That gloom over the city of Denver isn’t incoming snow, it’s the funk that’s settled over the city now that the Denver Broncos have been eliminated from the playoffs.
But cheer up! The official one-day mourning period has passed, and it’s time to really tune into basketball. It’s the perfect moment to do so too, because the 17-20 Denver Nuggets are riding a four-game winning streak and are right in the midst of answering an all-important question: is it time to start rebuilding or do they still see themselves in contention for a playoff berth?
The answer and the season hangs in the balance over the next few weeks, and there are plenty of other fascinating, frustrating, and entertaining things going on at the Pepsi Center. Just in case you’ve been too consumed with football to pay attention to the Nuggets, here are five things to keep your eyes on as you turn your attention from the gridiron to the hardwood.
1) Jusuf Nurkic, aka the guy to dream on
Nurkic is probably the number one name on the lips of Nuggets fans right now. Just this past week, the six-foot-eleven, 280 pound rookie from Bosnia has officially taken over the starting center role and fans collective hearts by going nose-to-nose with Marc Gasol and Demarcus Cousins and not backing down an inch.
While his enthusiasm is infectious, it was the flashes of talent Nurkic showed early in the season that probably made the Nuggets more comfortable with parting ways with Timofey Mozgov (who was shipped to the Cavaliers for two first-round picks last week).
What’s most surprising is just how quickly he’s been able to make adjustments in the NBA. Nurkic has good hands and quickness for a guy his size, and early in the season he had a habit of picking up silly fouls by reaching in or chasing his man out of position. Since head coach Brian Shaw made defending without fouling a requirement to get on the court, Nurkic has cut down on his fouls drastically. He’s already a more physical defender than Mozgov, and his understanding of how and where to position himself is remarkable for a player this raw. Take a look at Cousins’ shot chart from last Friday:
Cousins scored 32 points, but it took him 25 shots to do it, as Nurkic stayed planted in the paint and bothered him enough that Cousins settled for a bunch of mid-range bricks. Meanwhile, Nurkic had 16 points on a tidy 8-11 shooting night.
If anything, Nuggets fans are probably too excited about Nurkic. He’s still a rookie, and will go through all the growing pains that entails. But it’s safe to say the Nuggets really have something in Nurkic, and watching him learn on the job should be a pleasure as the seasons rolls along.
2) Shaw’s continued development as a head coach
Speaking of learning on the job, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a tougher experience than Shaw last season. Replace a hall-of-fame coach who also happens to the reigning coach of the year? Lose half your roster to injury while being tasked with changing a style of play that fell flat in the playoffs? Hey, good luck.
That being said, Shaw did employ some questionable tactics last season, some of which have carried over into 2014-15. The Nuggets half-court offense is still borderline brutal to watch at times. An inability to settle on a set rotation hasn’t helped, though injuries have (unfortunately) made that easier in recent weeks. Unlike last season though, there’s been relatively little drama in the locker room, and the team is playing hard under him, whereas at times in 2013 the effort and energy seemed lacking.
Still, what I’ve always liked about Shaw is his rapport with the younger players on the roster. If Nurkic, along with fellow rookies Erick Green and Gary Harris, continue to show promise under Shaw, then he might get the chance to grow along with them.
3) Danilo Gallinari’s return
Gallinari isn’t the only Nugget still out. Randy Foye is still coming back from a torn quad, and JaVale McGee has barely played this season. All three will hopefully be returning sooner rather than later, but it’s Gallianri’s health that has Nuggets fans holding their breath. He looked rusty in the 24 games he did play in this season. That’s no surprise, given that Gallinari missed close to two full years with an ACL tear.
The Nuggets just weren’t the same team without him. Gallinari’s ability to create off the dribble gives the Nuggets another playmaker besides point guard Ty Lawson, and without his outside shooting, the paint gets downright claustrophobic at times.
Simply put, the Nuggets are a whole different team when Gallinari is healthy. He hasn’t been able to shoot worth a lick most of this season (again, not shocking given his time off), but he did look like he was starting to trust his knee and regain some explosiveness before he went down a meniscus tear two weeks ago. It’d be unfair to expect the Gallinari of old upon his return, but how well he recovers over the rest of this season will go a long way towards deciding whether Denver can be competitive next year.
4) Ty Lawson, assist cyborg
He’s probably not going to make the all-star team, and he’s not shooting the ball well from deep (33.9 percent this season versus a career mark of 37.1), but man is Lawson dropping dimes. Second in the NBA in assists per-game to Washington’s John Wall, Lawson deserves a ton of credit for keeping Denver competitive night-in and night-out.
There’s also this fun fact, courtesy of CBSsports.com’s Matt Moore:
Ty Lawson leads the league in assist opportunities that don’t result in an assist. Or, blown assists.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 11, 2015
Rajon Rondo, Wall, Chris Paul – Lawson just might be the best assist-man in the NBA right now, and the team’s overall poor shooting is disguising that, at least a little bit. Lawson leads the league in assist opportunities per-game and is fourth in points created by assists per-game. Part of his success is due to Denver’s heavy drive-and-dish system, which surrounds Lawson with spot-up shooters like Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo and usually features a big-man rolling to the basket.
But Lawson has become increasingly brilliant about finding the open man, and Denver’s at times sluggish offense only makes his job more important. His game may lack some of the flair off a Wall or a Ricky Rubio, but that doesn’t make him any less enjoyable to watch.
5) Trade Machine madness
Mozgov is already gone, but it’s more than likely that the Nuggets aren’t done wheeling and dealing. Plenty of teams have expressed interest in forward Wilson Chandler (who’s been having a quietly impressive season) and the Nuggets have other veterans on short-term, inexpensive contracts that contending teams might find tempting (most notably three-point specialist Foye, who’ll have to prove he’s 100 percent after sitting out over a month).
Lawson is likely untouchable, Faried probably isn’t going anywhere after getting a big contract in the offseason, and it’d be tough for Denver to move Gallinari or McGee given their injury history. That still leaves quite a few players Denver can get creative with. The Nuggets have reportedly already received calls about the availability of Afflalo, and they’d probably like to move guard Nate Robinson, if only to free up more playing time for Harris and Green. Strap yourself in – if you’re into trade rumors, it’s going to be an interesting month.