Ironically, the Mile High City’s Denver Nuggets do their best work under the radar. Denver’s 20-16 record is a far cry from the lofty expectations set during the offseason. In August, head coach George Karl saw his squad running its way into a top-four seed in the West. ESPN The Magazine pegged Denver as not the biggest sleeper for the 2012-13 season in the Western Conference, but the best team in the West.
That just wasn’t going to happen.
While Denver’s projected record (by Basketball Prospectus) was 58-24, it comes as little surprise to Nuggets fans that the team is instead headed for a 45-37 season. It hasn’t won more than 54 games in any season since Larry Brown was coaching the squad in the ABA.
Since drafting Carmelo Anthony in 2003, the Nuggets have nevertheless become a perennial playoff team. They have made the postseason nine consecutive times—and counting—while finishing no worse than second in the Northwest Division since 2005. The problem has often been their lack of advancement in the tournament.
Of their last nine playoff appearances, Denver has been dispatched in the first round eight times. Only one of them was a sweep—against the eventual Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers in 2008—but five of the Nuggets’ first-round series losses were five-game ordeals.
Four of those were with Melo manufacturing buckets as a go-to guy, zapping credibility from the idea that Denver has to have a singular offensive priority in the clutch. Regardless, Andre Iguodala restored that option to the Nuggets when they went out last summer and traded for the former Philadelphia 76ers swingman.
Unfortunately, his truncated tenure with the team has temporarily seemed to prevent him from assuming that role. Karl has been on a season-long quest to find a leader for his basketball team: “I think he’s made small steps…but defining leadership on this team is probably going to be a whole year process,” he said via the Denver Post.
When the unquestioned leader, Andre Miller, is neither a starter nor a 30-MPG player, the leadership situation is likely less than ideal.
Karl’s quote still delivers optimism that Iguodala could develop into that consistent vocal presence as the season progresses—if Ty Lawson doesn’t assume the position himself. Both guys are having disappointing seasons through 36 games by their standards as they acclimate themselves to each other’s on-court style. Nuggets fans can only hope that they become more efficient on the floor and effective leaders as the playoffs approach.
Iguodala is shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 33.1 percent from three-point range and 62.7 percent from the free-throw line while turning the ball over 2.8 times per game. His shooting has been trending in the wrong direction, including a woeful 31.3 percent from deep—bolstered by a 3-of-5 performance against the Lakers on Jan. 6—and 43.5 percent from the stripe in four January contests.
Lawson’s career numbers—though tainted by 35 games of action in 2012-13—are indicative of the efficient, slashing point guard that he is: 48.4 percent shooting, 37.5 percent three-point shooting, 77.1 percent on free throws and 1.9 turnovers per game. In his fourth year of NBA experience, the hyper-quick Lawson is shooting a mere 42.0 percent from the field, 31.6 percent from beyond and 70.1 percent from the charity stripe with 2.6 turnovers a night.
The bad news about their shooting woes is that Lawson (12.8) and Iguodala (11.7) are responsible for taking the second- and third-most shots on their team. The good news is: Denver is still a winning ballclub despite their prolonged slump.
Which seed will the Nuggets obtain in the Western Conference?
The Nuggets aren’t included in the top four positions of the Western Conference standings, but they can make a splash heading into the postseason with improved post All-Star splits from Lawson and Iguodala. Denver’s schedule will eventually turn in its favor—the team with the most unique home-court advantage has played the fewest home games in the NBA thus far.
Thirteen of the Nuggets’ 36 contests have been at home; they have played a league-high 23 tilts on the road, accounting for more than half of their 41 scheduled arena visits this season. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that Denver is one of the hotter teams as the long nights of winter give way into springtime.
But it will be. The Nuggets may be an unfortunate playoff surprise for their opponents—a dream scenario for a jelling team looking for a deep playoff run.
Statistics used in this article were accurate prior to games played on Jan. 9, 2013. For more Denver Nuggets analysis, follow Jamal on Twitter: Follow @StatManJ