The Denver Nuggets, that is. How do they do it? How have the Nuggets managed to compile an excellent won-loss record and at the same time become one of the most entertaining teams to watch?
Three words: energy, skill, teamwork.
When you think about it, anyone who succeeds in any field applies those same three qualities.
Of the top six teams in the league, the Denver Nuggets — currently in possession of the fourth-best record in the NBA — are the only team without an All-Star. Yet they are currently enjoying a winning streak of 14 games and have beaten every top team in the league (except the Heat) at least once. (Like the Heat, they’ve also lost to some of the worst teams.)
If you’re an NBA basketball fan, you know that the playoffs start in less than a month. So I wanted to give you a heads-up: be sure to watch every game the Nuggets play in the first round. If they play at all like they’ve been playing during the latter part of the season — and if all their players are healthy — you will have a chance to appreciate one of the most fun teams to watch in the league (unless you happen to be rooting against them — in which case, they can be completely frustrating).
Three years ago I wrote a post predicting that the Nuggets would win the Western Conference Finals. Then George Karl got throat cancer. The team was never quite the same again that season. They were eliminated in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.
I’m not going to make any playoff predictions this time (except to say that the Heat will probably win it all). This Nuggets teams is entirely different. (It’s like Carmelo Anthony never played in Denver.) I just want to explore a few things about the team for the benefit of fans who appreciate a pure brand of team basketball.
The Denver Nuggets have not had a lot of national TV exposure in 2012-13, which is a shame, since they have become the most intriguing team to watch that does not have an All-Star. In terms of enjoyment for a basketball fan, the only teams that match them for sheer entertainment are laden with All-Stars — the Heat, the Thunder, the Clippers — and even when compared to the NBA elite, the Nuggets play a brand of ball that has rarely been seen in the league in recent seasons.
As of today, here are the top 6 teams by record in the National Basketball Association:
- Miami Heat
- San Antonio Spurs
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Denver Nuggets
- L. A. Clippers
- Memphis Grizzlies
When it comes to All-Stars, the Heat have LeBron James, Dwayane Wade, and Chris Bosh; the Spurs have Tim Duncan and Tony Parker (and Ginobili has been an All-Star); the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the Clippers have Blake Griffin and Chris Paul; and the Grizzlies have Zach Randolph.
The Nuggets have nobody.
To be fair, Andre Iguodala, new to the Nuggets this season, was an All-Star last season. But other than that, none of the Nuggets has ever made the team.
So, how are the Nuggets succeeding? Why do they have the fourth best record in the NBA?
First, energy. The Nuggets are the third youngest team in the league, with an average age of 24 — and if you take guard Andre Miller, who is 37, out of the mix they would be the youngest team in the league. When it comes to energy and endurance, a young motor helps. Yet this is also a team that likes to play hard.
The energy the Nuggets bring to a game is epitomized by forward Kenneth Faried — aka the “Manimal” — who is like a more gentlemanly and, well, sane Dennis Rodman. He rarely quits on a play. As a result, he is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds and is currently 14th in the league in RPG (down a bit due to a minor drop-off in March). Constantly bouncing around the basket, he can wear opponents out — just like the Nuggets team as a whole.
It doesn’t hurt that the Nuggets play their home games in an arena a mile above sea level. Combined with the slight boost in conditioning living in Denver might give them, they also try to run the legs off their opponents in every game. Often, they succeed. As a result the Nuggets often dominate the fourth quarter. The have the NBA’s sixth-highest point differential in the fourth quarter and rank third in 4th-quarter shooting percentage.
They are a great home team. At 32-3, the Nuggets are tied with the Heat for the best home record in the league.
Though the Nuggets can take stretches of time off during games (it’s an awfully long season, after all), they are almost never completely out of a game. This is epitomized by last night’s win against the Philadelphia 76ers. Down by five to the Sixers with 14 seconds left, the Nuggets’ Corey Brewer, another no-off-switch kind of guy, took matters into his own hands and scored 6 points within 12 seconds to win the game for the Nuggets.
Though youth and inexperience can also lead to mistakes and stretches where more disciplined, seasoned teams take advantage of them, the win against the 76ers — lucky, to be sure — shows that luck favors the energetic.
Skill and Versatility
The second crucial factor in the Nuggets’ success is skill. Just because they don’t have an All-Star doesn’t mean they are lacking in basketball skill or talent. The Nuggets have one of the deepest and most versatile rosters in the NBA.
Perhaps most important, skill-wise, Ty Lawson, their dynamic young point guard, has been putting up Tony-Parker-like numbers during most of the last two months. In fact, the winning streak was in large part ignited by Lawson’s ever-improving offense and leadership. Since he’s added an accurate mid-range pullup jumper to his arsenal, opposing teams are having a hard time containing him. He’s even begun making correct decisions in crunch time, either finding the open man or scoring himself (Denver beat Oklahoma City on a 3-point buzzer-beater by Ty, the fourth win in the current streak). At the beginning of the season, Lawson was consistently making bad plays in similar situations.
Danilo Gallinari is another gifted player who can go off on any given night. Though unlikely ever to average over 20 points a game, given the current balance of Denver’s roster, he couples periodic lights-out shooting and an above-average ability to attack the basket with decent defense. Wilson Chandler — like Gallo, acquired by the Nuggets in the New York trade for Carmelo Anthony — is a 6′ 8″ forward in a similar mold and probably generates even more consistent offense and defense than Gallinari. Along with Corey Brewer, it’s a luxury for the Nuggets to have Chandler coming off the bench, along with guard Andre Miller.
When it comes to big men, Denver is also well-endowed. Starting center Kosta Koufos continues to improve and has the second best field-goal percentage in the league. Timofey Mozgov is a seven-footer who could start for several NBA teams.
And then there’s JaVale McGee. A very athletic 7′ center, it will be interesting to see if George Karl’s patient tutelage combined with practice over time will enable McGee to reach his full potential — which is pretty much limitless. As of now, his game is raw and unstrategic, but if he ever becomes more deliberate and clever in his approach, he could become one of the top three centers in the league. He shows startling flashes of skill and can throw it down like nobody’s business. He simply needs to add a few more inside moves, a decent short-range jumper, and know when to use them. Combined with additional defensive experience and discipline, it would make him an elite center.
If JaVale McGee wanted to become the best center in the league, he has the athletic talent to do it. For example, if he simply learned Kareem’s skyhook — shot 500 a day with his right hand and added 250 jump hooks with his left during the off-season — he would have an unstoppable offensive weapon. If he combined that with a lot more one-on-one and 3-on-3 practice games, he could become a top-ten scorer.
McGee also needs to improve his free-throw percentage, which the Nuggets as a team also desperately need to do, especially the big men. The Nuggets are currently 28th in the league in free-throw percentage. Missed free throws have actually been the difference in a few of their losses. It’s inexcusable, not to mention frustrating, that any basketball player being paid millions makes less than 70% of his free-throws. If the Nuggets significantly improved in that one area, they would become championship contenders over night.
Unlike any other top team in the NBA, the Nuggets don’t have a consistently-dominant offensive player, yet any of 6 players on the team can change the course of a game on a given night (Lawson, Gallinari, Chandler, Brewer, Faried, McGee, and Koufos; and Iguodala is always a threat for a triple-double).
The Nuggets have what may be the deepest bench in the league. Their victories result from a roster-wide effort, which can go beyond the first 9 players in the rotation, especially when players are out due to injury. Off the bench, Jordan Hamilton is a remarkably reliable 10th man and versatile forward Anthony Randolph could get a lot of minutes on almost any other NBA team. Even Evan Fournier, the 20-year-old Frenchman, and little-used point guard Julyan Stone can come in and play with poise and effectiveness.
Couple their broadness of talent with team play and it’s easy to see why the Nuggets can create nightmares for opponents.
Do they have room for improvement? Of course. Remember how young a team they are. In addition to making more free throws, they need to shoot a higher percentage from behind the arc (though the regular availability of Wilson Chandler has helped a lot in this regard recently). On the flip side, the Nuggets also need to improve their recognition and effort in defending the 3-ball, which has killed them in some games. And they must learn how to defend the pick-and-roll better (though they have improved in this area during the season).
Even more maddeningly, since it’s such a fundamental part of the game, their big men need to block out better. Like free throws, that’s something that any professional basketball player should do by reflex. Still, the Nuggets are the second-best rebounding team in the NBA (behind Indiana). If they managed to improve at rebounding, it would seriously multiply headaches for opponents.
Depending on what happens in this year’s playoffs, it must be somewhat scary for other elite teams to consider that the Nuggets could get much better if they just dedicated themselves to those five eminently-improvable areas.
From a fan’s standpoint, it is also encouraging that the Nuggets seem to enjoy playing together. They give the impression of supporting each other and the team wholeheartedly — too often a rarity among NBA teams.
It will be fun to watch this team develop. Indeed, they are already much better than they were last November.
Teamwork and Unselfishness
Third, teamwork. Coach George Karl perpetually preaches “teamness” and fundamental basketball. The Nuggets still don’t always consistently apply his instructions, but after the All-Star break they began to show that they were really starting to get it. Every player on the team is buying into Karl’s philosophy and their basketball skills are good enough that when they play as a team and play up to their individual potential, they usually win.
And now we come to why the Nuggets are so much fun to watch. Karl exhorts them to run. Every NBA fan in the history of the league has enjoyed an up-tempo, fast-breaking team. And when the Nuggets are hitting on all cylinders, their fast break is a thing of beauty.
In that respect, they remind me of the Showtime Lakers — the first team to do so since Kareem retired in 1989 — with Andre Miller filling the role of a sort of pocket Magic Johnson, Corey Brewer in the James Worthy role, and Andre Iguodala in the role of hard-nosed defender (and dunker) Michael Cooper.
Then you have Ty Lawson often going end-to-end as a one-man fast-break.
Karl also wants the Nuggets to attack the rim, which they do, relentlessly. In fact, that’s about the only way they consistently win. The Nuggets are probably the best overall alley-oop team in the league, with JaVale McGee, Iguodala, Faried, Brewer, and even Gallinari capable of getting above the rim and finishing. Of course, you have to have someone who can make the pass, and there is no one better at that than Andre Miller.
The Nuggets are leading the league in points in the paint. Overall, they are the third highest-scoring team in the NBA. They are third overall in assists.
But it’s not all just an offensive show. Karl also preaches defense. The Nuggets are not nearly the best defensive team in the league (which may be the critical Achilles heel when it comes to contending for a championship), but they currently stand second in the league in steals. When they start to get their hands into the passing lanes and pick opposing guards’ pockets — Iguodala and Brewer are especially good at this — they are probably the peskiest defensive team in the league, since they convert turnovers into fast-break points in waves. A game can be meandering along with a point differential of 2 or 3 — and suddenly the Nuggets’ opponent finds itself down by 14. It’s demoralizing.
The Nuggets’ defense has consistently improved over the course of the season and they have benefited very much from the addition of Iguodala, who is a stud on defense and can make a big difference in a game with his defensive play alone, one of the few players in the NBA capable of doing this.
Denver is also tied for third in the league in blocked shots. And a block is another opportunity to score transition points.
And then there’s what JaVale McGee does. Sure, he’s gotten a bunch of blocked shots (he’s 8th in the league without being a starter), but sometimes doesn’t even bother to block the shot. He simply possesses it.
I’m going to leave you with this final defensive highlight by McGee because the entire sequence epitomizes what the Nuggets do best — play hard, surprise opponents, attack, pass, and score via breakneck transitions. Enjoy!
And be sure to watch them during the playoffs… (Better yet, see them in person. For more on that, see below.)
How to get NBA tickets for a discount from ScoreBig
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Is ScoreBig reliable? They have been favorably reviewed and written up in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and CNET. You can also find positive comments about ScoreBig’s deals on some of the team fan forums around the country.
Note: You no longer need an invitation to be able to use the site. And another benefit: they will list on their homepage current good ticket deals to events in your city. If you’re flexible, you can score some great deals to games and shows.
If you’re an NBA fan, good luck to your team as the playoffs begin. If your favorite team has not been able to make the playoffs, consider following the Nuggets, a team to warm the heart of the basketball fan who is a purist.