Despite their many setbacks, Nuggets have a path to success

Dec 1, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA;Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner (22) drives to the basket as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) attempted to defend during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After falling apart against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night for their most despicable loss of the season so far, it became clear that the Denver Nuggets – even with reigning Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic back on the floor after missing four games with a wrist sprain – still have many issues to solve before they can find their way back to consistently winning.

Sure, Jokic is enough to win on any given night, but the Nuggets have a plethora of problems that make their margin for error razor thin. Two issues in particular have damned Denver: its defensive fallout and the sheer number of injuries it is fighting through.

Those issues have statistically demolished the Nuggets. In their last eight games, the Nuggets have the worst defensive rating in basketball by a wide margin — their 119.5 defensive rating is 3.4 points worse than the Portland Trail Blazers, who are 29th in the league over the last eight games. Denver has paired that with mediocre offensive showings which has them posting a net rating of -11.3 which is good for third-worst over that stretch.

Yes, the Nuggets injury issues correlate with their defensive fallout, but that cannot be an excuse because Denver will be without most of their injured players for the foreseeable future. They cannot rely on the return of P.J. Dozier or Jamal Murray. The Nuggets will have to find a way with the players they have left.

Nuggets horrendous injury luck

The most obvious place to start is with the elephant in the room — the Nuggets brutal injury situation. Let’s just go down the list, shall we?

Jamal Murray has a torn ACL and is out indefinitely. The Nuggets have not put a timetable on his return, but the fastest that any player has returned from a full ACL tear was J.J. Hickson in 2014 and it took him 11 months before he saw the floor again. Murray tore his ACL on April 12th of last year so if he returns at a near-record pace, he could return for part of the final month of the NBA regular season. It is worth noting that the Nuggets are incredibly cautions when it comes to serious injuries to their players; especially one of their franchise pillars, so they will not feel any desire to rush Murray back regardless of any possible on-court struggles.

P.J. Dozier is out for the rest of the year and more than likely a decent portion of next season with his own ACL tear in his left knee which occurred on November 23rd. This is the second time Dozier has battled through an ACL tear with the last time being before even reaching his teenage years when he tore his ACL and MCL in his right knee. Denver relied on Dozier as their sixth man and one of their best wing defenders. Replacing him has been difficult; especially with Bones Hyland in and out due to injuries or health and safety protocols.

Michael Porter Jr. officially underwent lumbar spine surgery on Wednesday morning, performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett at the Carrell Clinic, according to the Nuggets press release which stated that Porter will be out indefinitely. While Porter’s agent, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports and Entertainment, has left the door open for Porter’s return this season, it would be unwise to expect such an outcome. Just like with Murray’s ACL tear, the Nuggets will be incredibly cautious with Porter and his back injury. This is Porter’s third back surgery and he is only 23 years old and he has a maximum contract extension kicking in next season. Getting Porter and everyone else healthy is the first priority for the Nuggets; not rushing any of them back.

Beyond those three injuries, the Nuggets are now also dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic right now with both Hyland and Austin Rivers in health and safety protocols. Rivers currently has COVID-19 and, after feeling fine the first day, “he felt terrible,” according to Doc Rivers, his father and the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, per Gina Mizell of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Mizell also reported that Doc Rivers said the first thing out of Austin Rivers’ mouth was, “Whoever doesn’t think this is real is mistaken. This is real.”

Hyland, who confirmed via Twitter that he does not have COVID-19, has also been lost due to health and safety protocols. He missed Denver’s game in Orlando and tweeted – in a tweet that has since been deleted – that he was upset about also missing the Nuggets battle with the New York Knicks on Saturday Morning in Madison Square Garden. Maybe Denver will get Hyland back by the time they play the Knicks, but there is no indication either direction at this time. Denver badly needs Hyland back to stabilize their bench unit and provide some desperately needed offensive creation.

Hyland seems to be the closest to returning, but Rivers could be out for the rest of the Nuggets’ seven-game road trip. Denver will not be getting any substantial reinforcements any time soon which will force other players to step up.

Of course the likes of Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Nikola Jokic, and Will Barton III will have to shoulder most of the responsibilities of keeping the Nuggets in the chase, but that’s not all. Bench players like Facu Campazzo, Vlatko Cancar, and Zeke Nnaji are suddenly hyper important to the Nuggets regular season success in addition to Hyland when he returns. If they are unable to step up with so many injuries plaguing the Nuggets success, Denver could be staring down the possibility of fighting for their playoff lives in the play-in tournament.

Denver’s defensive drop off

While the injuries certainly play a part in the Nuggets disastrous defense in the month of November, that is not the only reason Denver’s defensive drop off has been so abrupt.

In October, to begin the season, Denver was second in the league with a defensive rating of 97.5 and that number was backed up by the fantastic intensity when guarding the opposition. Denver was playing many different defensive schemes well and everyone on the Nuggets roster was flying around with a furious pace which resulted in some of the best defense Denver has played since head coach Michael Malone was hired, but in their 14 games in November, that passion waned and decayed into lethargy.

In the 14 games the Nuggets played in November, they posted a 112.9 defensive rating which was good for 27th in the league and that number only worsened as the month came to a close. Now, over the Nuggets last eight games, their defensive rating ballooned to 119.5.

The biggest reason for the Nuggets suddenly league-worst defensive rating is their porous paint defense. In wins, the Nuggets hold their opponents to 43.4 points in the paint which would rank ninth in the league. In their losses, Denver is allowing 52.4 points in the paint which would tie them for worst in the NBA. Losing Jokic for four games hurt Denver’s ability to protect the pain, but Denver’s paint defense begins with the Nuggets ability to contain offensive threats on the perimeter which has ebbed and flowed over the season thus far.

Until the Nuggets re-dedicate themselves to the defensive end of the floor, the losses could continue to pile up even with Jokic on the floor. When Denver defends, it wins – it is 9-1 in games when it holds its opponent under 100 points – but when it fails to slow its opponent and dictate the pace through its defense, it loses. The Nuggets are 1-10 when they allow their opponent to score over 100 points.

So far this season, it has been that simple. Defense leads to victories.

Ways for the Nuggets to find their way back to winning

While getting back healthy is simply a pipe dream this season, that does not mean the Denver is dead in the water and destined for the play-in tournament. There is still a path to success for the banged up Nuggets, but it will require Jokic being magnificent and reprioritizing defense as the backbone of Nuggets basketball.

As clearly stated above, the Nuggets need to get back to defending at a high level which is fully in their repertoire. With Jokic back they have their defensive anchor, Gordon has continued to wreck havoc on anyone he is matched up with and Barton is having the best defensive season of his career. Additionally, Nnaji has proven that he is a capable defender off the bench as well. Denver still has a strong enough defensive core to at least be league average on that end of the floor.

Even if Denver does get back to defending at a high level, that will not be enough to propel them over the top. They need Jokic to continue playing at the MVP level he has been playing at this season.

It is incredible just how good Jokic has been this season. He is averaging 25.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game which is a stat line that has never been reached or exceeded in the history of the league and he is doing so while shooting 58 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from 3-point range. Jokic is on pace to become the second player in NBA history to average 25 or more points and six or more assists per game while posting and effective field goal percentage of 62 percent or better which would put him with Stephen Curry as the only players to accomplish such a feat. Once again, Jokic is having one of the greatest individual offensive seasons ever seen, but for the first time in his career, he is also making a large impact defensively.

If the Nuggets can keep Jokic playing at this level and inject some life into their defense, the wins will start to pile up once again, but that is an incredibly heavy burden for Jokic to carry. To anchor the offense and defense with so many players out is an exhausting task, but Jokic has never backed down from a challenge before.

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