Playoff Contention: Denver Nuggets
WEST: Memphis Grizzlies
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The Nuggets' 15-game win streak that was snapped Monday is Denver's season highlight thus far, but it may just be the beginning of big things to come for this young group of players that are growing together these past two seasons. There are no current All-Stars among them, although Andre Iguodala would be an All-NBA choice and a leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate in my book. Nobody averages 20-plus points (17 is the team high). Nobody plays more than 35 minutes a game. Outside of Oklahoma City, this is a close as a construct to the San Antonio Spurs' organization that you will find nowadays. The Thunder replicated the Spurs' Big 3 nucleus very well and built around it. Where Denver differentiates itself from the rest of the NBA is that, like the Spurs, they are discovering the secret to winning basketball is playing a plethora of players in the 82-game season, where it's not uncommon to see nine men average between 18-and-35 minutes per game. Check out the net ratings below. You'll see eight different Nuggets with +4's or better scores. That's balance. During the team's 15-game win streak, the nifty nine Nuggets had a run-and-gun offensive dominance that showed Denver could dominate whether fly-by Ty Lawson ran the gas fast (+11.5 net rating, 112.4 offensive rating) or venerable vet Andre Miller pushed the brakes slow (+12.0, 94.3 defensive rating).
Let's talk about Denver's main unit that has played together for 785 minutes this season. Lawson, Iguodala, shooter Danilo Gallinari, hustler Kenneth Faried and defender Kosta Koufos. It's an amazingly balanced quintet that puts up a 106.9 offensive rating, which would rank seventh in the NBA's season rankings, and a 99.9 defensive rating, which also would rate seventh. After that, Coach George Karl can just mix-and-match lineups to his heart's delight with four core bench players who can play a variety of positions--two or three each--for a team that just gets better and better as the season goes along, thanks to an ever-growing chemistry being developed in Denver. Take the Nuggets' second unit--and second most-used lineup option. It's pretty similar in production to the first unit that has a net rating of +7.0, with the second unit of Miller, Corey Brewer, Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and JaVale McGee putting the clamps down on D (88.0 defensive rating) and scoring a +5.7 net rating in in 112 minutes together. Coach Karl becomes like a chemist putting all these elements together. What makes Denver especially scary to teams like the Clippers and Grizzlies now is that these two aforementioned units took their games up another level during the 15-game win streak: the first unit had a +9.1 net rating in 128 minutes; the second unit had a +17.2 in 60 minutes. LIke I said before, best is yet to come.
THE 5,000 MINUTE RULE
If you believe in The 5,000 Minute Rule to maximize your championship chances, the Nuggets are another year away from being all they can be. Andre Miller (13,875 minutes with the Nuggets) and Ty Lawson (8452) are already in The Nuggets 5G Club, and the following Nugs are perhaps a year away from joining; Danilo Gallinari (4349), Kenneth Faried (3286), Corey Brewer (3133), Kosta Koufos (2520) and Iguodala (2412). But in the meantime, it's so fun to see them create chemistry together, with the organization bringing back 11 of the 15 Nuggets from last season's up-and-coming squad. The improvement is seen in the winning-percentage jump this season, from .576 to .681. You can expect this cap-manageable team to be even more dangerous next year.
LORD OF THE RINGS
Corey Brewer is the only member of the Nuggets who has won a ring, with the 27-year-old reserve wing playing 23 minutes during the 2011 NBA Finals for the Dallas Mavericks.
Hollinger Playoff Odds say Denver has a 8.1 percent chance to reach the 2013 NBA Finals and 3.8 percent shot to win the NBA championship; Basketball-Reference says the Nuggets have a 7.6 percent shot to reach the 2013 NBA Finals and 4.0 percent chance to win the title.
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C KOSTA KOUFOS: 71 games, 22.6 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 17.9 PER, +8.6 Net, +6.4 On/Off
C JaVale McGee: 69 games, 18.1 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 20.8 PER, +1.7 Net, -5.3 On/Off
C Timofey Mozgov: 37 games, 9.0 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 12.3 PER, -7.7 Net, -14.1 On/Off
PF KENNETH FARIED: 72 games, 28.6 mpg, 11.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 18.7 PER, +5.3 Net, +0.5 On/Off
PF Anthony Randolph: 30 games, 7.6 mpg, 2.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 12.4 PER, -3.2 Net, -8.9 On/Off
SF DANILO GALLINARI: 67 games, 32.8 mpg, 16.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 17.0 PER, +7.7 Net, +7.0 On/Off
SF Wilson Chandler: 33 games, 23.6 mpg, 11.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 15.3 PER, +7.2 Net, +2.7 On/Off
SF Jordan Hamilton: 36 games, 10.5 mpg, 5.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 17.1 PER, -0.8 Net, -6.6 On/Off
SF Quincy Miller: 3 games, 5.0 mpg, 0.3 ppg, 1.0 apg, -1.9 PER, +26.7 Net, +21.7 On/Off
SG ANDRE IGUODALA: 70 games, 34.4 mpg, 12.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 14.8 PER, +6.9 Net, +5.8 On/Off
SG Corey Brewer: 72 games, 24.0 mpg, 11.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 15.0 PER, +3.6 Net, -2.9 On/Off
SG Evan Fournier: 29 games, 7.7 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 0.7 apg, 8.5 PER, -8.0 Net, -14.0 On/Off
PG TY LAWSON: 68 games, 35.0 mpg, 16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 17.8 PER, +4.3 Net, -2.4 On/Off
PG Andre Miller: 72 games, 26.0 mpg, 9.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 15.9 PER, +6.0 Net, +1.9 On/Off
PF Julyan Stone: 4 games, 7.0 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 0.5 apg, 11.5 PER, +10.7 Net, +5.6 On/Off
2011-12 GONE NUGGETS (.576)
SG Arron Afflalo: 62 games, 33.6 mpg, 15.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 14.7 PER, +1.4 Net, -4.7 On/Off
PF Al Harrington: 64 games, 27.5 mpg, 14.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 15.3 PER, +4.8 Net, +3.8 On/Off
SG Rudy Fernandez: 31 games, 22.9 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 2.4 apg, 13.3 PER, +5.4 Net, +3.0 On/Off
C Chris Andersen: 32 games, 15.2 mpg, 5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 18.9 PER, +6.0 Net, +3.5 On/Off
* did not play in 2012 NBA Playoffs; players in boldface are returning players