Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Denver Rising Against the Odds

About 45 days into the 2013-14 season, and the Portland Trail Blazers stand at the top of the Western Conference Standings. Only two of 15 teams in the East have a win percentage over .500. The Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks have been fighting it out not for Division supremacy, but who has been more embarrassing this season. Back in the West, the Houston Rockets, even with the addition of Dwight Howard, are still out of the top four. Minnesota, despite Kevin Love’s monstrous season, has not forged a winning identity.

Talk about surprises!

And then there are the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets, who at 13-8, are holding on to the sixth spot in the West, ahead of the Golden State Warriors, the Timberwolves and even the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, the same Nuggets, who had an offseason defined by some high-profile exits. They lost 2013 NBA Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, who as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations, helped the Nuggets overcome Carmelo Anthony’s exit to the New York Knicks and still remain relevant in the Western Conference.

Then there was George Karl’s departure, who put together a 57-25 season in 2012-13, which was good enough to win him the Coach of the Year award, but was shown the door by Denver. Also gone was Andre Iguodola, the versatile forward, who was traded from Golden State as part of a three-team deal.

Meanwhile, Danilo Gallinari, who went down with a torn ACL in April 2013, is still to play a game for Denver this season. Talented, but erratic bog-man JaVale McGee has also only played only five games this season for the Nuggets because of a stress fracture.

It might be easier to rebuild after an avalanche!

Yet, here they are these Nuggets, going 8-2 over their last 10 games to improve to 13-8 after a 1-4 start threatened a complete downslide for a franchise that finished third in the West in 2012-13. That they have managed this solid start despite playing 13 games on the road (second most in the West), makes their record even more impressive.

The Nuggets have never been about stars in the post-Carmelo Anthony era. Last season, despite their impressive run under Karl, not one of their players was part of the All-Star game. But what they have done this season, without the presence of Iguodola and Gallinari, is even more notable.

Ty Lawson has been one of the big factors in the Nuggets start, but it is their rebounding and low-turnover rate , which has helped the most. They also play at an up-tempo pace , pushing the ball up, and are among the top-10 teams in attacking the basket, which shows in their free-throw attempts per game.

But the biggest intangible for the Nuggets has surely been the influence of first-time head coach Brian Shaw. Shaw, who played for 15 seasons in the NBA, and served as an assistant coach for eight seasons with the Lakers and the Indiana Pacers before landing the Denver assignment in the 2013 offseason. Even when he was with the Lakers, Shaw had earned quite a name for himself. He was widely considered to take over the coaching assignment after Phil Jackson left the marquee franchise, but was edged at the very end by Mike Brown for the job.

Being a former player, who won three championships with the Lakers between 2000-02, Shaw knows what it takes to succeed in this league. But it his innovative thinking that forces us to take notice of him. From urging players to improve their free-throw shooting by standing under the hoop and letting them hit him on the head by way of a made free-throw, to banning junk food in the Nuggets’ locker room, Shaw seems to have made the connect with his roster. While too much is made of stats and the numbers’ game in today’s NBA game, Shaw has reached out to his players at a more personal level to bring out the best in them. That is worth appreciating for a first-time head coach.

Does this mean the Nuggets will make it to the 2014 postseason? Or go much beyond that? That is difficult to imagine for the NBA postseason is about talent. It is why a higher-seeded Denver team, but without any stars, lost in the 2013 playoffs to the lower-placed Golden State Warriors, but who had in their ranks the talented pairing of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

But for the time being, at the moment, Denver’s start needs to be celebrated. Their early season success proves no matter what the odds, there is always hope. No matter what the odds.