The NBA is notorious for having a small number of teams with realistic championship expectations. While nearly half of the NFL can claim to be in the running, the NBA normally only has a handful of true contenders. The Heat, Thunder and Spurs have all established themselves as frontrunners to be playing into June, but there is another interesting group below them of teams that have shown the capability of playing with the elite.
Currently, Dime is separating the contenders from the pretenders. Today, we look at the Denver Nuggets.
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42-22 (5th in Western Conference)
3-4 vs Elite (vs Heat 0-2, vs Thunder 2-1, vs Spurs 1-1)
Key players: Ty Lawson, 17.0 ppg, 7.0 apg; Andre Iguodala, 13.0 ppg; Kenneth Faried, 11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg
In a superstar-driven league, the Nuggets have gone against the grain and created a star-less team that is still feared by every opponent. After a difficult schedule to start the year, Denver has gone 25-7 since Jan. 1, while defeating the Thunder twice. With Ty Lawson and a seemingly endless supply of athletic swingmen, the Nuggets are third in the league in scoring and have averaged a blistering 110 points per game since the All-Star break.
With nine players averaging at least eight points per game, the Nuggets have offense in abundance. They lead the league in fast-break points at 19.8 per game by forcing the second-most turnovers in the league. The addition of Andre Iguodala provided a defensive stopper who can run the fast break and either pass or finish. The Nuggets are driven by their point guards, Lawson and Andre Miller, and are second in the league in assists.
The Nuggets are legitimately two-deep at every position and George Karl’s rotations take advantage of it. JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller would start on many teams across the league, but Karl is able to bring them off the bench and have them play more minutes against backups. Although McGee is being underused, Kosta Koufos has played much better with the other four starters than McGee. The Lawson-Iguodala-Danilo Gallinari-Faried group is plus-88 on the season with Koufos and a paltry minus-33 with McGee.
McGee, however, is part of one of the Nuggets’ biggest strengths: forcing turnovers. Despite averaging less than 20 minutes per game, McGee blocks more than two shots per game to help Denver place fourth overall in blocked shots. Iguodala, Lawson, Faried and Corey Brewer are the ballhawks that have the Nuggets second in steals.
Playing at a breakneck tempo is even more effective when done in the Mile High City. The Nuggets are tied with the Heat for the fewest home losses at 28-3, and outscore opponents by 10 points per game. The Nuggets use the thin air of the Rockies to their advantage and give visitors a rude welcome to Denver.
The Nuggets success this season is all the more impressive when their shortcomings are accounted for. For instance, the Nuggets can’t shoot. Although their overall percentage is in the top five, the Nuggets are bottom feeders from the charity stripe and beyond the arc. They are 24th in three-point percentage and only above the Dwight Howard-Lakers and Pistons in free-throws. Gallinari is the only true three-point threat, but Lawson and Wilson Chandler can make shots from deep at times. Because of the lack of shooters, Karl has played Chandler and Gallinari extended minutes at power forward to increase the pace and help spread the floor.
Iguodala is part of both shooting problems for the Nuggets. His 57.8 free throw percentage is a career-low, and a year removed from making nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers, he is down to 31.6 percent from long range.
The Nuggets will also have a tough time in the playoffs because of their system. Among recent teams, the Nuggets are most similar to the Steve Nash-era Suns, who scored in bunches, but never made the NBA Finals. When the pace inevitably slows in the playoffs, the Nuggets’ shortage of shooters will come back to bite them.
The Nuggets are an exciting team because of their depth, versatility and athleticism, but they aren’t built to succeed in the playoffs. Their weaknesses are some of the most essential postseason requirements.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, superstars win championships in the NBA. The missing piece for the Nuggets is a go-to scoring wingman… oh, right, they had their hand forced and traded Carmelo Anthony two years ago. The case for a superstar is a historical one. Only one team has ever won a championship with a leading scorer lower than the Nuggets currently have: the 1951 Rochester Royals were led by Arnie Risen’s 16.3 points per game. The next lowest scorer for a championship team was Rip Hamilton’s 17.6 for the 2004 Pistons. The Nuggets are not the 2004 Pistons by any stretch of the imagination. While the Pistons focused on defense, the Nuggets are an offense-first team.
Without a superstar to carry the offense in the half court, the Nuggets might be able to win a round based on their athleticism and possible homecourt advantage, but the Finals are out of reach.
Can you win in the playoffs playing like the Nuggets do?
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