COLUMNS

With the deck stacked against them, are the Nuggets at a breaking point?

Jan 7, 2022, 7:00 AM
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 08: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets reacts against the New...
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

COVID-19 is running rampant through professional sports. And the Nuggets have been affected as much as any team.

The most0recent outbreak sending players into health-and-safety protocols combined with the numerous injuries has Denver’s offense stuck in the mud. And the team stuck in the standings.

Health and safety protocols aren’t an excuse, as every team in every sport is trying to figure out how to deal with it. But Denver’s list of available players changing daily over the last couple of weeks, and the mismatched lineups that has caused, are a huge reason the Nuggets sit with an 18-18 record. While it’s easy to be disappointed with the results, it’s even easier to see why Denver hasn’t been able to build any momentum or consistency.

Bones Hyland has been benched by the virus twice already in his rookie season. Zeke Nnaji was starting to find quality rotation minutes before being sat down by the protocols. Jeff Green was a consistent positive next to Nikola Jokic in the starting lineup since Michael Porter Jr’s injury, until he tested positive. Already thin in the backcourt, things got worse when Monte Morris entered the health-and-safety protocols and missed three games. They even lost Michael Malone and half of his coaching staff to virus protocols this week.

In addition to COVID, Aaron Gordon has been banged up for a while and had to miss three games. Markus Howard’s shooting helped rescue Denver in San Antonio, then he suffered a knee sprain when he was finally getting a chance to play.

The front office turned to the G League for roster assistance, adding Rayjon Tucker and Carlik Jones in addition to Davon Reed who came on board after the P.J. Dozier injury. Vlatko Cancar started seeing minutes until he was injured, and we’ve even seen a 20-minute outing from Bol Bol in the last week.

It’s been a revolving door of who is available and who isn’t for most of the season, and it’s starting to take a toll. The result of the ever-changing lineup combinations is a team playing some pretty disjointed basketball overall.

After scoring 133 points in a win at Atlanta, Denver turned around after four days off and lost to Oklahoma City. They got outscored 38-13 in the fourth quarter in a home loss to Charlotte, then won 103-100 at the Clippers and 89-86 at Golden State. They put up 124 points to win in Houston, then only 89 in a loss at Dallas two nights later.

Jokic makes everyone he plays with better, but despite having another record-breaking season, the reigning MVP can’t cover up all the weaknesses teams are starting to exploit with the Nuggets limited personnel. Without reliable depth or stable rotation options, defenses can focus on limiting Jokic as a scorer because they know Denver has no other weapons that can hurt them.

When Hyland, Morris and Nnaji were all out, teams had no one to defend behind the three-point arc and Denver couldn’t create the spacing that makes Jokic so valuable as a passer. When teams don’t have to account for shooters, it’s much easier for them to lock in on Jokic and take their chances that someone else can beat them. Most nights, they can’t.

Will Barton has had an up-and-down season and career in Denver, but his decision-making and shot selection are definitely on a downward trend the last month. He hasn’t shot 50 percent from the field in a game since Dec. 9.

Facu Campazzo played the best game of his NBA career at Houston, but playing more than 30 minutes in four of the last seven games has revealed his inability to finish drives or effectively be a floor spacer.

Austin Rivers can provide excellent perimeter and wing defense, but has missed several rotations and struggled to shoot from three-point range all season. He’s a valuable 15-minute a game veteran who is playing 27 minutes a night over the last three weeks.

Denver is playing lineup combinations out of necessity, not out of preference. There’s no continuity or chemistry to the combinations they put on the floor because they’ve never played or practiced together as a unit. It’s made for some ugly basketball, and it hasn’t been much fun to watch.

The good news is, despite Denver being more depleted than the rest of the Western Conference, other teams haven’t been able to figure out a winning formula either. Only two games separate fifth and ninth in the West, and if the Nuggets can ever find some roster stability their talent stacks up favorably in that playoff race. Denver has perhaps the easiest remaining schedule with 46 games to play, and after everything they’ve gone through already, it can only get better from here.

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