Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My end of the First Quarter, beginning of the Second Quarter Assessment

By my calculations, the first quarter of the season ended at halftime of the the 76ers game, and the second half of that game provided us with a taste of what's to come kicking off the second quarter of the season. Due to weather and other constraints, I wasn't able to watch last nights game, and likely will have to rely on ESPN's GameCast and play-by-play accounts online for the rest of the week, so instead of the usual game recaps, I'm going to go a little "A Christmas Carol" on you and take a look at the Ghosts of Nuggets' past (the first quarter of the season) and a brief look into the Ghosts of Nuggets' future (at least the next few games on the schedule).

Ghosts of Nuggets' Past (trends I've noticed through the first quarter of the season):

I've heard of "trap games," but never seen "trap weeks."

20 days passed from the time the Nuggets pounded the Pau-less Lakers to the shellacking they laid on D-Wade's Heat last Thursday. In between they faced nary a winning team. They went 6-2 during that stretch, with the losses coming against the bottom of the barrell Clippers in LA and the streak-ending Minnesota Timberwolves and the wins including a nail-biter against the Knicks and a variety of virtual blow-outs against the Raptors, Bulls, Nets, T-Wolves and Warriors. As bad as those (and the narrow victory over the Knicks) were, It's hard to complain too much about your team going 6-2 over a 3 week stretch. You're bound to have off-games over that period of time, and I'd rather have those at the beginning of the season that when it gets down to crunch time in the Spring.

Melo's production has tailed off from his torrid start.

Teams are coming into games focused on not letting Carmelo beat them and there has been more success recently than there was at the beginning of the season. It will be interesting to see how Melo responds to having his record-setting streak of 20 point games to start the year broken. My gut tells me he'll finally relax a bit and get back to his playmaking and electrifying post-passing that launched him into the MVP debate to begin with. It also could just come down to match-up problems. Combining Andre Iguodala's perimeter defense with Sam Dalembert's ability to protect the rim makes for a tough night for Melo. Fortunately, all that attention has allowed some of the other Nugget players to step up as Chauncey's 31 points last night proved. Over the course of the year, they're going to need some guys to step up like that when the shots just aren't falling for Melo.

Nuggets: Easy opponents, difficult schedule

Many people point to the lack of quality opponents when they talk about the lack of difficulty in the schedule so far for Denver, which is a fair point since I just mentioned they went almost 3 weeks without facing a team with a winning record. The problem with leaving it at that though is that you fail to take into account the logistical difficulties they have faced already this year. 3 of their 5 losses coming into tonight came on a 6-game road trip over the course of 9 nights. That road trip consisted of 3 back-to-back sets of games and they will be finishing up their 7th set of back-to-backs tonight, so 14 of their first 21 games have been part of back-to-backs and 11 of the first 21 have been on the road. Most teams have a pretty even home/road split at this point, but I mainly wanted to point that out so I could compare the logistics of the Nuggets season so far that of the Lakers.

Lakers: Average opponents, cake schedule

It's really unbelievable just how easy the Lakers have had it so far. It's one thing to favor a certain team, but they've had 15 games at home and a ridiculous 4 on the road. 4 road games so far! Unreal. Their road games consist of overtime wins against OKC and Houston, the blowout loss in Denver and a blowout win over Golden State. Seems like there's still a lot to learn about how they're going to handle things on the road this year. Combine that with their 3 back-to-backs and you start to get a picture of just how easy LA has had it so far this year. There's a lot of hoops to be played and there's no doubt the defending champs are still the team to beat, but I'm going to wait and see how they handle a little scheduling adversity before I pencil them in for another NBA Finals appearance.

The 8-man rotation

For the first time that I can remember, the Nugs have a well-defined and fully productive 8-man rotation. Barring garbage time and foul trouble, Junior Smith, Ty Lawson and Birdman take up all the meaningful minutes that the starting 5 spends on the bench. This is one of those things that grows out of being confident in your team in the off-season. The Nuggets front office took a lot of heat for essentially standing pat and losing Linas the Menace and Dahntay Jones for nothing, but look at what's happening with the Spurs now. They had a good system, a good rotation, then they went out and got Richard Jefferson and now the team is in disarray offensively. They're surviving on the strength of Duncan and Parker's abilities to beat their defenders one-on-one which is a far cry from the well-oiled machine we've known them to be for the last decade. Somehow with all the big names changing homes these past few off-seasons, people seem to have forgotten how important it is for players to have experience playing together. The only thing that worries me about sticking with 8 players at this point in the year is that they may wear down by the time the playoffs roll around. Hopefully there will be enough garbage time in the remaining games (with the Nugs leading of course) to keep the main rotation players rested.

Ghosts of Nuggets' Future

The immediate future

  • Tonights game against Charlotte
A big second half run keyed the Nuggets win in an emotional game against Allen Iverson, so it'll be interesting to see how much they have left in the tank for tonight's game in Charlotte. They're 8-11 on the year, but they're coming off a two day break following a 1-pt victory over the road weary Phoenix Suns, so I think the Nugs best opportunity to run away with this one will be coming fast out of the gate before the Bobcats have a chance to work the kinks out. They're a young, scrappy, well-coached team that can score in bunches, so it would be a good idea to try and build a big lead before the fatigue kicks in.
  • Thursday's game against Detroit
It would be nice to be able to close out this road trip with an emphatic win, but I see this as the upcoming game in which we're most likely to see a disappointing performance from our Nuggets. Detroit has been underwhelming all season long, but they still have a decent set of players that can put it together for a night here and there. The fact that teams are gunning for them this year along with a home date with the Suns looming a couple days ahead makes me a little worried about what the mindset of the team will be like at the end of their second-longest road trip of the season so far. That being said, with a win in tonight's game, they could have a chance to sweep all 4 games on the trip and put an end to the talk of Denver as a team that struggles on the road, and that may be enough motivation for these guys to keep focused.
  • Saturday night against Phoenix
I really hope I'm able to find a way to watch this one, because I think it could be one of the most entertaining games of the year. The Suns are back to their run and gun ways, are battling for the second best record in the Western Conference and we'll get to see a match-up of two of the best point guards in the league in the twilights of their careers (fortunately for this game, their age has affected their defense and barely touched their offensive abilities). I won't get too deep into this game yet as I'm going to look more closely at the match-ups and post a more in-depth preview once we get closer to Saturday.
Beyond the upcoming week

I think it's safe to say that the Nuggets can be considered one of the NBA's elite teams right now after their 16-5 start to the season, but they've only played two games against division rivals (both wins against Portland and Utah) and and four games against teams that were thought to be contenders this season (all wins against Portland, Utah, San Antonio and the Lakers), so I'm excited that there's still so much to learn about this team as the Divisional games and NBA elite show up on the schedule. Hopefully by the time we're all back at work following the holidays, we'll be cheering on a team that has stood toe-to-toe with the best the NBA has to offer and that's getting themselves ready for the stretch run into the Spring.