After a breakout first four months, the Denver Nuggets have hit some recent stumbling blocks.
On Feb. 3, they sat at 37-15, tied atop the West and just a game back of the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the NBA. Since then they've gone just 8-7, including 3-4 in their last seven games.
Taking your foot off the gas at this point in the season is understandable. Golden State, Boston and Oklahoma City have hit similar excusable rough patches but, due to Denver's youth and preseason expectations, they don't enjoy the same benefit of the doubt as those more established powers.
As their struggles have coincided with the playoffs peeking over the horizon, that doubt has started to cloud the narrative surrounding this team. The worry is that they haven't taken their foot off the gas, they've run out of it.
This Nuggets team may not have been there before but they have several traits that make them well-equipped for the daunting playoff run ahead.
Despite their red-hot first half of the season, Denver has only recently gotten healthy. Their starting five of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic has only appeared in 10 games together, though their small sample size +19.2 net rating is a fantastic sign of cohesion.
While health would have been preferred, injuries did allow for role players to develop in the available minutes.
Denver's bench is clearly a strength but, as has become abundantly clear over the past few seasons, depth doesn't always translate to playoff success. An overqualified 10th man can become inconsequential once rotations tighten. Where Denver can take advantage of this strength, though, is in the versatility of those bench players.
Depending on the matchup, Mike Malone can go a number of routes to supplement his starting five. Mason Plumlee has established himself as the primary backup big but Juan Hernangomez's shooting ability can easily swing the tide of a game. Similarly on the wing, they have a sharpshooter in Malik Beasley and more of a two-way option in Torrey Craig.
Backing up Murray, they have the incredibly reliable Monte Morris - one of the league leaders in assist/turnover ratio - and the eternally combustible Isaiah Thomas.
Denver might not be able to fully maximize their depth in the playoffs, but having so many viable options gives them a good chance against any opponent.
Shooting and Playmaking Depth
The Nuggets aren't a particularly high volume 3-point shooting team, but a big key for them is how almost every player in the rotation is a capable shooter.
Of their top eight players in minutes per game, five shoot at least 36 percent from three and the other three (Jokic, Harris and Millsap) all have made at least four triples in a game this season.
This shooting depth isn't just crucial for devastating scoring barrages, but also to counter the prolonged cold streaks that could single-handedly lose a series. Unlike teams that rely on threes for the majority of their points or those with just a few high-volume shooters, Denver should be far more resilient to the game-to-game shooting variances.
That being said, while the team's shooting is vital, Jamal Murray's shot seems to be the clearest barometer of the team's success.
Murray isn't just a fantastic shooter, he's also the only Nugget capable of creating effective 3-point looks off the dribble, so the Nuggets need him to be effective.
It's a lot of pressure to put on a 22-year-old with no playoff experience, but Murray's ability to hit open shots - and decent looks when none are available - will be huge for Denver's playoff offense.
Offensive rebounding is rarely viewed as a major playoff factor but, when you're as good at it as the Nuggets, it can absolutely swing a series.
It's a simple concept, but a great offensive rebounding team can demoralize opponents through long possessions and easy put-backs. Jokic leads the team with 2.9 ORBs per game (15th in the league) but Denver attacks the boards as a unit. Seven Nuggets average at least 0.8 ORBs per game, propelling Denver to the best offensive rebound percentage in the league (31.6 percent) and the most second-chance points per game (15.5).
When two of Jokic, Millsap and Plumlee are on the floor, Denver is a truly elite offensive rebounding team. Every lineup featuring two of those players has an ORB% of at least 32 percent, which, if projected over a full season, would make the Nuggets the best offensive rebounding team of this decade.
From a playoff perspective, the greatest advantage of offensive rebounding might be the ability to force teams out of preferred smaller lineups. The Nuggets have struggled against both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, but offensive rebounding could be a key to flipping that trend. It could force Golden State out of playing Draymond Green at center and make Houston - who gives up the seventh-most offensive rebounds - to play a more traditional big alongside Clint Capela.
While it's tempting to draw conclusions about inexperienced playoff teams now, most of the lessons from this season will have to wait. We're going to learn a lot about Denver's playoff viability as soon as they drop a playoff game or two, but they have a lot of indicators of a team well suited for a playoff run.
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