The Nuggets went from 9th in the Western Conference in 2018 to 2nd last season and currently sit third in the conference this season. The biggest reason has been the emergence of Nikola Jokic as the best center in basketball combining scoring from everywhere on the floor with an ability to distribute the basketball and rebound. But come playoff time a year ago, they struggled to take out the Spurs in round one before ultimately falling to the Blazers in round two.
All of it Hinges on Jokic
This season, the Nuggets have been consistently good, with their top five, Jokic, plus Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Paull Millsap and Gary Harris, accounting for 76 points per game and all staying relatively healthy. No injury concerns follow them into the restart this week. What makes the Nuggets difficult to defend is they have so many weapons. They’re all pretty good and Jokic does an excellent job of facilitating on offense. But it’s when teams can bother Jokic that they can collectively struggle.
The other Western Conference contenders either play small to speed up the game for Jokic or have an athletic big man that can bother him. The Clippers and Rockets rarely, if ever, play a conventional center giving Jokic plenty of vision on offense because of his size but both can wear him down as the game goes on. Meanwhile, the Lakers, Jazz and Mavericks all have big men – Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Kristaps Porzingis – who are long and athletic to make things a little more difficult for Jokic on offense and, in the case of Davis and Porzingis, force him to work much harder on defense.
Supporting Cast Troubles
It’s against these other contenders that the supporting cast has to step up. Jamal Murray earned a big extension starting next season. He’s really good and only 22 years old but he’s never been an All-Star and there’s some question if he will ever get to that level. He shoots below 40% on three-pointers and while he’s a 90% free throw shooter, he only shoots 3 per game. Gary Harris is also getting paid but is he going to be a difference maker in a playoff series. Portland sits in 9th place right now and I think most experts would give them an edge over the Nuggets because of how much better Lilliard and McCollum are than this duo. Again, they’re not bad, but are they or will they be good enough to get the Nuggets over the hump.
Top 4 Finish, First Round Exit
Sitting a game and a half behind the Clippers and a game and a half ahead of the Jazz, their two games against those teams will likely determine where they end up in the final standings. With the Jazz being short-handed, my guess is they’ll stay right where they are as the third seed and see who ends up as their first-round opponent. The Jazz without Bogdanovic would be an ideal first-round opponent as they have struggled against the Rockets and Mavericks, going 3-4 this season. I think if they don’t draw the Jazz, I think they will fall in seven games to either one of the Texas teams.
The Nuggets have Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris signed for the near future at nearly $80M combined. Paul Millsaps’ big deal comes off the books and they probably would love to bring him back at less than the $30M he currently makes but new league economics may make signing any other big deals impossible. If Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol can stay healthy and fulfill their potential, that may be the X-Factor to put the Nuggets over the top. There’s no doubt Denver will continue to be a good team near the top of the Western Conference but it’s uncertain if they have enough to win a championship.