model years ago and have been in the playoffs in four out of the last five seasons (and narrowly missed out on the playoffs last year because of injury issues).
The Denver Nuggets are one of the teams in the league that find themselves in the midst of a rebuild. As the third-youngest team in the Western Conference, with an average age of 25.6, they now look to be on their way up. In fact, their rebuilding efforts look to be ahead of schedule as they’re currently just six games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Prior to landing in its current two-game skid, the team had been playing well recently as they won five out of six, including four in a row at home. However, since that stretch, the team lost back-to-back games on the road to the Miami HEAT and Orlando Magic.
With tough upcoming road games against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, their playoff hopes could fade fast. While no one inside of the locker room will concede on the postseason, it seems like an accomplishment to still be mathematically alive in the playoff race with so few games remaining.
During their two-game losing streak, the Nuggets have shown some normal bad tendencies for a young team on the rise. The defense has slipped at times and the offense has gone through bouts of inconsistency as well.
The Nuggets trailed by as many as 18 points in the third quarter on Tuesday against the Magic, but managed to cut that deficit to just three points early in the fourth quarter. After cutting the lead down, the team went on a cold streak and the Magic eventually built their lead back up to 13 points just five minutes later. That’s life for a young team on the rise.
“It’s a matter of defense and we’ve shown that we can be a good defensive team, but consistency has been a huge issue for us,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “I think that speaks to our age and our youth. We’re playing and closing games with a bunch of rookies so there are going to be nights where we look pretty and there are going to be other nights where we don’t look so good.
“What is disappointing for me is that we’re coming off of a four-game win streak and a very productive home-stand and we won because of our defense. We won because of our ball movement and our valuing the ball. We’ve come on the road and we’ve forgotten that. We have some tough teams coming up – Atlanta, Charlotte and Cleveland. It’s not going to get any easier until we learn that defense has to be a constant for 48 minutes [and] 82 games a year.”
Earlier this season, Kevin Durant recalled a game early in his career when the Thunder was still learning how to win games. He told a group of reporters in Orlando that he still remembers the exact game when Carmelo Anthony hit a game-winner over his team. He said that all great teams have to go through those moments in order to become better.
Durant applied that moment to what the Magic are going through and it seems applicable to what the Nuggets are going through as well. While the Nuggets are rebuilding, it’s those moments that they’ll have to learn how to play through in order to be taken seriously as a team and take the next step in their development.
By all accounts, it appears they have the foundation in place to be taken seriously. While the chances of making the playoffs this season are fading quickly, the team will be taking these final 14 games as a chance to build for next season.
“We play a lot of young guys,” Will Barton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the core of our team right now in the rotation, so we got a lot of rookies and second-year guys that’s playing. If we can close the season on a positive note and get us some momentum and confidence going into next season, that’ll be huge and guys will feel more ready and more comfortable going into next season.”
Denver’s young core is made up of last year’s lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Barton. Of course, they join veteran players in Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Each of these players are under contract for the foreseeable future and figure to play a huge role in Denver’s push to return to the playoffs.
Aside from the development of Mudiay, perhaps one of the biggest stories to come from Denver this season has been the emergence of Barton. Since arriving in Denver at last year’s trade deadline, Barton’s numbers have improved dramatically.
He’s improved his offensive production from 6.8 points last season to 14.8 points per game this season. His rebounding has improved from 2.8 to 6.1, assists from 1.4 to 2.4 and his three-point shooting has jumped from 27 percent to 34 percent.
Barton was rewarded with a three-year, $10.6 million deal over the summer to remain in Denver. With the emergence of C.J. McCollum this season in Portland, it remains to be seen whether or not Barton can win the Most Improved Player of the Year award, but he’s certainly in the conversation.
“The next level with me I feel like is more mental than anything,” Barton said. “I’m a guy that expects a lot from myself and I want a lot from myself. I think sometimes that kind of gets me in trouble just trying to prove myself that I can do this and I can do that.
“I feel like I’m at best when I’m just out there playing care-free; not thinking and not over thinking. Just going out there and having fun playing the game. I feel like now I have to come to grips with myself that [I’m] becoming who [I] want to be – don’t rush it too fast or don’t try to get caught up in it all.”
Given the rise with Barton, and several other players on the team, the Nuggets seemed to be well-positioned for the future. They have a good mixture of veterans on the roster that can help mentor the younger players.
This summer could be the offseason that boosts the team into contention. They could have as many as three first-round draft picks in the draft, and as much as $28 million in cap space to utilize in free agency.
When Malone took over as head coach last June, the Nuggets were a mess. Players were said to have been counting down the days until the end of last season, and the future of several of those players was in question. Fast forward nearly one season later, and it seems like those issues are a thing of the past.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but it seems like the Nuggets are on the verge of achieving success for years to come.
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