ROUND UP

Nuggets enter All-Star break in peculiar position, riding losing streak

Feb 15, 2024, 12:38 PM | Updated: 12:39 pm

The Denver Nuggets are holding onto a top-four seed, boast one of the best lineups in the NBA and anyone would be hard-pressed to pick against them come crunch time and yet it feels like something is amiss or maybe it’s just a championship hangover as their All-Star break began on Thursday.

After Wednesday’s mystifying 102-98 loss to the Sacramento Kings, Denver is on a three-game losing streak with two blowouts in that stretch. Rare is the time you’ll find a three-game losing streak on Michael Malone’s docket and you probably have to go back to November of 2021 to find a spot where the Nuggets were playing worse basketball than they have been lately. Due to injury, Jamal Murray has played in only about 40 minutes combined in those games, which has been a big factor—Murray was out for the entirety of November 2021 with a knee injury.

Still, it’s more than Nikola Jokic missing his partner. After making no moves that would impact their roster at the deadline—a strategy the team telegraphed going back to the offseason—Denver’s depth seems to be in shambles. Among five-man lineups that have played more than 175 minutes this season, Denver’s starting five is eighth in net rating. Better yet, the Nuggets are fifth in NET during clutch situations and have the NBA’s best clutch defense.

It’s clear the Nuggets have a switch and when they flip it they’re still the best team in the NBA—as proved by their torrid stretch of games in January. But February has revealed the backup center problems are worse than imagined and that certain combos like Reggie Jackson and Murray on the court together just do not work.

Most of the Nuggets issues can be written off to, they only need an eight-man rotation in the postseason compared to the 10-man one deployed during the regular slate. Plus, anyone can tout that the team is practically on the same pace record-wise as they were last season.

The problem? Denver’s margin for error is gone—the West has caught up. Minnesota, Oklahoma City and the Clippers have better records than the Nuggets at the break and all three seem to be serious threats. Last year there was a certain confidence and knowledge that Denver could steamroll the West, which is what they did in going 16-4 in the playoffs. This year? Not so much.

The Wolves have had time to gel their core and grow—their three big men of Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid represent a unique challenge for the Nuggets. Reid didn’t play in last year’s playoffs, and neither did their defensive stopper Jaden McDaniels. Meanwhile, Gobert looks more like the prime Jazz version of himself, where he also just happened to pair with Mike Conley. On top of that, young star Anthony Edwards has stepped up his game.

The Thunder have gotten their young team all together and rolling. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a legit MVP candidate and likely to win if it doesn’t go to Jokic. Rookie Chet Holmgren has perfectly filled in the team’s issues in the frontcourt, while Jalen Williams has turned into one of the best players in the NBA. If Denver ran into OKC, there’s a chance the Thunder could just out-athlete the Nuggets, which is what has happened in three of the four regular-season matchups.

The James Harden trade has worked perfectly, Kawhi Leonard has returned to the top of his game and the Clippers have three playable bigs as well as the best small-ball lineup in the sport. Star power, size and athleticism are a mix of all the other teams that could bring down the Nuggets.

Maybe Peyton Watson said it best on Twitter on Thursday, “great first half of the season! never too high or too low, let’s finish strong!!”

Watson has been the biggest bright spot for the Nuggets this season, becoming a full-time rotation player and flashing some star qualities. He’s one of six players Denver fans can be very confident in going into the stretch run and among the eight players who should be fine to carry the Nuggets on another deep run.

How the Nuggets approach their final 20-plus games will be fascinating. They pretty much had the West locked up last year at the break and cruised to the finish without anything to prove. Not that they have to tout something this regular season, but will Malone gun for the No. 1 seed and home court, will Denver play it cool with their main guys and rest instead or maybe the Nuggets even get a little weird and manipulate their playoff seeding for the best matchup.

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