The Nuggets need their veteran players to step up down the stretch
Through all the injuries and health-and-safety protocols, the Nuggets are right in the thick of the Northwest Division race. Denver still has an opportunity to win the division and land a top-four seed in the Western Conference if their veterans can step up and take it.
Ray Bourque joined a loaded Avalanche team to finally win a Stanley Cup. Free agents flocked to the Broncos when Peyton Manning arrived and went to two Super Bowls in four years, winning one. Whether you call them ring-chasers or just smart businessmen, there are several veterans on the Nuggets roster who have an opportunity to maximize their career success while playing with Nikola Jokic, and they’re blowing it.
Jokic and Aaron Gordon have carried this team to five games above .500, and within striking distance of home-court advantage in the playoffs. But they need some more help.
Jeff Green and Monte Morris have been solid for most of the season, and Bryn Forbes looks like he can be a real threat to stretch the defense going forward. Bones Hyland is developing rapidly on the job, and Zeke Nnaji has shown he can contribute as a still very young player.
But the rest of Denver’s veterans are missing a chance to raise the Nuggets level of play. Denver had an enormous opportunity against a wounded Utah team Wednesday night to pull even with the Jazz in the loss column and put some pressure on them in the division for the first time all season, and the Nuggets veterans, minus Jokic and Gordon, couldn’t take advantage.
Despite shooting 53 percent, out-rebounding Utah and having more assists, the Nuggets couldn’t make plays when it counted in the second half. Will Barton had five of Denver’s 14 turnovers, and his poor shot selection and decision-making led to multiple wasted possessions. Barton has been wildly inconsistent and his performance is declining as the season goes on.
Austin Rivers played 29 minutes and was 1-for-5 shooting for only two points. JaMychal Green did play well on Wednesday, but his inconsistency all season has led to him only getting 16 minutes in a game when Denver was missing three additional frontcourt players.
Facu Campazzo once again didn’t play, because he’s been replaced in the rotation after every lineup combination he played with hemorrhaged points all season. DeMarcus Cousins might provide a scoring boost and additional rebounding, but he was out due to injury.
The Utah loss is just one example, albeit a big one, because it was a game that was there for the taking and could have had an immediate impact on the Northwest Division race.
It was gift-wrapped for Denver’s established, talented veterans to step up and deliver a win when the MVP wasn’t available, and they couldn’t do it.
It’s concerning not just because of the division race and home court in the first round, but what might happen when they get into the playoffs. If Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr. return, the Nuggets will be expected to win at least one series, if not more. But those veterans on the roster are going to have to play up to their potential.
Stars shine in the NBA playoffs, but so many games are decided by the smallest of margins. Denver’s veterans are too talented and too experienced to continue coming up short in big moments. They’re good enough to deliver, and the Nuggets need them all to raise their level of play to compete for a division title and more in the playoffs.