Strike 1: No one said it was going to be easy. Maybe some thought so, but the reality always has been that going back-to-back as NBA champions was going to be a tall task for the Denver Nuggets.

It’s been a strange first couple months for the defending champs. The record is okay: 17-10 is pretty much where they were a year ago at this time. They’re 7-8 on the road, which isn’t great, but considering they finished last season with only 19 road wins, it’s an improved pace. Finishing .500 or slightly better away from Denver would be a very good season considering they should be dominant at home. And so far, even though they’ve had a tendency to “play with their food” a bit, they’ve only dropped a couple of games to poor teams (none at home) which is an improvement over last regular season, too.

They’ve also spent a lot of time packing and unpacking, having played the most road games of any team in the NBA to this point. So there’s that.

The issue is more the way they’ve won – and lost – during the early portion of the schedule. Disjointed. Up and down. Inconsistent.

Pick your own adjective.

Injuries have played a significant role, with Jamal Murray missing 14 games due to hamstring and ankle injuries, and Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sidelined too. Tough to get everyone on the same page when the lineup keeps changing. Head coach Michael Malone’s tinkering with his bench rotations has had an impact, too. Clearly, he’s still searching for the right combos and trying to get a handle on who he’ll be able to count on when the postseason rolls around.

Even considering all these factors, the Nuggets as a whole have been uninspiring. That’s the concerning part.

It’s natural to have a letdown after winning a title. For almost five decades, Denver was the “hunter” in search of an NBA title. Now they’re the hunted. The mindset is different. In spurts, we’ve seen the Nuggets of last season. We saw them opening night crushing the Los Angeles Lakers. We saw them put a road beatdown on Oklahoma City. We saw them whip the Dallas Mavericks in the first “In-season Tournament” game in Denver.

But more often than not, we’ve seen the supremely talented Nuggets pretty much going through the motions.

And it’s not like they’re trying to blend in any critical new pieces to the playing rotation. Yes, there are new guys, but it’s mostly the same group of players who just recently acquired some nice new jewelry. What’s considered the best starting five in the league hasn’t been together all that often as of yet, but even when they have been, they just aren’t clicking consistently like they did last spring.

What’s most worrisome is what’s ahead of them.

A year ago, the Nuggets had pretty much wrapped up the top spot in the Western Conference by the end of February. That’s not going to happen this time around. The competition is a whole lot better this season and we aren’t even talking about the highly decorated (in their own minds) “In Season Tournament Champion” Lakers, the LA Clippers, the suspension-riddled Golden State Warriors or the Phoenix Suns. If the playoffs started today, only the Clippers would not be fighting for their lives in a play-in game.

There are new kids on the block. They’re talented and they’re hungry.

Former Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly has put together a pretty salty outfit in Minnesota, and the Timberwolves, already 1-0 against Denver this season, appear to be ready to displace Connelly’s old team as the top seed in the West. They’re currently 19-5 overall, 11-1 at home and looking to put distance between themselves and the defending champs, who sit in fourth place, three and a half games back. In between sits young upstart Oklahoma City – who silenced Ball Arena with a buzzer-beating win on Saturday and appeared able to render the Nuggets defense all but helpless – plus the Luca-led Mavericks, who visit on Monday night. All three are potential Nugget killers in the playoffs.

Let’s not forget about the two teams just behind Denver in the current standings, Sacramento – young and very talented – and Houston, which has already taken three of four from the Nuggets. No easy outs here.

The Nuggets will likely hit their stride at some point soon, especially when they get completely healthy. Maybe they’ll find their fire, too. Still, expecting any sort of scenario that’s similar to last February and March, when Malone had the luxury of resting starters and exploring his bench options late in the season, would be downright foolish.

The last two months of this year’s regular season are going to be a dogfight for positioning.