Twenty-one games into their season the Denver Nuggets do slightly resemble the outfit most NBAniks prognosticated before 2012-13 started. The group still plays without a superstar, and it looks for a new hero on both ends of the ball night in and night out. The team is entertaining to watch, and George Karl has done well to preach patience with his still-learning squad. Six Nuggets average double-figure points per game, a number that can't easily be chalked up to the team's thin-air pace as the Nuggets "only" rank seven in possessions per game. And on the eye test, alone, the group still looks like a team that has enough in the tank to take down any one of their 29 other opponents in Denver and out of it.
Through 21 games, though, that's only happened 10 times. The Nuggets are below .500, following Sunday's loss to the New York Knicks, and precious little in terms of stability or characterization has been answered thus far. With almost six weeks of regular season games under their belt, the Nuggies might as well still be in training camp.
There are caveats to that slow start, one that flies in the face of some formula-based predictions that had the Nuggets only losing around 20 contests all year. The first go-to move is to point out the team's tough schedule, one that has included 15 road contests so far this season and two more to go in Detroit and Minnesota before the team can make it home on Friday to play the mighty Memphis Grizzlies. Working 17 out of 23 games on the road to start a season is a ridiculous number, but it seems the Nuggets drew the short straw due to their true Midwestern location. It isn't as if things even out from there, either, as Denver will play five out of eight on the road to end the 2012 calendar year.
Pretty rough going for a team that was deemed an experiment, first and foremost, before the season started. It's true that getting 22 out of 41 road games out of the way in the season's first two months will help down the stretch, but what's the cost if the always-weary and rarely-practicing Nuggets can't develop any sort of chemistry or routine along the way?
Scoring's the easy part, that's something each one of these ex-college stars can do while sleeping. It's the implementation of a fluid defensive arsenal that badly needs to be put in place. Despite a preponderance of good athletes with long frames, the Nuggets rank just 24th in the NBA in overall defensive efficiency. The team isn't causing anywhere near the amount of turnovers they'd hoped; and though the team's fifth-toughest strength of schedule and tough road-going have given them the toughest start to any team's 2012-13 season, there are glaring issues with this team's defense that cannot be blamed on an early-morning hotel check-in earlier that day.
Traded for and then re-signed to act as a destructive force on defense, center JaVale McGee has worked as a destructive force on his team's own defense. Pairing him with Kenneth Faried up front has been disastrous thus far, as McGee's wanderings and instinct-heavy approach is killing the team's ability to protect the rim. One particularly wild stretch of his in the fourth quarter against New York on Sunday helped seal the win for the Knicks, who themselves were coming off of a loss in another time zone the night before.
Expecting McGee to "get it" without even a year's space between his time in Washington and his new role in Denver is too much to ask for, but at this early point he hasn't appeared to make any sort of jump in the right direction despite putting up his usual strong efficiency and shot-blocking numbers. The same can be said for Faried; though he's the biggest reason the Nuggets grab the highest percent of all available rebounds, he doesn't offer much in terms of rotations or pick and roll help. Big trouble, especially when you're working with point guards that can either be charitably described as lacking in size (Ty Lawson) or speed (Andre Miller).
The other Dre, Andre Iguodala, was supposed to have aided in all this with his defensively-minded ways. Instead, he's floundered as a Nugget. Iguodala's shooting marks have gone down, and his assists and rebounds have fallen in 2012-13 despite playing as many minutes at a much quicker pace in comparison to his last year in Philadelphia. Worse, Iguodala's turnovers have skyrocketed to levels unacceptable for a small forward, lending the biggest blow to what is clearly his team's biggest offensive liability. Assuming you don't count scorer Danilo Gallinari's sub-39 percent shooting to be a liability.
Time will have to serve as the best counter. It's not just that the Nuggets will get to spend 37 of its 59 2013 regular season contests at home, which admittedly does help and provides the team with perhaps the league's only true home court advantage due to that air, but the diminished travel means more time for George Karl to tinker. The home schedule will allow for actual practices, pitched in order to get on the same page, and walk-throughs that will focus on defense and not have to take place in hotel conference rooms or on an opposing team's court.
And though McGee hasn't supplanted Kosta Koufos as the team's starting center (this is a good thing, as Koufos is a good enough defender that is athletic enough to compete at Denver's pace), there is time. Most of this team's rotation has ages that dot in the early or mid-20s, with only Iguodala in his ostensible prime and Miller past his. Even breaking even (which is literally impossible, I know) over the course of that first 33 will provide Denver with a good enough foundation to work with as it hits 2013.
The key is to not let the frustration set in, as the team works its way to the New Year. You can argue with Karl's schemes and coaching choices all you want, but this is an area that George has grown into one of the league's best at. He knows the bigger picture, he knows it was about the month of May all along, and he's more than qualified to hold things together.
Even as his team schleps into yet another city.
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