Can the Nuggets Regain Bubble Form After Shaky Start?

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Michael Malone isn’t exactly one to mince words. Denver’s head coach has called out his team’s lack of energy and effort through the first four games of 2020–21, a 1–3 stretch that included a pair of losses to the Kings. The Nuggets have allowed 120 points in three of their first four contests. They’ve been punished on the boards early and often. Denver entered the season as perhaps the leading non-Los Angeles contender in the Western Conference, but the early results haven’t exactly been encouraging. Malone’s frustration is palpable as Denver limps out of the gate.

“Effort, desire, want. That’s what rebounding is. That’s what defense is,” Malone said after Denver defeated a short-handed Rockets squad on Dec. 28. “I told our guys, you have to understand why you win and why you lose. We get out-rebounded, we don’t win.”

We should tap the breaks on Malone’s concern, to a degree, as 2021 begins. Four games is admittedly a minuscule sample, and the core of last year’s Western Conference finals team is still intact. Nikola Jokic remains a dominant offensive force. Jamal Murray should flirt with All-Star status despite a shaky shooting start. But Denver’s defensive issues have been legitimately problematic early this season. There are lapses galore in the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense. Transition threes are being allowed at an untenable rate. Enhanced energy and effort can go a long way toward improvement, though it’s not necessarily a magical panacea. The Nuggets’ current personnel is likely to lead to defensive struggles throughout 2020–21.

Denver wasn’t exactly a stout defense last season. The Nuggets posted the league’s No. 16 defensive rating, with Malone’s rotation sporting few, if any, impact defenders. Offseason departures only exacerbated the problem. Jerami Grant’s (admittedly hefty) contract with Detroit removed the Nuggets’ most athletic defender in the half-court, and Mason Plumlee’s departure created additional depth issues. Denver’s frontcourt rotation has been anything but stout thus far. Michael Porter Jr. is still a relative disaster defensively, and Paul Millsap doesn’t sport the athleticism to truly keep up with more mobile fours. Nikola Jokic isn’t exactly Rudy Gobert. Isaiah Hartenstein is not a plus defender. Only three teams have allowed a better effective field goal percentage in 2020–21, and just four sport a worse defensive rebounding rate. Malone’s frustration is certainly understandable.

The Nuggets should trend closer toward respectable on the defensive end in the coming weeks. Their early struggles have been exacerbated by a flurry of turnovers—and subsequent poor transition defense—and a new rotation should develop greater cohesion with time. Denver could also be in-line for a pre-deadline move, and even a minor transaction could make a significant difference. Perhaps Nerlens Noel will get dealt from New York as an expiring contract. Ed Davis could get shipped from Minnesota if the Timberwolves are out of the playoff hunt. Considering Denver’s offensive firepower, a league average defense could be enough for a late playoff run.

There’s more than enough talent on hand for Denver to be a comfortable playoff team. Falling into the play-in tournament would be a surprise despite a shaky start, and it’s hard to truly tab any team other than the Lakers or Clippers as a favorite against the Nuggets in a postseason series. Jokic earned All-NBA honors in each of the last two seasons. He’s now flashed MVP potential in 2020–21, including a dominant 18-assist effort against the Rockets. In a league built around guards and wings, Jokic is more than a qualified offensive fulcrum. He’s currently positing MVP-level numbers, and it’s unlikely he sacrifices any sizable share of offensive volume in the coming months. Jokic is as bankable as they come. He’s a proven playoff performer, capable of logging big minutes despite his doughy frame. Jokic has been a lone bright spot amid Denver’s sleepy start.

But can Malone truly bank on anyone outside of Jokic? The potential options are few-and-far between. We should see Murray’s percentages tick up in the coming weeks, and the Kentucky product flashed his own postseason heroics in the NBA bubble. Murray is likely a notch outside the game’s truly elite point guards, though his predilection for making contested jumpers saved Denver multiple times in Orlando.

Finding production outside of the top two may define the Nuggets’ season. Can Porter provide the requisite consistency to be counted on? Will Gary Harris ever rediscover his disappearing jumper? Jokic and Murray are enough to power a quality playoff team, and as we saw last year, a conference finals participant. But the Nuggets are currently a couple pieces short to truly be considered a contender for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Even as Denver improves in the coming weeks, the issues we’ve seen through four games could prove costly come playoff time.