Photo: Photo by John Leyba – The Denver Post via Getty Images
The Denver Nuggets, quite simply, were not a good road team throughout the 2017-18 season. With two away games remaining their road record is 14-25. It was safe to say many Nuggets fans thought the playoff hopes would come to an end somewhere along the road trip; for many fans it’s believed they did. However, after a big win in Oklahoma City and ultimately a pretty solid performance in Toronto the Nuggets closed the road trip by seeming to gain some confidence as the Western Conference playoff race opens up a little bit again.
It wasn’t all positive during this road trip, however. The Nuggets still took time to remind us why they struggled on the road for much of the season. Missing Gary Harris didn’t help, but while some games may have gone differently, the early road struggles were more systematic of who the Nuggets were on the road throughout the season.
Whether it was slow starts, blown leads, or simply just not showing up for a ‘lesser’ opponent, the Nuggets did it all on this road trip. We also saw a team that played some of its most competitive basketball of the season (as they should have) and regained confidence by taking advantage of an opportunity to blow out a tanking Bulls squad. The bench may have been the ultimate seesaw though. When the bench played well, specifically without Jokic on the floor, the Nuggets put themselves in a position to win. If not, well, you get the picture.
So, who were the Nuggets on the road this season? How did it affect their playoff chances? Here’s a closer look.
On a base level, the Nuggets score 5 points per game worse on the road than they do at home. That’s in part because the ball seems to stick more which leads to worse shot attempts. As a team they shoot 3 percent worse on the road and average 5 less assists per game. Interestingly, the offensive and defensive ratings are almost exactly opposite home and away for the Nuggets. Almost every other basic team stat is no different for the Nuggets whether they play in Denver or away.
When you look at the stats from the perspective of this most recent road trip the Nuggets improved their shooting percentage, especially from three-point range. As a team they shot better than 42 percent from distance. That shooting contributed to a nearly 10-point increase in points per game, likely in part due to the Bulls game. The Nuggets passed better, and more efficiently with less turnovers, but they also protected the rim with an increased blocks per game total, up from 4.9 to 6.3 (thank you Mason Plumlee). From a statistical standpoint the Nuggets road trip was a huge success in terms of the improvements that they accomplished even without Gary Harris. So, why did it end up feeling like more of the same, ending in a 3-4 record over the seven-game road trip?
Slow starts versus late game lulls
From the first game of the season, the Nuggets developed a nasty habit of not being able to finish games. If you made a list of all the Nuggets losses from the season it might be quicker to list the games that they didn’t have a stretch where they either lost a big lead or dug themselves a hole that was nearly insurmountable. The season-opener in Utah didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, perhaps just a team that hadn’t gelled yet and just hit a wall to start the fourth. Looking back on it now, it tells a different story and clearly has larger implications on the playoff race.
Unfortunately, that game provided an all-to-familiar blueprint for what would plague the Nuggets into the position that they’re in today. Outside of games against Houston, Portland, Boston, Golden State, and San Antonio, all of the Nuggets 25 road losses come down to either 1st quarter deficits or 3rd quarter collapses.
In nine of the Nuggets road losses they had a 3rd or 4th quarter lead of 10 or more points or experienced a swing of 10 or more points against them from their opponent. In seven other games, the Nuggets trailed by double digits in the 1st quarter and were unable to recover.
It’s understandable to have some of these shortcomings, especially against the top teams in the league, but the Nuggets proved to struggle against almost every playoff team in the league on the road. Denver did not win a game against another playoff team at full strength* until Jokic’s historic triple-double in Milwaukee in mid-February. Since then they’ve done it just once, and that was this past game in their huge victory against OKC. However, that still didn’t come without the scare of a blown 15+ point 3rd quarter lead as the game tightened throughout the 4th.
*Portland, Golden State, Cleveland, and Washington were without Dame, Steph, Love, and Wall respectively.
Why did the Nuggets have such a problem with 1st and 3rd quarters throughout the year, though? Well, five out of seven of the teams the Nuggets got off to a slow start against were non-playoff teams. That to me just shows a lack of urgency and focus coming into the game. As for the 3rd quarter, that seemed to be a problem with rotations, specifically when Nikola Jokic checked out.
Bench contributions and the Jokic factor
The Nuggets bench was supposed to be a great strength of the team, and at times it did have special flashes. Yet, especially since the Millsap return, there have been problems with solidifying a rotation that is able to maintain a lead without Nikola Jokic on the floor. That’s what has led to recent rotations where Jokic will only check out for a couple minutes at a time. That strategy seemed to work to perfection against OKC, with Millsap and Jokic being staggered throughout the second half. However, when Jokic and the starters came in to put the game away in the early fourth, that was when the large lead began to slip away.
Clearly the bench scoring is impacted when Will Barton is thrust into the starting role. Barton had to start 34 games overall this season as he went from a sixth man of the year candidate to someone who will have nearly started half of the games for the team. While the Nuggets have a 20-14 record overall with Barton in the starting lineup, that record drops to 8-11 on the road. Given the convention that most role players play better at home, this makes sense and shows why Barton’s scoring value to the bench has likely been missed on the road.
While that happens to be a better record than when Barton didn’t start on the road (6-14), it’s important to point out that half of those games were with another bench player, or two, starting instead of Barton. The Nuggets were 2-8 in those games. With Barton and the usual bench rotation (meaning after Millsap returned from injury) the Nuggets were 2-2 on the road. Aside from being a small sample size, it’s hard to believe that Millsap was 100 percent, so I’d argue we haven’t even seen what this team truly should look like at full strength on the road.
The problem with the second unit may just be a lack of cohesion. For many of the early season road losses the rotation went 10 deep at times, including contributions from Kenneth Faried. It took quite some time for Malone to consolidate the rotation to a consistent group. While the rotation is still, unfortunately, a work in progress at least it’s clear that the Nuggets are on the right track. Hopefully that means that when Harris returns from injury the Nuggets will be able to put together a rotation that is successful throughout the entire game.
The Millsap injury was obviously the most significant of the season for the Nuggets. 56% of the Nuggets road games to this point were without Millsap. When considering that Millsap was signed for his veteran presence and ultimately his consistency that he could bring to the Nuggets on the road, that was probably a big miss for the team.
Even after Millsap returned, there were just four away games before Gary Harris went down. That meant that Harris missed the entirety of the seven-game road trip. On top of that, Nikola Jokic was also injured for a short period of time this season. That time happened to be for the entirety of the six-game road trip. In those two long road trips the Nuggets managed to survive with a 5-8 overall record, but you have to wonder how some of those results may have been different with at least Harris and Jokic being healthy.
Expectation for rest of season and playoffs
Personally, I think a healthy Nuggets squad has a great chance to steal both of their last two road games despite being against formidable opponents. The Clippers and Timberwolves games will likely have huge impacts on who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. If the Nuggets don’t cut out the problems that have affected them for most of the season the road woes could strike one last time and end the team’s playoff hopes for good. Assuming the improvement and desire to win that the Nuggets appear to be showing right now, I think the Nuggets sneak into the playoffs as the eight seed, but that only means so much when that earns you the right to travel to Houston to play the best regular season team in the league.
The Nuggets problems did not appear to impact the games against the Rockets this season. For the most part, they were outplayed by a superior Houston team in a bad matchup. Because of that and the fact that there will be such a small sample size of a full-strength Nuggets team it’s hard for me to determine the Nuggets chances to steal a game or two in that series. Simply getting to that series by winning a road game or two to get in the playoffs, however, that would be enough to give me some hope that the Nuggets could be a competent road basketball team in 2018-2019.