The middle of the NBA’s Western Conference playoff standings might get a little shook up, as fourth-place Memphis will be undergoing a transition period after their trade of Rudy Gay. A team that stands to benefit from any problems in Memphis would be the Denver Nuggets. And really, the way Denver has been playing of late, they might not have needed any help move up to the #4 spot, secure homecourt for the first round of the playoffs and position themselves as the challenge to the San Antonio/Oklahoma City/LA Clippers troika that serves as the West’s ruling class.
Denver is 29-18, and sitting at #6 in the conference. That’s the position they were in last year when they took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games before coming up short in the first round. As much as any team, the Nuggets should grasp the importance of getting homecourt. They’re only a game and a half back of Memphis as it is, and only percentage points behind Golden State.
The Nuggets appear to be the only team actually happy with their end in the Dwight Howard trade. Denver was part of the multi-team megadeal that moved Orlando’s star to the Lakers, a move that has obviously not worked well for Los Angeles. The Lakers moved Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, where he’s been hurt. And the Sixers moved Andre Iguodala to Denver—at last, we have a component of the trade that’s coming through.
Iguodala has continued his role as a steady, if unspectacular two-guard, who gets you 13 points a game and chips in with some scoring and assists. He blends well with point guard Ty Lawson, who drives a pace that’s the second-fastest in the NBA. Lawson is an excellent playmaker and the offense ultimately feeds Danilio Gallinari. The 6’10” small forward can bury the three and run in transition, the reason why Denver is sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency. The Nuggets get good rebounding work from forward Kenneth Faried and center Kosta Koufous. They could use some better boardwork from Javale McGee, although the backup center at least kicks in blocking shots.
Denver also brought in Corey Brewer from Chicago, and he’s been a good shooter from the floor and helped a defense that’s in the top half of the league in efficiency. Since I’ve dropped the “E” word of efficiency a couple times, maybe now is a good time to explain to any new readers, or those unfamiliar with sabermetric lingo what is. Offensive and defensive efficiency is essentially a fancy way of saying you take the points scored/allowed volume and adjust them for pace.
This prevents teams like Denver, who drive a rapid rate, from looking artificially good on offense or artificially bad on defense. The efficiency ranking gives you a good grasp of how well a team is at executing in specific situations where they really need a score or a stop, where as the raw totals really just tell you what sort of pace they play at. What we see in Denver is that they are a genuinely good offensive team, and at least an above-average defensive unit.
What Denver also is, is a hot basketball team. They got off to a slow start, although as blogger Jeff Fogle over at Stat Intelligence noted at the time, they were playing a tough schedule. Since December 14, the Nuggets have won 17 of 23, and that includes five straight wins. One win came against a great team in Oklahoma City. Another came against a pretty good one in Indiana. And two came against a borderline playoff team in Houston, which at least clearly separated the Nuggets from the playoff bubble.
The fifth win was against lowly Sacramento, which doesn’t interest me much, but in the other four wins, Denver did it a variety of different ways. They beat Oklahoma City on the glass, with Koufous and Faried neutralizing Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and negating big nights from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Against Indiana, Denver won by getting to the free throw line more frequently. The two games against Houston saw the Nuggets win once by forcing 22 turnovers and getting outstanding backcourt play and another because they shot the lights out, to the tune of 51 percent from the floor.
What does concern me is that in none of those wins do we say they won because of defense. I’m not talking about point totals, per our efficiency discussion. But in the four games referenced, Denver allowed at least 45 percent shooting from the floor. That’s an area that has to improve if the Nuggets are going to harbor a puncher’s chance at getting to the conference finals. But for now, this is a team that’s playing well, has a great shot to reach the second round and if nothing else, doesn’t have to look back with regret on their role in the Dwight Howard trade.