For the second straight year, the Denver Nuggets faced heightened expectations coming into the season, fueled by the addition of Paul Millsap and another year of Nikola Jokic the team was an expected playoff lock. However, those hopes seem to be in jeapordy through the first quarter of the season.
Every year in the NBA, a young team with a new addition is touted by basketball nerds everywhere to be the Next Big Thing and fails to live up to the task (cough cough 2016-2017 T-Wolves). This past offseason it was the Denver Nuggets. Here’s why they are on track to disappoint.
Struggles on the Road
The way the Denver Nuggets have performed on the road thus far this year is a concerning sign to say the least. Whereas at home they have a spectacular 11-3 record, on the road that record stands at 7-12. The disparity can be chalked up to a number of factors, not the least of which being a dearth of consistent, veteran contributors and a 20 year old starting point guard. However, those factors alone don’t really absolve the team of blowout road losses to the Lakers, Jazz, and Mavericks.
Digging deeper into the statistics of the teams performance on the road paints a troubling picture. Coach Mike Malone has trotted out 15 lineups that have played more than 10 minutes on the road and of those lineups, only two lineups with a positive net rating are available to him due to the loss of Paul Millsap.
Winning on the road as a younger team is always difficult in the NBA and without consistent, veteran contributors (see: The Disappearance of Wilson Chandler), teams are susceptible to performances like the Nuggets have had.
Paul Millsap Injury
The Millsap injury is one of the biggest blows the Nuggets have taken in the last five years. Not only is Millsap the only in-prime All-Star to sign with the Denver Nuggets in franchise history, he was expected to help lead a young, fun team to the playoffs for the first time in years and elevate the Nuggets to a possible contender status. That all seems slightly unattainable now.
The Nuggets were 4.8 points per possession better with Millsap on the floor, good for third on the team, and his defensive acumen played a big part in the Nuggets’ overall defense improvement from worst in the NBA to average. Millsap was one of only five positive contributors in terms of net rating for Denver but his impact reached far beyond the court.
Paul Millsap was a veteran leader for a young Nuggets’ team still trying to figure out how to win. With a team this young, that impact cannot be quite understated. Young teams need players like Paul Millsap to maintain a steady hand in the face of adversity, and the Nuggets are forced to learn how to acclimate to life without that.
Point Guard Situation
The point guard situation was always the wild card for the Nuggets going into the season. With two unproven players vying for opportunity and touches, Denver was finally going to see what they really had in Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay. The results have been mixed to say the least. When Murray is in the game, the squad boasts a respectable 2.6 net rating, but when his replacement Mudiay comes in the net rating plummets to a putrid -10.6.
While Mudiay has improved his finishing around the rim and 3-point shooting this year, he remains one of the least valuable players in the NBA, actively hurting the team whenever he plays. Yes, young players, especially point guards, take longer to develop, he’s been so atrocious his first three years in the league, it’s fair to wonder whether he can ever be a positive player.
Some of these issues will resolve themselves (Millsap is slated to come back in January/February), but some of them probably won’t (Mudiay). The future of the Denver Nuggets lies in how they solve those problems that are currently holding them back.