Sprinting Denver Nuggets Prove Western Conference Race Is Still Wide Open

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2013

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 20:  Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets controls the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Pepsi Center on January 20, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Thunder 121-118 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets must have had one hell of a New Year's party.

Either that, or they are among the few still adhering to their resolutions.

Since changing the calendar, coach George Karl's team has raced to 16 wins in 19 games. The Nuggets ripped off a six-game winning streak in early January. Following back-to-back losses, they then rattled off nine straight wins, including victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets (twice), Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, before falling in triple overtime to the Boston Celtics on Sunday.

The Nuggets have surged into a tie with the Memphis Grizzlies for the Western Conference's fourth seed and show no signs of stopping there.

What they lack in name recognition, they more than compensate for with an offensive barrage featuring six different players averaging double figures and an unmatched collective athleticism. With a horde of talented individual defenders, Denver has harassed the opposition into shooting just 44.1 percent from the field (tied for eighth in the NBA).

While the Nuggets still don't have a superstar on the roster, they've assembled a worthy collection of specialists.

Danilo Gallinari (17.2 points per game) and Ty Lawson (15.4) have shouldered the greatest scoring responsibilities, both affecting the scoreboard in their own way.

Gallo starts his attack on the perimeter (37.2 three-point percent), but he's a heady player with exquisite touch when he puts the ball on the floor. Standing 6'10", he's a budding matchup nightmare, seemingly a consistent month away from becoming that walking mismatch.

The speedster Lawson uses his next-level quickness and low center of gravity to beat defenders off the dribble. When defenses overpursue to stop his drives, he's a more-than-willing passer (seven assists per game) with a developing knowledge of where his teammates are most effective.

When the offense breaks down and the team needs a creator, first-year Nugget Andre Iguodala answers the bell. He has the strength and handles to punish defenders on the way to a highlight finish, but is just as comfortable playing the distributing role (4.7 assists per game). When his offense isn't needed, he's a physically imposing defender with the speed and strength to deny opponents a path to the basket or erase their attempts at the basket.

Wilson Chandler nearly matches Iguodala in terms of athleticism, but carries a more potent perimeter shot in his offensive arsenal (37.5 three-point percentage). The 6'8", 225-pound Chandler and Gallinari afford Karl a plethora of options with his frontcourt rotation.

Karl's options extend to the backcourt as well, with veterans Andre Miller and Corey Brewer capable of chewing up major minutes. Miller is the antithesis of Lawson: a seasoned vet who compensates for a lack of athleticism with strength and a high basketball IQ. Brewer gives this team another reliable defender on the perimeter, capable of scoring points in bunches (11.4 per game).

If the team's in need of a hustle play, second-year forward Kenneth Faried has no problems hitting the hardwood. And when those hustle plays go airborne, the Slam Dunk Contest participant can fly with the best of them.

At the center position, Karl has a luxurious problem in terms of finding minutes for each of his three capable options. Kosta Koufos has grasped the starting role in each of the club's 51 games, based on the strength of his reliable offense (59.9 percent field-goal shooting) and activity on the glass (6.5 rebounds in 23 minutes per game).

The 7'0" athletic specimen that is JaVale McGee may be the league's greatest enigma. His activity level (18.9 minutes per game) is hindered by his occasional indefensible mental lapses. But even at his worst he's one of the league's most unique players filling the 5 spot. With tremendous leaping ability and instincts, he's just as likely to put an opponent on a poster for a deflating swat as he is for a thunderous finish.

Timofey Mozgov has produced in limited run (3.0 points and 2.9 rebounds in 10.3 minutes per game), but may hold his greatest value for the franchise on the trade market.

The Nuggets have established the Pepsi Center as one of the most challenging venues for visiting clubs. Denver has dropped just three games at home through its first 25 there this season. Those three losses (to the Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards) were decided by a total of 13 points.

The Nuggets have compiled a plus-8.2 scoring margin in those 25 home games, pouring in 109.2 points per game. They also hold sizable advantages in the rebounding (45.8-42), assist (25.5-23.3) and turnover (14.5-15.6) battles.

But in order to continue their ascent up the conference standings, the Nuggets will have to start finding success away from home. On the year, Denver holds just an 11-16 record in road games. It's the worst such record of the conference's top six clubs. Only the sixth-place Golden State Warriors (30-21) have a losing road record (14-15).

Outside of the Pepsi Center, their scoring average plummets to just 101.1 points per game. Their turnovers increase by nearly two per game (15.9), while their assist total drops by nearly three per game (22.4).

Of their 14 remaining road games, only five come against teams currently holding a winning record. So there's reason to believe that this team can reverse its road fortunes before this season plays out.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Nuggets is just where this potential road success can lead them. The No. 4 seed is theirs for the taking. But even that No. 3 seed could be within their grasp, should Chris Paul experience any setbacks with his kneecap injury.