5 Things to Watch for During the Denver Nuggets' Final Games

Nick Juskewycz@@NickJuskewyczContributor IIIMarch 14, 2014

5 Things to Watch for During the Denver Nuggets' Final Games

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    The Denver Nuggets are 10 games behind eighth place in the Western Conference, but there are several reasons for fans to keep an eye on this team. 

    This season has been full of bizarre winning and losing streaks, mainly contributed by various injuries. With a first-year head coach in Brian Shaw trying to adjust a few things schematically and improve some other areas, he has faced a significant challenge, with the roster and rotation constantly changing. 

    But now that Denver is healthy outside of Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson, Shaw has an opportunity to figure a few things out before the offseason. These come both on offense and defense, as well as team and individual performance.

    Nuggets fans may want their team to start tanking since the New York Knicks only trail the Atlanta Hawks by three-and-a-half games for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Remember, the Nuggets have their own and the Knicks' 2014 first-round pick, but they trade the less favorable one to the Orlando Magic, according to RealGM.

    However, given that Shaw is using somewhat of a normal rotation at this point and the Nuggets are playing at a much higher level with Ty Lawson back, they will give it their best the rest of the season. Even so, the finishing schedule is brutal, and they will still likely finish well out of the playoff picture.

    So before we start analyzing the NBA draft possibilities and free-agent market, we should pay attention to these five things and how they'll pertain to next season.

What Tempo Will Brian Shaw Go with Now That Ty Lawson Is Healthy?

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    The tempo and style of play have gone through a variety of changes this season.

    Once the Nuggets lost an eighth straight contest on Jan. 1 to the Philadelphia 76ers when Andre Miller showed his frustration at Shaw, the team had a meeting the next day to discuss their issues, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. Denver had been playing at a slower pace and tried using more of an inside-out game.

    After the meeting, the Nuggets went with a faster pace, which they are more familiar with. They still ran some of the same half-court sets, but if Ty Lawson or one of the other guards saw something they liked early in the shot clock, they had the green light.

    However, some of that flexibility was compromised with the injuries to Robinson and Lawson. That's when the losing spiraled out of control.

    Now that the team is healthy again, the home stretch will be interesting to see what Shaw wants to do. Lawson has played six games since his return, and the Nuggets are playing with the same kind of aggression they had in January.

    At this point, it's best for Denver to continue with an uptempo style, at least until the end of the season. Even though Shaw wants a more balanced offense and an improved defense, this roster needs more coaching and development before it's capable of doing that at a high level.

    A good coach knows how to adapt to what he has, and Shaw's best player is Lawson. The speedster is putting up 22.8 points and 10.8 assists since returning from his rib injury.

    Once the offseason moves are made and Shaw has 15 players to work with, then he can make the strategic and rotational adjustments.

Will the Defense Improve?

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    Whether it's half court or transition, as well as perimeter or in the paint, Denver still has defensive problems. It's giving up a 28th-ranked 105.7 points per game and 109.3 in its last three games.

    However, it's important to note that the Nuggets run the third-most possessions at 101.4, which is 1.6 more than last season under former head coach George Karl. Since that number would be even higher had they played at this pace the entire season, it's not like they were going to have a top-five scoring defense.

    Still, Denver is 21st in defensive efficiency, allowing a 25th-ranked 44.8 points in the paint.

    This is why we've seen Timofey Mozgov move into the starting five, although he's still playing less than 20 minutes. Lawson has made some strides, and Randy Foye has made some plays, but there hasn't been an Andre Iguodala out there to defend the elite guards.

    The defense used to gamble and try to force turnovers under Karl. While Denver gave up easy baskets at times, it also got easy ones in transition when it worked.

    It's a much different look under Shaw, and as Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post points out, it's taking time for everyone to adjust. He's right in that this isn't a quick fix, given the injuries and that it's a complete change in style.

    In any case, the defense needs to improve before Denver can become a Western Conference contender.

    The one thing Shaw has constantly asked from his team is consistent effort and energy. That's what he's been rewarding as far as playing time goes.

    With Lawson and Kenneth Faried playing at a high level, others are feeding off them. We'll still find the defensive breakdowns, but the motors and physicality can keep Denver at least competitive the rest of the way.

Can the Nuggets Beat the Top Competition?

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    We've seen a few instances of Denver knocking off the top competition in the NBA, most notably in January when it defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers.

    But this finishing schedule the Nuggets are up against is nothing short of a gauntlet. Here's what the final 18 games involve:

    • 15 are against teams that would be currently in the playoffs
    • Nine of those 15 are on the road
    • Record wise, 13 games are against eight of the top nine teams in the NBA
    • Four back-to-backs remain, all of which against current playoff teams
    • The winning percentage of the remaining opponents combined is .601

    A lot of times, you can look at a schedule before the season and point to what looks like a rough stretch. But then, it doesn't turn out to be nearly as difficult as you thought.

    That's not the case here.

    As the Nuggets try to jell and figure out the pieces to the puzzle for next season, they will be able to test themselves against the best competition in nearly every game. This is a great opportunity to see how far behind they are, despite not having Gallinari, McGee and Robinson.

    If the Nuggets go 9-9 the rest of the way, that would be a solid and respectable finish. In order to do that, they'll need to execute, but they'll also need big shots like this (and get higher-percentage looks).

Does Kenneth Faried Keep Up His Hot Streak?

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    No one has benefited more from Lawson's return than Faried.

    The "Manimal" is posting 21.1 points and 10.1 rebounds in March. His scoring is easily a career high over a monthly period, and the boards are 0.7 shy of a career best.

    But there are more impressive things to note about him in his previous seven games.

    While he's logging 33.7 minutes per game compared to his 26.2 on the season, Faried is shooting 64.5 percent from the floor. This is his best mark in a month since January of his rookie season when he was 4-of-6 shooting in only 21 total minutes.

    Furthermore, he has done this with a much increased workload at 13.3 field-goal attempts. He's also shooting 5.7 free throws at 70 percent, compared to his season numbers of 3.2 attempts at 62.9 percent.

    The best part is that he's scoring multiple waystransition dunks, pick-and-roll, posting up on the low block, mid-range shots and getting to the line.

    Sure, the competition hasn't exactly been great, but this is the kind of improvement and consistency that Denver needs from Faried. Plus, he's doing this while playing with the same intensity.

    With six more contests against the strong frontcourts of the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets, if the Manimal keeps this up the rest of the season, his game will officially be at another level.

Who Is Going to Make a Last Good Impression?

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    Whoever specifically makes an impact these last five weeks will make a strong case in earning a more permanent spot next season.

    Remember, even though Shaw has given a lot of different guys playing time, he did shorten his rotation in January before the obstacles started piling up. Denver won eight of 12 games before Robinson's ACL injury.

    Shaw will likely play his starters big minutes and limit his bench next season. Essentially, this is the last chance to make a statement before the offseason and summer league. 

    With Gallinari and McGee under contract through the 2015-16 season and Robinson promising to exercise his player option next season, per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post, there's little room in the rotation when the injured players come back. 

    Maybe there will be a significant trade in the offseason that makes this easier, or Denver could score big in the draft, but the younger players won't and can't have that mindset. Shaw knows what guys like Foye and Wilson Chandler bring to the table, but it's an opportunity for people like Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller to make a push.

    Fournier didn't get any meaningful playing time until the end of last season, and his minutes this year have varied significantly based on team health. Miller has occasionally seen some action at the 3 and showed some versatility, but he hasn't been reliable or consistent in any area.

    Under the circumstances, the younger Denver players should be taking these final games like they're fighting for their playoff lives, regardless of the team's postseason status. Despite many of them having legitimate upside, Shaw may have a tough time fitting them into the equation in the future.

    All individual statistics are from Basketball-Reference.comAll team statistics are from TeamRankings.com.