The All-Star break is over, Kenneth Faried manimaled his way to some long-overdue national attention, and fastest team in the NBA West got a few days off to recharge its batteries. After the Nuggets beat the Celtics last night to avenge that frustrating triple OT loss heading into the break, it's official: The second half of Denver's season is underway, and it's time to begin the push to the post season. But what do the Nugs need to fix along the way? Five things at least.
The Nuggets are a "team" in the truest sense of the word. No single superstar carries them on a given night, although Faried, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have done great spot impressions throughout the season. Moving forward, it's no surprise that in order for the Nuggets to climb in the rankings and avoid a first-round match up with the Memphis Grizzlies (their antithesis, essentially), they need to do better in the following areas.
1. Cut down on the turnovers. The Nuggets' turnover numbers are a bit inflated due to the pace at which they play. More trips up and down the court and a fast-paced offense are not usually conducive to low levels of turnovers. As it stands, the Nuggets are 28th in the league in this category, at 15.5 per game. No single player is to blame. High-usage players like Lawson, Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller turn the ball over the most, but that's to be expected. Only Houston (16.3) and Oklahoma City (15.6) average more turnovers per game, but Houston plays at an even faster pace than the Nuggets, and Oklahoma City currently has two of the ten best players in the league to make up for their lost possessions.
2. Make free throws. The Nuggets are dead last in the NBA, shooting a woeful 69 percent from the stripe. The league average is around 74 percent. Andre Miller is the best free throw shooter on the team (if only his jumper would follow suit) at 85 percent, and Gallinari comes in around 81 percent. After those two, the bottom falls out. Every other player on the team shoots less than 80 percent. Koufos, McGee, Iguodala and Faried combine to shoot 59 percent. Those guys are on the floor quite a bit. It's actually pretty impressive how many points the Nugs put up on a nightly basis while shooting free throws so, so poorly. But they've got to make the most of the opportunities. They're called "free" for a reason.
3. Improve team defense. Calling the Nuggets' team defense "sieve-like" does an injustice to hardworking sieves everywhere. Opponents average 101.5 points per game against the Nugs. Eight other teams give up more than 100 points per game, and of those eight, only three are playoff-bound based on today's standings: the Warriors, Rockets and Nuggets. Again, part of the blame has to fall on the playing pace. The up-and-down game translates to scoring a lot of points for both the Nuggets and their opponents. But when you're turning the ball over at a high clip, you've got to shore up the defense to compensate. The Nuggets actually block quite a few shots -- 6.6 per game, fourth in the league -- and they swipe a high number of steals -- 8.7 per game, third in the league. But those are often individual statistics not indicative of a team's overall defensive performance (see: Howard, Dwight). In order for the Nugs to make a serious run at the post season, they've got to get better at individual discipline, defensive rotations and defending the pick and roll.
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4. Make three pointers (or stop taking so many). The Nuggets don't shoot a ton of threes, but they do fall right around the league average (19.7). What sets them apart is their inability to make those shots. For a team averaging more than nineteen three-point attempts per game, a healthy percentage would be about 38 percent. Instead, the Nuggets shoot 34 percent, making 6.6 per game. Obviously, the Nuggets rely on a high-powered offense to be competitive, so threes are an important element of the game plan. But how can their big men -- especially big men whose go-to post move is an offensive rebound -- hope to operate when other defenses don't need to bother respecting the three ball? Floor spacing is key to opening up other scoring avenues, so maybe the Nuggets should reconsider how often they let fly from long range. Other playoff-bound teams shoot the three poorly -- namely Memphis and Chicago -- but they recognize this and take fewer than fourteen per game. To take the next step, the Nugs need to play to their strengths: athleticism, transition buckets and excellent team chemistry.
5. Win on the road. This isn't a completely fair criticism, since the Nuggets played 22 of their first 32 games on the road. But the schedule balanced back out, and now everyone is essentially even. The Nugs are an impressive 22-3 at home, but a sub-par 11-18 on the road. Of the sixteen teams currently in the playoff hunt, only three have lost more than fifteen games on the road: Utah, Houston and Denver. Utah and Houston are battling for the seven and eight seeds, respectively, but the Nuggets, thanks largely to their Pepsi Center dominance, are fifth, with a shot at catching Memphis for the four. Fortunately, the Nuggets' next five road games are all against sub-500 teams (Washington, Charlotte, Portland, Sacramento and Phoenix), with home meetings against the Lakers, Clippers and Oklahoma City sprinkled throughout. It should be a great opportunity to build some momentum for the second half of the season.