The countdown is on for the Denver Nuggets to officially become the public's chic pick for the Western Conference's best and most dangerous dark horse contender.
From day one this season, the Houston Rockets have held that honor overall across the country. Between Rick Adelman's new offense and the expected health improvements for Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, this team was expected to be ready to compete for a championship right now. Instead, they are off to an inconsistent 12-11 start with Yao and T-Mac being the only players providing consistent offensive results, and their offensive efficiency is actually lower than it was a season ago under defensive-minded Jeff Van Gundy. Certainly, the Rockets are still learning a new system, and they have already suffered some injury issues. There is plenty of time for them to turn their performance around and really establish themselves, perhaps as that title contender that so many thougth they would be. But for now, that time remains a considerable ways away.
The team that might not be as far away as it sometimes appears currently resides in the land of the high altitudes. Though they have been competitive for several seasons now, it appears for the first time that the Denver Nuggets are really starting to get it, and it appears that they may even have what it takes to challenge the existing hierarchy in the West.
Sure, the Nugs looked similar last year. They had the absurd offensive tandem of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. They had the best interior defender in the game in Marcus Camby. They had a talented supporting cast. But they didn't always play smart basketball, and for much of last season, they couldn't put it all together to make the whole worth more than the sum of its parts. Thus far this year, they are doing just that.
Offensively, everybody is getting involved. The two studs are still averaging close to 50 points per game between them, but both have lowered their field goal attempts per game by just the slighest bit. J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza are each averaging in double figure scoring in just over 20 minutes per game apiece. Three more players (Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter) are all averaging more than 8 points per. The Nugs play the fastest-paced game in the league, and they have the ability to get out and run anybody to death. Come springtime, their athleticism will make them as good a matchup as anyone else is for the Suns and Warriors of the world.
Of greatest import, however, is the improvement defensively. The Nugs have made a tremendous jump in the defensive rankings thus far this season, going from 11th in defensive efficiency a year ago to second this season at just 101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. Perhaps it is the influence of reigning defender of the year Marcus Camby, whose 14.8 boards and 3.6 blocks make quite a difference inside. Perhaps it is the return of rugged power forward Kenyon Martin, who missed all but two games last season due to injury. Martin gives this team another big body inside who will bang with anyone. Though Martin is averaging 9.8 points and 5.8 boards per game, he is doing it in just over 24 minutes per game, and his presence is worth far more than his stat line. Martin won't be bullied by anyone, and he gives the Nuggets a much-needed mean streak on the interior. Allen Iverson is back among the league leaders in steals, and both he and Carmelo Anthony are giving better efforts defensively than have been seen in quite some time.
Whatever the reason (here's guessing Martin's re-addition had the most to do with it), this Denver team has managed to become an excellent defensive unit. Defense leads to rebounds and quick outlet passes, which leads to transition basketball, which leads to fast breaks, which lead to baskets, especially when the team with the ball is quicker and more explosive athletically than the team without it. That often is the case in Denver, which has led to the early-season success of this Nuggets team.
Ultimately, the Spurs should still be better than the Nugs. They will play better defense when push comes to shove, and with a healthy trio of stars, the Spurs should be able to bring just as much firepower to the table as the Nuggets can. But the rest of the conference remains wide open. The Nuggets have the offensive potency and -- for the first time -- the defensive flexibility and capability to hang with virtually any team out West, from running with the Suns to outgunning the Mavs to matching the Jazz athlete for athlete. The unit in Denver won't be known as a conglomeration of excellent individual talents for much longer. They are becoming a team - and a very good one -- right before our eyes.