Dark Horses Out West

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Nuggets a Team to Watch

Led by MVP Candidate, Nuggets More than Just Playoff Contenders?

When you listen to championship contender talk in the media, all you hear about is the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Celtics, Bucks, Raptors, yet absolutely no mention of the Nuggets?  How is it possible that a 37-15 team could be so underrated?

Initially, it was labelled as just a hot start that would fade quickly. Then, when a flurry of injuries arrived, this was surely the moment the Nuggets would fall back down to earth. But no, here we are about to enter the All-Star break and the Denver Nuggets are still first place in the West. It is time to give this team the credit it deserves and seriously consider the possibility that this team may actually be a legitimate title contender.

First, the one thing that every NBA title contender must have (minus the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons) is a superstar. The Nuggets are led by a legitimate MVP candidate and blossoming superstar in Nikola “The Joker” Jokic. You’ve heard by now that he is the best passing big man in the game, but only highlighting that aspect of his game severely discounts his value.

He is currently 11thin the NBA in terms of PER rating with a score of 24.94, 17thin terms of plus minus rating and a nightly triple double threat with averages of 20.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, all while shooting over 50 percent from the field. He is the primary facilitator on the team, makes all of teammates better and gives this team a unique dimension that no other team in the NBA possesses.

The second major reason to take the Nuggets seriously is their depth. In total, Denver’s opening night starting lineup has missed a combined 70 games. Ironically this has been a blessing in disguise as it has allowed seldom-used role players like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to log important minutes and play far better than expected.

Keep in mind also that Isaiah Thomas has yet to play a single minute this season and is expected back in the next month. Likewise for rookie phenom Michael Porter Jr who, though not expected back any time soon, has the look of a real impact player. Credit to the Nuggets front office led by Tim Connelly for putting this squad together and to coach Mike Malone for navigating through all of the turbulence and putting players in positions to excel.

Finally, unlike the Nuggets of last season, this team plays defense! They currently rank 10thin overall defensive rating and are one of only four teams ranked in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating. Their scheme is primarily based on team defensive, however from an individual perspective, Torrey Craig has emerged as a defensive stopper and is often responsible for guarding opposing team’s primary wing scorer.  Besides Craig, Mason Plumlee is an elite rim protector, and Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are both above average defenders at their respective positions.

With all of that said, there are some concerns. One of the play of Paul Millsap. He has missed a lot of time due to injury and when he has played, his productivity has continued to decline. Luckily, the Nuggets do have plenty of depth and can account for Millsap’s struggles but if he were to find some of his old form, you get the sense that this team could be that much better.

A second potential issue is experience. The game changes and slows down when the playoffs come around and aside from only a few players on this team, there is next to no playoff experience.  Though recognizing this may be a factor, I would point to a team like the Utah Jazz last season who also had no playoff experience but managed to make a big splash in the playoffs.

The bottom line is that the Nuggets are for real and are here to stay. They are led by a blossoming superstar, have plenty of depth and play both sides of the ball. They have proven that they can win up-tempo high-scoring games or half-court grind-it-out affairs. The Warriors are the Warriors but if there is a team that could push them to their limit, it may just be this Nuggets team!

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