Monday night was supposed to be a revelation of sorts at the Pepsi Center. After a week of roster shuffling — headlined by a three-team deal that shipped out low-post focal point Nene in exchange for productive blooper reel JaVale McGee and the re-signing of ex-Nug expat Wilson Chandler to a five-year deal — we were supposed to get our first full opportunity to feast our peepers on the new-look Denver Nuggets when they took on the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the second half of a TNT doubleheader.
By the time the Mavs had put the bow on a 112-95 road win, though, Denver looked less like the 12-deep dream team that late-night League Pass addicts hoped would give fits to the West's best come playoff time, and more like a team that might find itself suffering from option paralysis and on the outside looking in come May.
Eight players — the just-returned Chandler, entrenched starters Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari, and established backups Al Harrington, Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos — got at least 15 minutes of floor time for the Nuggets on Monday. That in and of itself isn't weird; just about every team in the league goes at least eight-deep on the bench. What was weird is revealed in retrospect, when you realize that Denver didn't play two guys it's going to and barely played two guys it should, which is the kind of thing that makes you wonder if monster depth is actually that good a problem to have and if late-season chemistry experiments can actually result in solutions for X.
Starting center Timofey Mozgov, a 25-year-old load in the middle who's jumped tip 32 times for Nuggets coach George Karl this season, played less than nine minutes on Monday night. Reserve big man Chris Andersen — long a totem of Denver's weird, flowing vibe, and still a productive rebounder and shot-blocker off the bench who's averaging 15.5 minutes per game in 31 appearances on the season — caught a DNP-CD Monday night. McGee, the athleticism- and potential-laden rim-protector who was the centerpiece of the Nene trade, was in uniform and eligible to make his Denver debut, but didn't see any floor time. (For what it's worth, the benchwarming of Mozgov, Birdman and JaVale made Denver Stiffs blogger Jeffrey Morton real mad.)
Where does just-acquired JaVale McGee fit into Denver's plans? (Getty Images)Backup point guard Andre Miller, who typically gets around a half of action and once upon a time teamed with Lawson to give the Nuggets a pretty deadly late-game backcourt, saw just five minutes of burn after leaving in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. Karl told the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman that he expects Miller, who has only missed four games in 13 NBA seasons, to be ready to take the court when the Nuggets face the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
He won't be so lucky with Gallinari, who broke his left thumb while trying to block a third-quarter Ian Mahinmi dunk. Gallinari told Hochman that team doctors said the injury, which is to his non-shooting hand, will take a month to heal, but "hopefully [he] can put something on [the thumb] and play sooner than that." The injury is especially damaging because, after a severely sprained left ankle cost him 13 games and sidelined him for just under a month, Gallinari looked like he was just starting to get cooking.
The 23-year-old forward scored a total of 18 points on 25 shots in his first four games back after making a March 5 return, but seemed to turn a corner in last Tuesday's win over the Atlanta Hawks, scoring 19 points and canning a monster 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He followed that up with strong performances against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics, the latter of which featured Gallo serving up a strong assist of the year candidate to rookie big man Faried. His shot wasn't falling against the Mavs on Monday night, but he was working the other areas of his game, posting six rebounds and seven assists in 22 minutes of action before busting his thumb.
Now, Gallinari's back on the shelf again, and when he comes back, he'll have to get comfortable with either a still-dinged or newly healed guide hand on his jumper. And Karl and his Nuggets, who will likely spend at least a handful of games figuring out the team's new timeshare, will have to shuffle the deck again to reintegrate Denver's leading scorer and one of its few reputed late-game options as it prepares for a final playoff push.
New Nugget Wilson Chandler is going to have to get up to speed very quickly. (Getty Images)And they'll have to get Chandler — who missed 4 of 5 3-pointers and needed 16 shots to score 13 points in his return on Monday night — back in the flow on the giddy-up, since he'll now be expected to replace most of Gallinari's minutes at the three and four spots. They'll also have to figure out how many of their four adequate-to-very-capable centers are going to play in the middle, and how much.
And find out if Faried is actually the bank-on-him bedrock down low that Denver fans hope him to be or, as Nuggets blog Roundball Mining Company suggested after Monday's loss, "still a developing rookie who hasn't yet proved he's as consistent as we all want to believe." (Although an on-it Dirk Nowitzki is a riddle that few defenders, rookies or otherwise, have ever been able to solve.) And learn how to generate consistent offense with all its pieces in place against quality defenses if, as Rob Mahoney suggests at Bleacher Report, Denver's trench depth means the death of Karl's two-point-guard lineups. And do it all in the space of 20 games.
On top of the time crunch, Denver will have to figure all of this out without much margin for error in the playoff chase. As the Associated Press noted, the Nuggets — now the seventh seed in the Western Conference — not only lost a game in the standings to the sixth-seeded Mavs with Monday's loss, but also lost the season series to Dallas, who now holds a tiebreaker over Denver in the event the teams finish with the same record.
Further, Denver's got a 1-1 season mark against the Houston Rockets (currently in the No. 8 slot out west) with two head-to-head matchups to go before season's end. They're a win up on the Phoenix Suns, now in ninth position, but the hard-charging Suns are on a four-game winning streak and will face an in-flux Nuggets team twice in April. Denver's also knotted at 1-1 with the 10th-seeded Utah Jazz, who trail them by just 1.5 games in the standings and whom they face in a road contest Friday night.
So, basically, Denver's got to integrate two major new pieces into its rotation over the course of 20 games, reduce two or three solid contributors to cameo roles, get re-acclimated to life without one of its best scorers, keep pace with a possibly dinged-up backup point guard, learn how it's going to score consistently late in games and not lose any steam over the next two weeks, just to make the playoffs. If they do all that, they'll likely earn either a matchup with the No. 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs or Round 2 with the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, who ejected the Nuggets from the postseason last summer.
It's not an order that's impossible for the Nuggets to fill, but it's still a real tall one. Even if they're able to find enough answers in the next three weeks to solidify postseason positioning, it seems very likely that this Denver team — packed to the gills with likable, multifaceted talents, endlessly watchable and piloted by a brilliant, irascible crazy person who literally just compared JaVale McGee to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — will again find itself ground beneath the heel of a more established opponent.
It's like my man David Bazan says: Fewer moving parts means fewer broken pieces. And with just over a month remaining before the real money's on the table, no team has more moving parts than the Denver Nuggets. What a fun roster. What a bummer.
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