As we get ever closer to Christmas, the Denver Nuggets have given their fans in the region plenty of gifts so far this season. An 11-15 record may not seem that exciting on the surface, but for a team that was considered before the season began to be among the worst in the NBA by some in Las Vegas, it’s definitely better than what was predicted.
Included in that record are a few highs (including a three-game season sweep of the Houston Rockets) and a few lows (the offensive futility shown in an 85-74 loss to the Orlando Magic comes to mind). However, there’s still plenty of excitement about what the Nuggets have shown through the first 26 games of the season.
So what could make the rest of the season even better? Well, since we’re in the holiday spirit, here’s a Christmas list designed just for Santa.
No more injuries. At one point recently, Denver ranked third in the NBA among games lost by injured players. Denver’s rash of injuries started before the season even tipped off with Wilson Chandler having season-ending surgery. Jusuf Nurkic still hasn’t seen the court because of a knee injury. From concussions to knee and ankle ailments, it’s hard to find a Nugget who hasn’t been bitten by the injury bug this season, but Denver head coach Michael Malone has shuffled the lineup and refuses to let injuries be an excuse for his team being below the .500 mark.
“We’re not an excuse team. You’ll hear some teams beat the drum that they’re injured. I think it’s an excuse,” Malone said after practice on Thursday. “We have a lot of players who are being paid good money to play the game. If a guy is out with an injury like Wilson Chandler, that’s an opportunity for someone else. If DA (Darrell Arthur) can’t go, that’s an opportunity for Kostas Papanikolaou to come in and play. We have a lot of guys who have that mindset. Injuries are a part of the game. We can feel sorry for ourselves or we can find someone who is willing to step up and embrace that challenge and make the most of that opportunity. We’ve had a lot of guys who have done that. Emmanuel (Mudiay) is down. OK, Jameer (Nelson) is showing what he’s capable of doing. We try to be a no-excuse, no-explanation type of team. When we win, we win. When we lose, we have to get better.”
Lots of scoring. It’s been a simple equation this season. When the Nuggets hit the century mark, it’s tough to beat them. So far, Denver is 11-3 when scoring over 100 points, including 6-1 on the road. When they don’t, they’re 0-12.
“For us, 100 is the magic number. When we get to that number, we’re a very effective team,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. “Offensively, when we share the ball, good things happen. If you defend, if you make open shots, and if you don’t beat yourself, you’re going to be a good basketball team.”
Faster pace. Since arriving in Denver, Malone has preached the importance of pace. Part of the Nuggets’ recent scoring surge has been because Denver is pushing the ball up the court. They outscored the running-and-gunning Houston Rockets 24-17 in fast break points in Monday’s 114-108 win inside the Pepsi Center, but still trail their opponents 362-336 in fast break points on the season.
“If you defend and you rebound, the reward is that you can get out and run,” Malone said. “We’re doing a good job lately of throwing the ball ahead instead of walking the ball up every time. The ball travels much quicker in the air than it does on the ground. We have to continue to work on that throw-ahead attack. Guys, get out and run and we’ll reward you for running. I just like when we defend, we rebound, and we run. That’s who we need to be.”
“For us, pace starts when we get stops. Our offense is predicated off of our defense,” guard Gary Harris added. “As guards, we have to run and get to the corners and give whoever is pushing it up the court lanes to work.”
Still, for Malone, it’s not only about fast-break points but also about pace even in half-court sets. Moving the ball quickly and not waiting until the final seconds of the shot clock and settling for a bad shot are keys that Malone preaches. The coach said it was one of Denver’s downfalls in Friday’s 97-88 loss at the Utah Jazz.
“When you hold the ball, you no longer create an advantage for your teammate,” Malone said.
Sharing the ball. Much like scoring more than 100 points is a key for the Nuggets, so is racking up the number of assists. When Denver has 25 or more assists in a game, they’re 8-2. When they fall below that number, they’re 3-13.
Some national recognition. Denver’s surprising start through 26 games has largely gone unnoticed outside the Rockies … and, even though it has locals scratching their heads, that’s OK for Malone. Murmurs of Will Barton being in early contention for the Sixth Man of the Year Award (thanks to averaging 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game off the bench) are fine, but Malone wants a no-distraction zone for this players.
“All we harp on is, ‘Fellas, nobody is talking about us. That’s great.’ We’re just worrying about ourselves. We don’t want distractions. Our goal every day is to get better. By no means have we arrived. We have a lot of things we need to continue to get better at. We will, as long as we keep working hard and stay focused. We start worrying about the playoffs or Sixth Man of the Year, those are all distractions and they take your eye off the goal. Get better every day. Stay together. If we do that, good things will happen for all of us.”