When the Denver Nuggets first saw their schedule for this season, nobody in the organization seemed to have any problem with the ominous challenge in the very first week.
Three games in four days on the East Coast — at Philadelphia, Orlando and defending NBA champion Miami? Bring 'em on.
After finishing the shortened (lockout, remember?) 2011-12 season at a promising 38-28, then pushing the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games before losing in the first playoff round, the Nuggets and head coach George Karl felt they would be ready by now to send an early statement to the rest of the league. So why not assert themselves on the road with some quick wins?
With the NBA's highest-scoring offense, also No. 1 in assists last season, and the defensive upgrade promised by the addition of All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala, it all made perfect sense — until showtime arrived. The result, an 0-3 start, came as a shock not only to the Nuggets but to many observers who'd made them a trendy pick as one of the NBA's best surprises.
First, the Nuggets sputtered badly at Philly, falling 84-75 with Iguodala unable to overcome the emotions of facing his former team and not having developed his place in Denver's rotation. That 75-point effort was the Nugs' worst since February 2009. It didn't help that forward Danilo Gallinari suffered an ankle sprain, but this team expected to cover for short-term absences.
Next, Denver flew to Florida and laid another rotten egg, losing 102-89 in Orlando after trailing 58-37 at halftime. Gallinari returned and had a 23-point night, but nobody else helped and the inside defense stunk, giving up 29 points to the Magic's Glen Davis.
So the Nuggets stumbled into Miami, where they finally awakened. They led the Heat into the fourth quarter and had excellent offensive balance: 22 points from both Iguodala and Kenneth Faried, 17 from Andre Miller, 16 from JaVale McGee, 14 from Ty Lawson and 13 from Gallinari. But it still wasn't enough, as Miami's Ray Allen completed a four-point play in the closing seconds to pull out a 119-116 win.
This doesn't mean Denver should go into panic mode. But the schedule-makers haven't been kind to the Nuggets, sending them on the road for 17 of their first 23 games between now and mid-December. If they want to have any hope of a successful season, they have to start winning away from Pepsi Center. And they must avoid losing at home (including in their Nov. 15 rematch with Miami).
Though the Nuggets scored 72 points in the paint against the Heat, that was negated by Miami's Chris Bosh putting up 40, after the 29 by Orlando's Davis. That, along with the offensive inconsistency, would suggest that Karl hasn't figured out how to replace the players who left in the mega-trade that brought Iguodala to Denver.
Nobody seemed to mind that the Nuggets gave up veteran center-forward Al Harrington and guard Arron Afflalo (the team captain) in that deal, but Denver obviously misses both, especially when Gallinari isn't sharp. (He made only 3 of 17 shots at Miami.) Karl also can't depend much yet on forward Wilson Chandler, coming back from offseason hip surgery. Chandler wasn't able to play against the Heat after limited time against Philly and Orlando.
The pressure now is on Karl to adjust different players' minutes and come up with the best lineup combinations. Fortunately for Denver, that has been Karl's strongest trait in his years as one of the NBA's headiest, most resilient coaches.
It's fairly obvious that Karl is counting heavily on Iguodala, Gallinari, Faried and Lawson to be Denver's mainstays. But until McGee, Chandler and center Kosta Koufos can settle more comfortably into their roles and minutes, Denver's inside defense looks problematic.
In other words, George Karl needs to put the jigsaw pieces in place as fast as possible. Otherwise, the Nuggets' only surprises in the 2012-13 season might be negative.