Denver Nuggets: An early season roller-coaster

The Denver Nuggets are 6-5, and Nuggets fans are in a position they have been in many times before - supporting a team that has multiple players who can change the course of a game in just a few possessions. However, in order for fans to not be disappointed by the time the All-Star break comes around, there are roles that need to be better defined by Mike Malone and the rest of his coaching staff. 

This is (insert player's name) team...

Paul Millsap was a huge acquisition for the Nuggets this past offseason. It was a move that initially pushed fans and pundits alike to believe this team is doing all that it can to make the playoffs. In Denver's 11 games this season, no true leader has consistently emerged on the court. This creates an issue of whether the emphasis is on building around Nikola Jokic for the future, or focusing on Millsap now for short-term success. Ideally, it will be both.

Rising star Jokic has been the leading scorer for four of the 11 games, with Millsap doing the same for three games, and Jamal Murray and key bench player Will Barton both having two games apiece. It's a double-edged sword when you have four different players who on any night can lead their team in scoring. 

Opposing defenses might struggle to cover all four threats adequately, but the Nuggets also struggle for leadership on the floor. Intangibles are a huge aspect of every major sport, and sooner rather than later this issue could grow into something that may derail what's been a positive season so far. 

Malone needs to define Denver's style of play

If you've watched any Nuggets games this season, you have likely noticed that Jokic is often the man who the ball is run through on offense (when he's on the floor). It's been effective for the big man's stats and has also paid dividends for perimeter guys like Barton, Murray, and Gary Harris, primarily when the ball is kicked back out after Jokic is double teamed or trapped. 

However, there is a noticeable difference when the offense is run through Jokic versus when it goes through Millsap. Part of that is because Jokic is very much a pick-and-roll player who forces the defense to commit to guarding the ball or the outlet pass. Millsap is different as he can play that kind of ball but performs better with isolation and dribble-drive penetration that requires more man defense versus rotating help defense. Again, both styles are effective and so far have played to the Nuggets' favor, but continuing to play without a defined identity could make things harder as the season progresses. 

Coach Malone doesn't have to commit to a rigid one style of play, but a fluid system between pick-and-roll set-ups between Jokic and Harris/Murray and perimeter passing that emphasizes making that extra pass for the best shot possible would be ideal. What might also help the team's identity is a larger emphasis on defense. 

Defense wins championships

Defense should come as the season moves along, but establishing defense consistently on every possession now will lead to transitions that set up high percentage shots later. Despite being in an era where most players can hit from almost anywhere between baseline and half court, pressuring the ball is still a timeless tool to force the other team to make mistakes. 

This current squad can play average defense, but the goal should be to make as many stops on defense as possible. Regardless of the sport, an emphasis on defense leads to quality production on the offensive end, and creates more opportunities while in transition. The Nuggets have shown that they can get out and run and create highlight reel transitional points, but focusing on getting turnovers will make it a staple of Nuggets basketball. 

After 11 games, it's still tough to figure out who will make the playoffs. As long as this Denver squad can put up points while at the same time limiting the amount of damage the opposing team causes, this team could cause some problems for the rest of the West. If the Nuggets can cause disruption to opposing teams' offense after the All-Star break, Denver could book a trip back to the postseason. 

Who do you think is the current leader of this Nuggets squad? Should Jokic be given more focus, or Millsap? Or, is it someone else who has yet to emerge? Share your thoughts with us on the Nuggets below!

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