If one were to measure team success on heat levels (and this is corny), the Denver Nuggets would be on fire; white hot, even. Riding their league-high 9-game win-streak, the Nuggets have opened eyes across the League. Their current success brings back memories of the preseason, when starting point guard, Ty Lawson, declared that they were the best team in the West. “We’re so deep, so talented, so versatile . . . You can’t just game-plan for one person on this team.” Months later, the logic behind his words are starting to show. While they still aren’t the best team in the Western Conference, they’re getting pretty close. Let’s take a look at how they’ve heated up over their win-streak:
In every game during the 9-game win-streak (and in the loss against the Wizards), the Nuggets have never dipped below the 100-point mark. In the past 10 games, they’ve averaged a league-high 113.9 points per game, while allowing 103 points per game. They’ve done this while shooting 50% from the field and 39% from three as a team. This offensive execution is a major factor in their recent success. A lot of it falls on the shoulders of Ty Lawson (more on him later) and Andre Miller. The two of them together are running the team near-flawlessly, and that is evidenced by their Pace Rating of 95.0, which is good for second in the league. Most teams usually have one stellar point guard and then a filler off of the bench (the Celtics know that feeling). It truly is a blessing for a team to have a floor general on the bench that can spell the starting point guard for long periods at a time. Andre Miller’s contributions off of the bench have led to the Nuggets’ point guard position posting a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 15.9 (above-average) while keeping opposing point guards at 14.5 (below-average). Miller’s alley-oop connection with JaVale McGee is also pretty to watch, so there’s that. Overall, the point guard position has been efficient, and the best part is that the point guard position isn’t the most efficient position for the team.
The three-headed monster, consisting of Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee, and Timofey Mozgov, has led the center position to a team-high PER of 19.9. Big men don’t grow on trees, so Denver is extremely fortunate to have three capable centers on their roster. Although playing time can be scarce for any one of them on a given night, they all have appeared to embrace their roles, and their production has paid dividends for the team. Koufos, in particular, has surprised many with his ability to hold on to his starting role by providing steady rebounding along with occasional scoring. His competence, however, allows for Denver to use one of their secret weapons: the Miller-McGee bench tandem. Even though the point did not count, a play at the end of the third quarter from Saturday night’s win over Cleveland exemplifies their relationship off of the bench. After a missed free-throw with 2 seconds left in the quarter, Miller caught the ball and threw it from half-court to a racing McGee, who then caught the ball and tipped it into hoop (albeit after the buzzer). The play showcased Miller’s vision, and McGee’s length and athleticism working together once again. Although McGee is making the most money out of all three centers, coming off of the bench with Miller has been immensely beneficial for the Nuggets. Speaking of the bench . . .
Denver has one of the best benches in the League. Their versatility is remarkable, and that is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to game-plan for this team on a given night. McGee, Corey Brewer, Miller, and Wilson Chandler can all take off at any time, so it’s impossible to guess who will be the leader off of the bench. Chandler, in particular, has slowly come back from injury to become one of the best players on the team. His performance against Chicago (24 points on 8-9 shooting and 5-5 shooting from three) showed that he’s well on his way to being a top contributor off of the bench for the Nuggets. On top of that, in a (somewhat) small sample size, the Nuggets’ best defensive lineup comes with four bench players and Iguodala. The Miller-Iguodala-Brewer-Chandler-McGee lineup allows a team-best .85 points per possession, and that lineup also has a win percentage of 66%. Although the team defense hasn’t been a staple during this win-streak (they’ve allowed 103 points per game in the last 10 games), this lineup can get stops. Once again, their versatility allows for this to be a possibility, and since their bench is so deep, they can pull this lineup at any time and allow it to run while giving the other starters rest. It’s also no coincidence that Andre Iguodala is at the center of the best defensive lineup, for his comfort level is helping the team too.
Even though his offensive contributions pale in comparison to last year (when he was relied on to lead the offense), Iguodala’s defense has remained as steady as usual. He is relied on constantly to defend the other team’s best wing defender. He’s come through, and that has been on display during Denver’s streak. In the last 10 games, Iguodala has averaged 2.5 steals per game. Not only has he been great defensively, but he’s been crashing the boards as well, and that has led the entire team to adopt a “gang-rebound” mentality. On top of all of that, Iguodala’s defensive breakout has awakened the offensive beasts in Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, and Kenneth Faried.
Gallinari has started to play like the superstar that Denver has needed ever since they shipped Carmelo Anthony over to New York. In the last 10 games, “Gallo” has averaged 19.4 points per game along with 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 47%. If he can continue this production, the Nuggets will go as far as he and Lawson will take them. Denver is quite fortunate that Lawson and Gallinari are breaking out at the same time this season. Lawson, in the last 10 games, has averaged 19.1 points, 7.6 assists, and 2.3 steals. This stat-line (compared to his early-season numbers) is more in line with his 18-point, 8-rebound expectation that he placed for himself before the season. Lawson has led his team well during the win-streak, and he’s done well with knowing when to score and when to distribute the ball. Even though he didn’t have a stellar outing against Cleveland on Saturday (11 points), he scored at key times, and that (along with Gallinari’s back-breaking three) secured the victory. If Lawson can keep up his mature decision-making, the Nuggets will keep their place in the upper echelon of Western Conference teams.
All this, and the “Manimal” hasn’t even come up yet. That shows how deep this team is, that we can go through all of their reasons for victory without even discussing the team’s biggest energy outlet. Kenneth “the Manimal” Faried is pure energy and hustle. He’s all over the court, and he’s the team’s highest flier (sorry, Iggy), despite having breathing issues. He plays hard. This season has shown just how hard, for his stats reflect his effort. On the season, Faried is averaging 12.3 points and 9.7 rebounds on 56% shooting. His 12.3 points per game don’t even do his improving offensive game justice. In the month of February (4 games), he’s averaging 16 points per game, and that is more on par with his ceiling this season. Even during the rough times this season for Denver, one thing has remained constant: Faried’s energy. Now that the Nuggets are doing better, the “Manimal’s” hustle looks even better.
How Far Can They Go?
A quick gander at the Western Conference standings show that the Nuggets sit at 4th with a 33-18 record. Even after the Nuggets get their win-streak snapped, they’ll continue to be successful because they all seem to have discovered their roles. They’ve finally clicked, and that’s what this win-streak is all about. Barring a collapse of some sort, the Denver Nuggets will have home-court advantage in the Playoffs, and it looks like this might be the year where they venture out of the first round. For that to happen, though, they’ll need to continue to utilize their best weapons over the next few months: depth and versatility.