It’s a new year — and the Nuggets are bad again

Jan 17, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) shoots against LA Clippers guard Tyrone Wallace (12) and forward Sam Dekker (7) in the third quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a really bad month for the Denver Nuggets — and January is barely half over. Denver has a 4-5 record this month, but the losses have been painful and the wins have been pitiful.

This week included two examples of ‘bad wins’. A 105-102 win against the Dallas Mavericks, the second worst team in the Western Conference, was nearly a disaster. The Nuggets had an 85-59 lead in the third quarter before they lost their composure. They also had a ‘bad win’ against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier in the week.

It’s a toss-up when considering which loss has been the worst during this stretch. Two losses against teams battling for the worst record in the NBA — the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings — were both pretty bad. The Hawks loss was a home game. The Kings loss came after an easy win over the Utah Jazz the previous night. However, the Nuggets’ effort made you think that they were playing uphill at Red Rocks Amphitheater against Sacramento.

Going into this season, I felt like the Nuggets needed to make the playoffs to avoid making major offseason changes. There was a point in December where that looked like too low of a goal. Expectations changed too soon. The Nuggets are currently out of a playoff spot with an uphill battle the rest of the season.

Let’s go through the list of potential excuses for the team.

Some people point to the injury to free agent Paul Millsap and see it as the difference. While I think the Nuggets would have a better record with a healthy Millsap, this team is built on depth. What is the point of this breadth of talent if you can’t beat the bad teams in the NBA?

Then there’s the youth excuse. On this point, I agree. A veteran point guard is another way the Nuggets would be in a better position right now. Jamal Murray’s strength is never going to be in handling the ball and setting up other players. Yet the Nuggets are still trying to force the issue. The rest of the players continue to turn in the inconsistent performances of youth, but letting them off the hook with this excuse seems too easy.

Is it Nikola Jokic’s fault? He is supposed to be the superstar, but he’s been inconsistent. Some of that may be injury—he hasn’t been the same player since coming back from being hurt in December. Still, we’ve seen flashes of the old Jokic. I’m just not sure he’s being used in the right way.

Most teams in the league try to cater to their star players’ strengths. The Nuggets are trying to force Jokic to make up for weaknesses the rest of the team has. That problem was on display in the Nuggets’ loss the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. Jokic found himself playing power forward as a way to adapt the lineup to center Mason Plumlee. Jokic struggled in this role. On the previous night, he thrived at center.

It begs the question: What are the Nuggets doing?

The Nuggets cannot afford to waste a season squandering player development in favor of fitting a system. If that means moving Murray off the ball and playing Plumlee less, they need to make those sacrifices.

This team has clearly lost all of its momentum from their mid-December run; Denver often seems tired, which is a strange problem for a team with a lot of depth and youth.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, coach Michael Malone is still trying to figure out how to trust his team, but part of that has to be him putting them in the best situations. If the team is not conditioned for the regular season in January, how can they battle for a playoff spot in March? The problems now may be mental and physical, but the coaching staff needs to help them adapt.

The Nuggets had their last ‘good win’ on December 23rd, when they beat Golden State on the road in a low-scoring affair. At the time, it felt like the Nuggets might be ready to elevate themselves to compete with the second-tier of Western Conference playoff teams.

It’s been a disaster since then. Perhaps the Nuggets felt like they had arrived on the scene after that game. January has proven that this Nuggets’ caravan might not even be on the right road.