What We Learned About Denver Nuggets During Season's 1st Half

Nick JuskewyczContributor IIIJanuary 24, 2014

What We Learned About Denver Nuggets During Season's 1st Half

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The first half of the Denver Nuggets' season can be simply defined as a roller coaster.

    On the positive side, the Nuggets have posted winning streaks of seven, five and three games. On the negative end, they lost four of their first five, went on an eight-game losing streak and have now lost four of their past five. 

    There are several reasons for this inconsistency, which has resulted in a 20-21 record, but perhaps none are more evident than the never-ending injuries. 

    Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported Tuesday that Danilo Gallinari will miss the remainder of the season after having reconstructive knee surgery for his ACL injury. Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post mentioned how JaVale McGee is making progress in recovering from the stress fracture in his left tibia, but that it's coming slowly and there's still no timetable for his return.

    Plenty of shorter absences have caused many starting lineup and rotation changes. J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson and Timofey Mozgov are the only three guys to play all 41 contests.

    When you throw in the new players, wrinkles in the system and this being Brian Shaw's first year as a head coach, there is a lot to digest on what is working and what isn't. Let's examine the specifics and what they mean for the team moving forward.

Attacking Early Is a Must Under the Circumstances

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    Ty Lawson is averaging a career-high 17.8 points and 8.9 assists this season.
    Ty Lawson is averaging a career-high 17.8 points and 8.9 assists this season.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Coming into this season, Shaw mentioned during summer-league play in an interview with NBA TV that while he wanted to take advantage of the altitude in Denver and play at a fast pace, he wanted more balance and improve the half-court offense.

    After the Nuggets suffered their eighth straight loss and eighth defeat at the Pepsi Center (they had only three last season) against the Philadelphia 76ers, Shaw held a team and individual player meetings the next day to try and stop the bleeding. This was the game where Andre Miller blew up at Shaw on the sideline, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.

    Since them, Shaw has allowed the Nuggets to attack much earlier in the shot clock and play at a faster pace on a regular basis.

    Consequently, the Nuggets are 6-3 during this switch and are putting up 115.1 points. Ty Lawson's speed and agility are fully utilized, Kenneth Faried is flying in transition again, and Robinson, Randy Foye and Evan Fournier are all shooting at a high percentage with the defenses scrambling.

    This may not be the ideal and long-term scenario. Ultimately, the Nuggets do want play some inside-out basketball, run some triangle action occasionally with their big men and have more balance in their half-court offense.

    But Gallinari, who has a diverse set of offensive skills, isn't coming back this season. McGee's size is missed, and his development has been put on hold because of his injury.

    Faried still needs to work on his post game, despite an improving mid-range jumper. A lot of the younger players need to improve playing at a slower tempo.

    But given the current lack of size on Denver and that Lawson is at his best when he attacks the basket, the Nuggets are best off trying to outscore their opponents. 

There Are Still Defensive Issues, Especially Inside

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    The Nuggets are allowing 103 points per game. That's tied for 25th in the NBA.
    The Nuggets are allowing 103 points per game. That's tied for 25th in the NBA.Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Since the Nuggets are running more possessions, they're clearly going to give up more baskets. Denver is allowing 107.9 points during this nine-game stretch.

    However, according to TeamRankings.com, the Nuggets are 17th in defensive efficiency and 25th in points allowed in the paint. They're average at guarding all positions but particularly have trouble stopping the 4.

    There are plenty of examples in the past month.

    On Wednesday night, LaMarcus Aldridge, who averages 24.7 points and 11.6 rebounds, posted a career-high 44 points to go with 13 boards, five assists and two blocks. Channing Frye dropped a season-high 30 points, who only averages 12.3 points on the year.

    Even when Denver wins, it's the same thingDavid Lee (19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) posted 28 points and 11 rebounds, Pau Gasol (16.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg) recorded 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Zach Randolph (17.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) put up 25 points and 13 rebounds.  

    Faried, despite making some great hustle plays and incredible rejections, has struggled to defend just about everyone. Darrell Arthur has helped in the pick-and-roll and can guard the power forwards who put the ball on the deck, but he has issues against players with a size advantage.

    But even when the Nuggets cross defend and have J.J. Hickson defend the 4, he still has problems, like o Wednesday down the stretch against Aldridge.

    Mozgov is the best inside defensive presence, which makes it somewhat curious why he doesn't get more than 20.1 minutes or perhaps start.

    Even with McGee, the Nuggets may not have the pieces to get where they want defensively. But especially without him, it makes sense why they want to use their depth to wear out the opponent and score a lot.

Randy Foye Is Benefitting from the Uptempo Offense

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    Randy Foye stepped up his game in January.
    Randy Foye stepped up his game in January.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    There was a lot of concern after Foye's first two months in Denver. After making only 40 percent of his field goals and 37 percent of his three-pointers in November, he only converted 32.1 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively, in December.

    All shooters go through their slumps, no matter how good they are. It's not like Foye didn't have the potential to turn it around, since he's 37.7 percent from three in his career.

    Although, despite his starting experience at multiple franchises, his first years on a new team have usually been his worst seasons. In his first years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers, he shot 36.8, 34.6 and 32.7 percent from three, respectively. 

    However, in his only season with the Utah Jazz last year, he shot a career-high 41 percent. That's what the Nuggets want and need out of him.

    But since Foye's minutes have gone up and the Nuggets have started running more, he has gotten much cleaner looks at the basket from distance. He's making 46.5 percent from behind the arc in January.

    Not only that, he's making 50 percent from the floor overall this month. Denver brought him in during the offseason primarily for his shooting, but he has experience at both shooting guard and point guard and has had a lot more action in the pick-and-roll with more freedom in the offense.

    This needs to continue.

Nate Robinson Is This Year's JaVale McGee

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    Nate Robinson is one of six Nuggets players to average double-digit points.
    Nate Robinson is one of six Nuggets players to average double-digit points.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    How many times have we seen McGee change the momentum of the game with a posterizing dunk or put on some kind of a block party? More importantly, how often did he get the Nuggets crowd going or silence the other fans on the road? 

    Nate Robinson may not do those things specifically, but he's that boost off the bench who can catch fire at any moment. Plus, he does it on the big stage.

    Just look at last week's matchup at the Golden State Warriors. The game was televised on ESPN, the Nuggets had already lost once at home to Golden State, and it was the first time they had been back to Oracle Arena since losing to the Warriors in last year's playoffs.

    Even though Robinson was on the Chicago Bulls last season, he played on the Warriors in 2011-12 and went off against them when it counted most. He scored 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and gave the Nuggets a much needed road win against what was the hottest team in the Western Conference.

    He's had other games similar to this (Atlanta, at Dallas, at the Los Angeles Lakers), but anytime he goes on one of his ridiculous runs, he provides must-watch basketball with his passion and fiery attitude. 

    Even if he's creating his own shot a lot of the time—with McGee out, Faried starting and Wilson Chandler no longer a likely sixth man off the benchRobinson's energy is crucial for everyone to feed off of when Denver is playing at such a fast pace.

Timofey Mozgov Was Denver's Best Offseason Move

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    Russian center Timofey Mozgov is improving under head coach Brian Shaw.
    Russian center Timofey Mozgov is improving under head coach Brian Shaw.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Foye, Hickson, Robinson and Arthur were the new faces in town, but general manager Tim Connelly's greatest offseason move was signing Mozgov to a contract extension. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the deal was for $14 million over three years.

    For someone who was a restricted free agent and had never averaged better than 5.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 15.6 minutes, this seemed like an odd move at the time. Plus, those numbers came in 2011-12, and Mozgov had a decreasingly limited role last year.

    But the new GM knew what he was doing. Along with his 8.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 20.1 minutes, Mozgov's 17.7 player efficiency rating is the third highest on the team this year.

    Furthermore, not only does he take up a lot of space inside, contest every shot and prevent guards from getting easy layups off penetration, he's also the best traditional big man on the roster.

    He can establish deep position on the low block, use his strength and finish at the rim. He's also displaying more of a mid-range shot, makes 73.6 percent of his free throws and is underrated in terms of his movement without the ball.

    This will go a long way in getting him more minutes with the Nuggets moving forward, especially when they actually transition into more of an inside-out style. Mozgov's physicality is important for Denver's future.

The Nuggets Aren't a Real Western Conference Threat Without Danilo Gallinari

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    Danilo Gallinari averaged 16.2 points for Denver last season.
    Danilo Gallinari averaged 16.2 points for Denver last season.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    This isn't my way of saying the Nuggets should tank. It's too late for that,and it doesn't make sense either.

    But the Nuggets need Gallinari back. Realistically, just making the playoffs is the best they can do without their Italian forward.

    Offensively, he brings a lot to the table. He can drive to the basket, knock down the three and post forwards up with his 6'10" length. 

    Defensively, he doesn't get a lot of blocks or steals, but his combination of speed and height helps alter shots against great players like Kevin Durant. Gallinari can guard a variety of players.

    He brings a lot of significant elements when it comes to winning a seven-game series. If Gallinari had been healthy during last year's playoffs, the Nuggets would have made it to the second round.

    With this year's team, we're seeing some great games out of different people, but you never know who is going to contribute.

    There's still some inconsistency on offense, even with the faster tempo. Because of Gallinari's range of skills, he can thrive regardless of the pace.

    His absence is an even bigger problem on defense, since the Nuggets are running into a lot of matchup problems. At times, Lawson, Robinson and Foye are on the court at the same time, and the opposing guards who can post up take advantage.

    Given the challenges Shaw that has faced in his first season as head coach, he's doing an admirable job, giving everyone a chance to earn their spot and is willing to tweak the scheme. But even though Lawson is the leader and has an outside chance at making the All-Star Game, the absence of one of Denver's best players in Gallinari takes away any legitimate chance at playoff success.